Wednesday, March 12, 2014

About Purim-Shpils and Purim Plays

                   Why tell a short story when a long story will do? A number of years ago a customer (of sorts) brought me a box of hardbound books which on inspection turned out to be mostly purim plays in English from the first half of the century. (What do I mean by a customer sort of? I mean the kind of customer who brings always books in trade and never allows the very uncultured exchange of currency to enter into our dealings.) Finally in the midst of a sunny and warm winter here in California (whose very pleasantness is the sign of and prelude to disaster) I took the time to more closely examine and catalog these little books. They are are bound in an unimpressive library bindings. My intention is to offer them here, but I felt it worthwhile to make some remarks about Purim plays, Jewish theater and the specific place that they items fit into in that larger picture. As my customer, sort of, approaches my business venture so do most others. So as not to inconvenience any of you how may find yourself in that camp I have separated the catalog of the books into a second post.
                 The Jewish involvement in theater existed until at least the middle ages as a means of economic survival in a non-Jewish environment. Jews on the stage certainly does not equal Jewish theater. “Resh Lakish earned his living as a strong man in a circus at Sepphoris, as related in the Talmud (BM 84a; Git. 47a, et al.) [as cited in the 2007 ed. of the Encyclopedia Judaica].” The Jewish Encylopedia entry on Purim cites the various special ways that certain parts of the Megilat Purim are to be read as mandated in the Talmud. These special ways of reading are meant to heighten the drama of the reading and it is only human that these mimetic elements would lead some to further heighten the drama with their own inventions and additions. It is unclear whether in the interim between the between the Geonic period and 1600s this impulse ever generated a dramatic exercise separate from the reading of the Megillah. It certainly led to the creation of Jewish parodic and satiric texts separate from the reading of the Megillah and of seriously minded piyyut. Meant to be include in the service of the day of Purim. The reading of the Megillah in a local vernacular translation (or transposition) was allowed and this allowed the text to be influenced by and (potentially) to take pokes at the local non-Jewish culture. The injunctions to imbibe (mentally alter) one’s self on Purim make “acting out” on Purim somewhat inevitable. 
               The Purim shpiel itself is a highly ephemeral form. It is likely that many were enacted before the first mentions that we have of them and the first texts that we have to go by. Included in the manuscript of Gumprekht of Szczebrzeszyn’s “Hanukah,” dated c. 1555 we have the first recorded (poetic) version of what would evolve into the Purim-Shpil. Jerold Frakes in the introduction to this text in “Early Yiddish Texts 1000-1750,” mentions that “The poem is so very close in narrative structure and content to the ‘Ahashverosh-Shpil’ of 1697 that one could easily imagine Gumprecht’s text itself being dramatized as a Purim play. [EYT, p. 288]. The ‘Ahashverosh-Shpil’ is also known as is an anonymous Yiddish text dating to 1697 though the date is probably a transcription date rather than a composition date. Already at that time the performance, “had developed a conventional form, which included blessings for the audience, an outline of the contents of the performance, and an introduction of the actors; conventional epilogues had also developed, including parting blessings and appeals for an ample reward.” [Encyclopedia Judaica, 2007, Vol. 16, p. 744-746.] 
                The purim shpil evolved over time into two streams. The first is an anarchistic stream. This type of production had a lot in common with the sort of traveling plays being performed during carnival in the period before Lent. These folkways are lost in the Jewish context but still survive in Cajun Louisiana though much reduced from a generation ago. In terms of performance style the main influences on these plays was Commedia dell’ Arte and the Miracle Play. Commedia dell’Arte brought in the stock comic figure. Over time the various characters of the Purim story took on specific comic characteristics. The mystery, or miracle, plays grew out of Christian liturgical texts. What began as a reading of texts evolved into a performance of the text and then as they grew in popularity and became suspicious to the Church that had spawned them they became independent forms of entertainment played as much to the crowd as to any divine mission.  The other stream, influenced by Rabbinic objections to the obscenity and anti-authoritarian nature of these plays as well as Christian resentment of due to the appearance anti-Christian material on some occasions.
                 Jean Baumgarten is his entry on the Purim-Shpil in “The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe,” sees the first of these two texts as the source of one of the two streams that would within what would become the anti-authoritarian Purim-Shpil , in “Hanukah,”and sees “Ayn Shayn Purim Shpil,” as the model of the more buttoned-down version of the Purim-Shpil. Baumgarten and Frakes seem to have a fundamental disagreement. The truth may be in the nature and location of the actual performances more than the specifics of printed texts. I think that they would both agree that a gap opened up over time between the type of productions that appeared in the German speaking lands and Eastern Europe. Baumgarten places the continuing genealogy of the more anarchic steam in the Yiddish speaking environment narrowing in the post-Holocaust era to the ultra-Orthodox world. 
               It is generally agreed that the Yiddish theater grew out of Purim-Shpil. Avrom Goldfaden began his theater experience performing in Purim-Shpils in Zhitomir. The history of Yiddish theater is another subject other than ours today. In Mandate Palestine Tel Aviv the celebration of Purim was taken in a more secular direction under the new name “Adloyadah.” Adloyadah (until you don’t know) which seems to emphasize the adult element of the holiday was actually a holiday for children and the family and took over the whole city with costumes for all, parades and Purim-plays. Today it is part of the fabric of Israeli life and many JCCs around the US have Avloyadah celebrations. [“Jewish Holidays and Festivals,” by Ben Edidin, New York, 1940]. In the US there was more of a struggle to renew interest in Purim outside of the Orthodox in Purim as a holiday. Edidin, writing in 1940, saw Purim as a vibrant holiday in America. However, Jenna Weissman Joselit in her “The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950,” claims “Sukkoth, Purim and Shavuoth exemplified ‘old-fashioned Judaism,’” [The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950,” Joselit, New York, 1994.] She mentions that the synagogue became the locus of observance though she also mentions the tradition of the Purim ball which was fading. As a sign of that decline she points to the efforts to make the holiday first a children’s holiday and then failing that a women’s holiday.

