Throughout most of the year, David Forbes of Narberth is a mild-mannered accountant, but come Purim, things start to change. His brain brims with beats and his tongue trips over lyrics as he unleashes his hip-hop Hebrew alter-ego: the Notorious J.E.W., anyone? Or perhaps MC Forbes?
Forbes, 32, has participated in the annual Purim schpiels put on by the Collaborative — the networking group for young Jewish professionals in the area — since 2006, and each year, he has offered a different rap rendition of a chapter from the Megillah.
"Some of the lyrics are a little over PG-13," confessed Forbes, who said that he tries to add in modern references — everything from Kanye West to Smarty Jones — to keep it relevant.
Forbes, who has written raps for about half of the Purim story so far, said that his references can be a bit random at times, but emphasized that "if I bring it into today's vernacular, it tells the story a lot better."
Many synagogues and Jewish groups have their own traditions for celebrating Purim, which begins the evening of Feb. 27. One of the most popular is to tell the story through music — everything from Forbes' raps to Beatles Purim schpiels, using Fab Four favorites (altered to the occasion, of course) to tell the tale of King Achashverosh, Queen Esther, Haman and Mordechai.
According to Cantor Elena Zarkh of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, the holiday is one that lends itself well to interpretation, especially because it dates back more than two millennia.
"It's not rigid, where it's locked into a traditional way of interpretation," said the cantor. "Through Disney, disco or a Motown Megillah, you bring something modern and something clever to the story."
Her own congregation has done schpiels in those styles over the past few years, and this coming celebration is one of at least two area synagogues opting for a Beatles theme.
Plus, she said, using popular musical styles can serve as an entry point into Jewish learning.
"It's not threatening," said Zarkh. "It's not some kind of ancient chant that they hear, and can't put two and two together. It's talking to the congregation with things they can understand — and it's very entertaining."
A Little Fun With It
That kind of "edutainment" is also on the mind of Lori Scherling, 37, a Center City-based singer/songwriter who will perform in musical Purim schpiels for various age groups this year, whether it's young adults with the Collaborative or children at Aish Philadelphia.
"I wish everybody had an idea that Jewish learning didn't have to be painful," said Scherling, adding that one of her main concerns is "to try and tell the story in a way that everybody understands it and has a good time."
As a long-term project, she's writing, well, the whole Megillah, and said that her schpiel varies from style to style with each of the 10 chapters. One is done as a rap, another is a hoedown and so on. She hopes to be able to perform all of it by next Purim.
Said Scherling: "If I can put this together where people could go listen to a whole telling of the Megillah where it makes sense as a story, where one day it could be turned into a musical, it could be quite entertaining!"
While Scherling comes from a musical background, virtuosity certainly isn't required. All that's needed is a love of music and a willingness to have a little fun with the holiday.
For his part, David Forbes confessed that he's just an amateur trying to have a good time, and has no real musical training — besides playing flute in the second grade, that is.