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The Magic of Purim

March 1, 2012 By:
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Chabad of the Main Line stages an Asian Purim to spice up the holiday. Aish is planning a Harry Potter Purim. Photo by Jordan Cassway
What do the high-flying Jibali African Acrobats of Kenya -- who recently entertained fans at a Detroit Pistons game -- have to do with the ancient story of Queen Esther?
 
Stumped?
 
The traveling troop's hi-jinks will be a featured part of Chabad of the Main Line's "Purim in the Jungle" program March 8, the religious organization's refashioning of the traditional holiday party. In this particular incarnation, participants are being asked to dress like Tarzan, the king of the jungle, rather than Ahasuerus, the king of ancient Persia.
 
Surely, there must be some kind of profound, kabbalistic connection between the rain forest and the Torah. It is, after all, the tree of life that nourishes the Jewish soul, right?
 
"Don't read too deeply into this one," said Chabad of the Main Line's Rabbi Shraga Sherman, who for the past 13 years has organized Purim feasts of all different themes, including a Japanese and a Hawaiian Purim.
 
Having a theme "adds to the fun and excitement of Purim. It's structured in a way that the entire family can enjoy," said the rabbi. "We want to deposit positive Jewish memories in their memory banks."
 
It may not be a widespread phenomenon, but a growing number of congregations are putting on Purim schpiels and carnivals that feature a particular theme drawn from pop culture.
 
This year, some of the local offerings include Purim celebrations tied to the Phillies, Harry Potter, the Beach Boys, the hit TV show Glee and Broadway's Jersey Boys, the musical based on pop singers Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.
 
The idea is to spice up the holiday and draw in families who might not otherwise come to hear the Megillah reading and munch on prune hamantashen, said a number of local rabbis.
 
Sure, Purim can be a silly holiday: After all, one of the goals is for adults to drink until they cannot tell the difference between Mordechai, the good guy, and Haman, the bad one. But does the serious message about the threat of anti-Semitism and the precariousness of Jewish life in the Diaspora ever get lost in all this hoopla?
 
Rabbi Yossi Kaplan, religious leader of Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County, which is throwing its own "groovy" Purim in the '60s bash, bristled at the suggestion that these parties somehow water down Purim. It's kind of like saying that observant Jews aren't supposed to have any fun, he said.
 
Jews are asked to fulfill four mitzvot on Purim, Kaplan explained: Hearing the book of Esther read aloud, delivering mishloach manot baskets, giving tzedakah and enjoying a festive meal. The themed parties not only have all these elements, they draw a bigger crowd and get more Jews to fulfill the mitzvot, he said.
 
"We know how to be serious on Yom Kippur; we know how to have fun at Purim," Kaplan added.
 
For the past few years, Aviva Fohrer has brought her three kids, now ages 6, 5 and 3, to Chabad of the Main Line for Purim.
 
"I know that, for my kids, they definitely get the message," the physician said, adding that the children seem to absorb, even if by osmosis, the story told in the Megillah of the Jewish victory in Persia, orchestrated by Esther and her cousin Mordechai, over the evil Haman, who had sought the Jews' destruction.
 
Kaplan explained that, in the early 1990s, a number of Lubavitch rabbis began discussing ways to reinvigorate Purim. They viewed it, he said, as having the potential to be one of the biggest draws of the year. That led to Chabad's widespread adoption of themed Purim events, the rabbi said.
 
But Chabad is not alone. Many synagogues across the denominational spectrum have been experimenting with the holiday.
 
At Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, Cantor Paul Frimark has for years overseen Purim schpiels productions titled "Megillah-Mia," "Hairspritz" and -- as an homage to the late Michael Jackson -- "Thrilla-Megillah."
 
This year, he's working on a skit called "Jewzy Boys."
 
"To me, the whole idea is to make the night as silly as possible," Frimark said. He noted that while it's now possible to purchase fully assembled Purim schpielsonline,  he usually writes his own.
 
Alan Katz, a retired pharmacist, has played the role of King Ahasuerus in a number of Frimark's Purim performances. The only rules, said Katz, are that rehearsals are kept to a minimum and participants can have their scripts in hand -- so there is no need to strictly memorize them.
 
"It's a little more than just coming and hearing the Megillah reading, which for kids -- maybe even for an adult -- may not be the most fun in the world," said Katz.
 
At her former congregation in New Jersey, Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro regularly performed schpielswritten by New Yorker Norman Roth, who charges congregations for their use. Now that she's at Temple Sholom in Broomall, she's using his spinoff of Glee.
 
Her goal is to facilitate an intergenerational experience and Glee, she said, is a show that appeals to people of all ages. Both teens and adults are expected to sing, she added. 
 
Congregants at the Reform synagogue have never been into dressing up for the holiday, she pointed out. But this year, to shake things up, the synagogue is having a costume contest.
 
Two years ago, Beth Am Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Penn Valley, staged a Beatles Purim, which packed the sanctuary. Chazzan Harold Messinger surmised that the event's success was due to the cross-generational appeal of the Fab Four and the fact that the holiday fell on a Saturday night.
 
They interspersed performances of tunes by the Beatles and lyrics that told the Purim tale with the public reading of the Book of Esther. Lumping the spiel and the reading together took hours and taxed many attention spans, he said.
 
This year their Beach Boys spoof will happen early, before the Megillah reading.
 
"It's just another way to bring community together," said Messinger. "If we were just doing the traditional Megillah reading, we might lose the opportunity to bring in young families and to bring in teenagers."
 
Last year, Aish HaTorah, a Jewish outreach group based in Bala Cynwyd and run by Orthodox rabbis, experimented with a sports-themed holiday, though they acknowledged that they didn't take it all that seriously.
 
But this year, according to Rabbi Eli Kopel, Aish is going all out with a Harry Potter Purim that will include a magic show. After all, he said, the nearly century-old, austere building that houses Aish looks a little bit like Hogwarts.
 
In a way, he said, the concept of dressing up makes the holiday easier for kids to grasp. They can't get drunk, but pretending to be Hagrid or Lord Voldemort allows the young to step outside of themselves, he said, and possibly even get a sense of the impermanence of things.
 
"You realize that whatever happens in your life is not about you. You are not in control," said Kopel. "God is in control." 
 

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