Surveying the Spiel
By JOAN LEEGANT
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
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
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.