Purim Spiel and Yiddish Theater

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Hag Purim is around the corner!

The Purim “spiel” (Purim play) is one of the unique artistic customs of this holiday. It is considered to be among the first Yiddish theater productions and is a drama-comedy performance with a plot based on Megilat Ester. The content is derived from either piyyut (lyrical commentary) or from parodies of the story of the Megila.

“הצגת מחזה-פורים”, או “שחקני פורים”. זהו תחריט מפורסם משנת 1657 שנוצר בהולנד ומתאר את הצגת המגילה. השחקנים משתמשים בכלי בית שונים כמו מטאטא, מסננת ועוד.

purim play

Purim play: A famous etching from 1682, done in The Netherlands by the Dutch artist Johan Van den Avele. The actors are using brooms, sieves, etc.

The Purim Spiel evolved from carnivals in Jewish communities in the 1500’s in Germany, Northern Italy, and Poland. These theatrical productions often featured humor, mask-wearing, music, dancing, and fertility ceremonies, which were performed in many European countries in the Middle Ages every spring. The characters’ changing appearance was a central part of the custom.

The conceptual foundation for the custom of the Purim Spiel comes from two words in the Megila, “ונהפוך הוא,” (turned about), a term which comes to justify irregular behavior not generally allowed during the rest of the year. For example, on Purim, permission is granted to become inebriated:

“עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לבין ברוך מרדכי” ([to drink] until one cannot tell the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai”)

Another example of “turnabout,” wearing masks/costumes and disguising self-identity, are also acceptable only during Purim, and thus permit the central requirement of a good production – immersive costuming – to take place.

Ester play (Purim Spiel), Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1873

Yeshiveh Buhers (young men studying in Yeshiva) were among the first actors of the informal Purim spiel in Eastern-Europe; no women were permitted to participate. The “actors” came to the synagogues and performed the play in Yiddish. Some went to the homes of the Gevirim (wealthy patrons) and were rewarded with a hearty meal. The spectators paid money, which went to the Yeshiva, the synagogue, and to the poor.

Most of the time, these Yeshiveh Buhers did not use a written play script. Rather, they improvised their lines, often imitating and mocking their rabbis for just this one day of the year!

Did the rabbis support the Purim spiel from the beginning? Most did not. It represented for them the conflict between their traditional strict Jewish religious and moral life – and the frivolity, the grotesque parody, vulgar language, and the rebelliousness against the strict social order of those days.

They also condemned the practice sharply because of the verse from Deuteronomy (20:2) “לא ילבש גבר בגדי אישה” (a man may not wear the clothes of a woman) and because of the verse from Leviticus (18:3) “ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו” (do not follow in their ways – in this case meaning, the ways of the gentiles with their pageants).

Secular Jews during the Enlightenment (Haskalah) were critical of the practice for other reasons. They felt this popular play was performed on too low an artistic and educational level.

All the same, the Purim Spiel remained beloved by most Jews in Europe.

The first published play written by Jews, was the story of the Megila in Spanish, titled “Ester,” by Shlomo Oshki and Eliezer Graziano (1567). Purim Spiels were especially common among the Jews in Germany. The first published play in Yiddish called, “אחשוורוש שפיל” (Ahasuerus Play) was performed in Frankfort, Germany in 1708. The Jewish Kehilah leaders forbade its performance because of its vulgar language. Another play in Yiddish, performed in Prague in 1720, was titled: “אקטא אסתר מיט אחשורוש” (Stories of Esther with Ahasuerus). The first European Purim Spiel in Hebrew, “שארית יהודה” (Remnants of Judah) was performed in Vienna in 1827, and was a translation of the play “Esther” by Racine.

Actors of the Purim Spiel, etching, from “Seder Birkat Ha-mazon”, Prague, mid-18th century

The Purim Spiel came to an end for most Jewish communities with the extermination of the European Jews, the industrial revolution, and the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel.

As a requiem to the Purim Spiel, in his מגילה לידער” (1936),” (Megila Songs) Itzik Manger expresses the vitality of the Jewish folklore in Europe. In 1937, Joseph Green, the American film producer, made the film “Der Purim Spieler” about an actor in a Purim Spiel in the Jewish Shtetl.

Nowadays, the Purim Spiel is performed mainly in the Yeshivas and as children’s theater. In the Hassidic world, where שמחה, song, and dance are central, there is still broad support for the Purim Spiel. The Purim Spiel is performed by many Hasidic groups, including Breslov, Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Ger, Belz, Bobov, Skver, etc. It is held in the presence of the Admor (the head rabbi) during the Tische ceremony.

The tradition of the Purim Spiel survives in select communities in Israel, Europe, and the US. It remains a unique genre that throughout its existence has served as a parody. While the main purpose is entertainment and recounting the Megilat Ester story, it also represents the conflict between Orthodox tradition and its scholarly literature surrounding holiday observance on the one hand, and the celebration of Purim and its popular customs influenced by the ‘gentile’ environment, on the other.

Purim Spiel – by an anonymous painter, Bohemia-Moravia (The National Library of Israel– online)

Some of the materials in the Klau Library:

אהובה בלקין, הפורים שפיל – עיונים בתאטרון היהודי העממי, מוסד ביאליק, ירושלים,2002

דניאל שפרבר, מנהגי ישראל – מקורות ותולדות, הוצאת מוסד הרב קוק, ירושלים, 1998

חנא שמרוק, מחזות מקראיים ביידיש 1697-1750, ירושלים תשל”ט, האקדמיה הלאומית הישראלית למדעים

צבי שוע, אריה בן-גוריון (עורכים), ילקוט פורים – עיוני, הוצאת ברית התנועה הקיבוצית, וועדת החגים הבינקיבוצית, המחלקות לחינוך, 1986

Contributed by: Laura Gutmark, Hebrew Acquisitions Assistant

Musical instruments were important part of the Purim Spiel: Parchment, Germany, the 18th century (Israel’s Museum Collection)


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