One would assume that Yom Kippur is the most intense day of the year at a synagogue. But the Jewish holiday that is very much a funhouse mirror image of Yom Kippur, Purim, tends to take on a life of its own at my congregation, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
This happy holiday’s intensity and turnout sometimes can rival that of Yom Kippur with new yearly Purimspiel productions being a major draw. In some ways not only has our Purimspiel, a musical that tells the story of Esther, distinguished our congregation, I believe it may have transformed the history of spieling in America.
Much has been written about the early history of Purim and Purim spiels in Europe and its continuation in America. One excellent resource for this is The Purim Anthology, a compilation by Rabbi Philip Goodman, his compendium from 2003 that JPS published in 2018. But little has been written specifically about the Purimspiel’s development in the past fifty years.
Helen Krim, a vice president at Riverdale Temple, first began spieling with Norman Roth at Stephen Wise. She later began writing her own Purimspiels for her congregation very much inspired by Norman’s work. After she retired in 2013, she looked intensively into the history of the Purimspiel in America. She conducted research, administered surveys, and collected all of the scripts and information that she could find on the subject. She even began writing a book on the topic, which I sincerely hope that she completes some day.
Several years ago, Helen shared with me an original copy of the Purimspiel that Stephen Wise performed every year for decades beginning in 1937 called Ha-Ha-Hadassah by Maybel H. Meyer. This parody of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Mikado, is mentioned in A.W. Binder’s chapter on Purim that is included in Goodman’s anthology.
Binder, who was music director of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue for over 40 years from the 1920s to the ’60s, collected settings of Purim prayers and songs. He also composed his own songs including an oratorio, “Esther, Queen of Persia,” that emphasizes choral settings of Megillat Esther’s cantillation along with a narration. Binder’s compilation of musical settings for Purim is included in Goodman’s anthology.
But Krim and I agree it was likely Norman Roth who first transformed Purimspieling into what it is today. Norman was profiled in 2017 as NYer of the Week by NY1 after having completed 30 years of new Purimspiels and retired from spiel-business. Every year from 1987-2017 Norman was a spiel-writing machine, churning out new material for Purim and sharing his work with many hundreds of congregations of all denominations across the globe.
Prior to Norman, there had never been quite the same expectation for congregations to come up with their own new parodies of full length shows year after year. And in our case, ones that are fully staged with costumes, choreography, and months of rehearsal time starring not the clergy, but the congregants of the synagogue who share work obligations in all aspects of the production.
The lay led nature of this arrangement, a community theater that not only performs but creates its own original material every year, is something that takes an entire year to develop. Whereas most congregations feature their clergy who write, direct, and perform their own spiels, this arrangement is really what Freedom of the Pulpit and Pew, the founding value of the synagogue, embodies. Our Purimspiel is when congregants get to “preach” through comedy, political satire, and parodies with the clergy only making a very brief cameo appearance and the Junior Spielers, the children, always stealing the show.
It was a challenge to transition spiel writing away from Norman after his retirement, particularly with a dedicated group of spielers who had such familiarity with Norman’s writing and approach. He’s a tough act to follow, but his insistence upon creating new shows every year, I believe, inspired many other clergy and lay leaders at synagogues everywhere to follow in his footsteps. This year marks a return back to the laity, with Stephanie Golob, a longtime spieler and clever and tasteful parodist, working together with me on the songs and script.
Into the Spiel, Golob’s brainchild, is a brilliant show featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim that takes aim at big tech and social media as a Purim adaptation of the familiar fairy tale story and characters from Into the Woods.
It is also our first year since the pandemic that we are finally able to have the spiel entirely staged and presented with an audience in person. During COVID, many congregations transitioned into developing one-song parodies as viral videos, another contemporary phenomenon in Jewish parody history that I credit to Jewish acapella groups. We continued producing full-length spiels, first on Zoom, and then staged and filmed in the sanctuary.
But the truth is that nothing can take the place of the community building that happens when a synagogue produces a great new spiel every year over the course of decades and comes to join in experiencing it together in person.
So we invite you to come Into the Spiel and experience what it is like to see a rich synagogue tradition and community theater in action. Directed and musically led by Ben Boecker, produced by Rabbi Cantor Samantha Natov, and aided by Robin Lyon-Gardiner, Alex Bonoff, Gabi Faye, Riva Kelton, Eileen Remor and dozens of adults and children, this production and the Megillah reading that precedes it seeks to involve and invest everyone in the process.
In the words of Sondheim, “there’s a place for us,” all of us, in Purimspiel history.