Mark Mandel stood at the front of the room, speaking Klingon and furiously waving a play wooden sword and plastic sickle through the air.
No, Mandel, a linguistics researcher who recently retired from the University of Pennsylvania, wasn’t at a Star Trek convention. He was reading last year from Megillat Esther as part of the Purim celebration at Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist congregation in West Philadelphia.
Mandel will be at it again this weekend,when Kol Tzedek and communities across the region celebrate Purim, which begins Saturday night, March 15.
The section that he recites in Klingon is always one of the most popular parts of the Megillah reading, which is done in nine different languages at Kol Tzedek, said Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann. Mandel’s been one of the “translators” since 2006.
The congregation does not take a polite approach to celebrating Purim — not out of disrespect — but because that’s precisely what the holiday calls for, said Herrmann. As the Talmud says, “A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’ ”
“I think there’s irreverent reverence,” Grabelle Herrmann said of the holiday that celebrates the Jews in ancient Persia surviving their near extermination. “There’s a love of tradition but also a willingness to question. We want to push the envelope and try new things to get to the heart of what the message is. To me, Purim is about the permission to be irreverent.”
And if that involves drinking, telling dirty jokes and speaking Klingon, then Kol Tzedek is happy to comply.
“In the Megillah, there is a lot of sex. It’s not really a kids’ holiday but I think it has been co-opted to become a kids’ holiday, which is great,” said the rabbi, who founded Kol Tzedek in 2004 while studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
The synagogue holds a family celebration first, followed by a “PG-13 Purim.” This year’s adult party will be hosted by Annie Witch-Way, a local drag queen star.
In addition to Klingon, Mandel will read a section in Esperanto, a language that an ophthalmologist from the former Russian Empire invented in the late 19th century with the aim of helping foster communication and harmony among people from different countries.
Mandel said he’s been “a language geek for as long as I can remember.” Though he can’t explain exactly why, he said, he likes languages because they come naturally to him. In addition to fluent Esperanto, Mandel said, he speaks French, Latin, Klingon, American Sign Language and basic German. Growing up among many Spanish-speakers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he said he picked up a bit of that, too.
His handwritten notes, he said, are illegible to anyone except himself, as he mixes characters from different languages.
The Purim celebration allows him to mix his various passions. He’s been to about 50 sci-fi conventions, a number of them dedicated to “filk” music — a combination of Pete Seeger’s brand of folk songs with music from science fiction or fantasy shows like Star Trek.
Mandel, a father of two, reads the portion of the Megillah when King Ahasuerus grants Esther’s wish that the Jews be allowed to assemble and defend themselves. He dramatically declares — all in Klingon — that the Jews can destroy their enemies, as he waves the toy weapons in the air.
“Everyone says they enjoy the Klingon,” Mandel said. “And the Purimshpiel allows me to share it with the people of my congregation, who are like my second family.”