Sunday, March 8, 2009

Past Projects IV: Purim Spiels

Happy Purim, everyone! If you don't already know, Purim is another one of those Jewish "someone tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat" holidays. In this case, it's an apocryphal story about a meanie named Haman whose nefarious plan is thwarted by the brave, lovely Jewess Esther, and her honest and pious cousin Mordecai. You can read all about it in The Book of Esther.

Anyway, Purim is kind of like Mardi Gras and Halloween all in one. You give food (the delectable triangle-shaped hamantaschen pastry), dress up in costumes, and engage in merry-making, notably through the staging of a spiel, or play. For a number of years, I wrote and directed a number of spiels and while I haven't done one in a couple of years, people still tell me that they enjoyed my productions.

It started many years ago when I joined to a temple in Sudbury, Massachusetts, that had a long tradition of meticulously produced spiels. A husband and wife team for whom theater was an avocation led up the effort. Seeking to get involved in the temple, and thinking it would be a fun outlet for my writing skills, I volunteered. So did several others. Our first meeting was a bit difficult. A number of people there really had not a creative bone in their body and didn't really get how to do a musical comedy. Truth to tell, neither did I but it was apparent pretty quickly that I got the hang of it right away, as most of my ideas were accepted and I was given some key scenes to write. It was based on Star Trek, and we called it Star of David Trek. In subsequent years, we also did a takeoff on the Wizard of Oz, and a Beatles-themed play called Beatle Jews.

I'd like to add just for my own sense of self-gratification that the playwright David Mamet was also a member of this temple and I heard from a friend who sat near him during one of these spiels that he laughed at one of my jokes.

There are three things a good Purim spiel should be able to accomplish: parody an existing theatrical work, tell the Purim story in words and music transposed on top of the work being parodied, and poke fun at people and issues within the temple community. It should be funny and entertaining, and thought it's a purely amateur production, attention to sets, costumes, and learning one's lines does pay off in the end.

Eventually, I left that temple and joined another one in Malden, Massachusetts, that had no such tradition of large-scale Purim spiels. Once I felt acclimated in the community, I went to the rabbi and said I'd like to put on a real show. With his blessing (and when a rabbi gives a blessing, it's a freakin' Blessing, thank you very much), I set to work writing a script, developing lyrics, and putting together a band. Though I didn't intend to be the drummer, there was no one else to do it, so I was writer, director, bit performer, and drummer. And if you think I loved doing it all myself, you're right.

The first spiel I did was named after the temple school's education director, whose first name was Aviva. The spiel was called Aviva Las Vegas and featured all Elvis tunes. We had some talented people come up with sets made from refrigerator boxes, I did the programs, we had a cast of kids and adults, the band kicked ass, and everyone had a blast. A new tradition was born.

In all, I think I did four or five of them before I left the temple a couple of years ago. My favorites were the last two: Schmaltz, based on Grease; and Godspiel, based on Godspell. The music was great, the jokes were (mostly) funny, and best of all, the community looked forward to them and everyone enjoyed themselves.

As for me, it was a ton of work, but I drank up all the praise and attention I got, and I always wrote a plum part for my older daughter, Hannah, who is a natural performer. The last two Purims, I haven't felt like seeing any spiels; I'm not sure I can enjoy one where I'm not directing from a drum throne and receiving a bouquet of flowers at the end. I'm at a new temple now, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and I haven't raised my hand for it...yet. It may be that my Purim spiel days are behind me, but when I was doing it, I have to say I made some of the best Purim spiels the north shore of Boston has ever seen.

1 comment:

lw said...

Jason, just to tie the last two entries together. At our humble spiel last night, Rabbi Liza came dressed as Bernie "Haman" Madoff.