(An illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper of a 19th Century American Purim Ball.)

                 The gap between the years of Joselit’s study and today is over a half-a century. In my youth, at a Conservative  synagogue in Rochester, New York Purim seemed to be a well organized event with room for children and adults. As an adult at a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco I have see a decline in the observance of the holiday, a feeling of drift and decline, but that may just be my congregation. In the 1990s congregants wrote and performed original Purim-Shpils. When that ended the religious school started to create their own, but with turnover of religious school principals that era ended. I suspect that elsewhere things are different. I blame the internet and smart phones, but I blame them for everything.

(Cong. Beth Sholom Purimspiel 5757 "The Shushan Gates")

                And this brings us back to box of books that I spoke of at the beginning of this post. These plays were meant for the children of the Reform and Conservative synagogues of the 1920s through the 1950s. They are playful but not too rough: exemplars of those movements understanding of their youth. These plays are in few collections and few people have seen these in generations. I think that an examination might open up a greater understanding of the history of Purim in America and of Jewish amateur theater.
                You can find the catalog of the items under consideration here.


Berkowitz, Joel and Henry, Barbara, edited by. Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage: Essays in Drama, Performance, and Show Business. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2012.
Edidin, Ben M. Jewish Holidays and Festivals. New York, Hebrew Publishing Company, 1940
Frakes, Jerold C., edited by. Early Yiddish Texts 1100-1750. With Introduction and Commentary. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Hundert, Gershon David, editor-in-chief. The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2008.
Joselit, Jenna Weissman. The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950. New York, Hill and Wang, 1994.
Seidman, Hillel. The Glory of the Jewish Holidays. New York, Shengold Publishers, Inc., 1969.
Singer, Isidore and Adler, Cyrus, et al, editors. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York, Funk and Wagnell, 1901-1906.
Skolnik, Fred and Berenbaum, Michael, editors. Encyclopedia Judaica. 2nd Edition. Detroit, Macmillan Reference USA in association with the Keter Pub. House, 2007.
A google search for Adloyadah produced a vast array of results. I reviewed dozens of these links and made my conclusions about the current state of this "holiday" and term on the basis of the body of these results as well as specific information on individual websites.

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