Surveying the Spiel


The first time I ever heard of a Purim spiel was in 1979 at Machon Pardes, a quasi-yeshiva in Jerusalem for non-observant college types looking for religion. In those days, Pardes was a loose place: you could study half-time, quarter-time, one-eighth time; some people who hung around weren’t actually enrolled at all but just soaking up the atmosphere. With my friend Phil, a gifted musician, and my roommate Debbie Something, I wrote a couple of song parodies that reflected our new fascination with Jewish texts. We hoped they would show that we weren’t taking ourselves too seriously. There were several tunes but only one I remember, probably because it was so easy to rhyme: “Don’t know much about the halachot, can’t remember the Tosafot. Don’t know much about the Torah sages, except the Rambam in the Middle Ages…” This struck us as funny at the time—taking the Jewish texts that we, as just-hatched ba’alei tshuva, were star-struck over, and pitting them against the music of old-time rock-and-roll. 

As a performing group we weren’t half bad. Phil was a talented guitarist, I had a decent voice, and the roommate had gotten sufficiently drunk beforehand to go on. I recall a fellow in the room dressed remarkably convincingly as the Pope (his wife was Nefertiti); as if custom-ordered to add to the carnival atmosphere, it snowed. The weather, the wine, the music, the newly discovered religion: everything was heightened and special, fairy-dust and blessings. I still have a picture of the boozy roommate (in my borrowed blouse) in a photo album somewhere.

Thus began my love of Purim shpiels. In the last couple of decades I’ve contributed my fair share to the local community’s festivities. They’ve been reasonably well-received, possibly out of desperation (it was frequently the only humor on offer). I use an oral questionnaire in the style of a mock survey along the lines of those favored by sociologists taking the pulse of a group—a series of questions with multiple-choice answers—and poke fun at our community’s seriousness, reputation for unfriendliness, and periodic slides into self-importance. (“Question: I am extremely concerned about gender equity when it comes to the high-holiday daveners. Therefore, I prefer that the person davening Kol Nidre be: (a) male; (b) female; (c) neither of the above.”)

Like any wannabe comic, I work hard on the timing, saving the best lines for last, using the opening questions to warm up the crowd and hoping everyone has been sufficiently lubricated by the end to laugh very loudly. I read the survey with a volunteer sidekick—we call ourselves the firm of Sturm und Drang—and try to behave like officious census-takers. It is no accident that the audience includes a hefty number of academics and professionals who make their living writing and collating (real) surveys just like this.

Despite the enthusiastic response, one thing I’ve noticed over the years is the row of frowners who stand in the back, arms crossed, holding up the rear wall. In fact, they are at every congregational Purim I’ve attended anywhere, from Boston to Portland, Oregon. They are the ones who Refuse On Principle To Laugh. Typically they come uncostumed, unwigged, sometimes in suits (came straight from work). Oddly, they’ve almost always complimented me generously after the shpiel—clever, very funny—and yet, like the Buddha, they refuse to allow their facial muscles to move.

Who are these back-wall holders, I’ve wondered, and why do they come to Purim at all? Perhaps they feel they are holding up more than the plaster. Some inalienable right to be dour. To not be forced to enjoy themselves.

Yet forced enjoyment seems to be the holiday’s point. The Talmud exhorts us to drink to excess so that we cannot distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys in the Esther story. Custom requires that we shout or stamp or twirl noisemakers when evil Haman’s name is uttered. In contrast to every other Jewish holiday when we are admonished to solemnly consecrate, dedicate, soul-search, fast, mourn, pray, and pound our chests, here we are told to have a rollicking good time.

Why do the dour ones refuse? Isn’t refusing a violation of the mitzvah? Would they refuse to publicly recite the Al Chets—I have sinned!—on Yom Kippur? Bring a corned-beef sandwich to Tisha B’Av to wolf down in the final minutes before dark?

The distinction seems to have something to do with attitude. One’s mental state. This reminds me of a principle from American civil law, that of enforcing the personal services contract. You can force people to fulfill all kinds of agreements they make and then break – to pay money, to transfer property, to stop from throwing their garbage into your backyard – but you cannot force someone to perform a highly personal service they agreed to do but now won’t. If someone has contracted to paint your house and fails to finish, you can sue them but you can’t chain them to your shingles and force a brush into their fist. You can sue your masseuse who had you pre-pay but didn’t show for the appointment, but you can’t force them to lay on hands. The mind recoils at the thought: you cannot make someone do something they don’t want to do if it requires an attitude of willingness. You cannot make someone adopt a mind-set they refuse to adopt.

Maybe this is what goes on for the frowners in the back. From their post in the rear, they seem to be sending a message: We represent the boundary. We’ll hear the Megilla, give to charity, eat prune-filled pastry, but you can’t make us be happy. We will be merry only on our own terms.

I can respect that. But I have a tip for the folks on the wall. It is taught that in messianic times, only the festival of Purim will continue to be celebrated. They might want to start preparing.