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Jewish Synagogues Celebrate Purim With Plays

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Purim begins tonight. It celebrates the Jewish escape from destruction in ancient Persia, a holiday of carnivals, costumes and cookies. And in many synagogues, it culminates in the Purim spiel, a play that re-enacts the biblical story from the book of Esther. But as Deena Prichep purports, the script doesn't always stick to the past.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: The Purim story starts with King Ahasuerus ordering his wife to dance for palace guests. And for the fifth graders at Portland Jewish Academy, telling that story sounds like this.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) You don't have to be rich for you to dance. You don't have to be cool to have a chance...

PRICHEP: Temples across the country are staging productions like this, full of pop songs and social media jokes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm kind of busy. I'm in the middle of tweeting.

PRICHEP: But according to Nahma Sandrow, a historian of Yiddish theater, Purim spiels aren't just about using modern language to tell an ancient story. They're also using the ancient story to poke fun at current reality.

NAHMA SANDROW: It's this crazy, topsy-turvy time when you're - you're supposed to get drunk. You can juxtapose the sacred and profane.

PRICHEP: And Sandrow says that gives players license to make fun of the ruling class, which they've done for centuries.

SANDROW: Haman, who was the villain that wanted to get rid of all Jews, is maybe Hitler. The king is mixed up with the local lord of whatever time and place the play is being put on - Cossack boots for the ancient Persian soldiers.

PRICHEP: Some bits are there just for fun, like Prince songs. But a lot of Purim spiels, past and present, play around with the social order. It's a natural fit, not just for a Mardi Gras-type holiday in general but for this narrative in particular.

DEBORAH EISENBACH-BUDNER: The Purim spiel is so much about power. There's no way to get around that. It's about power and lack of power and vulnerability. So that translates into politics.

PRICHEP: Deborah Eisenbach-Budner is the education director at Portland's Havurah Shalom congregation. The Purim spiel she wrote maps the characters from the Biblical story - the bombastic impulsive king, his anti-Semitic adviser - pretty directly onto the Trump administration. And it's safe to say that many Purim spiels across the country tonight will feature kings who fire off angry tweets. It's pointed humor but, Eisenbach-Budner says, that's the Purim spiels job.

EISENBACH-BUDNER: It really does serve this sacred purpose and a spiritual purpose, which is to help us absorb this challenging message about being human, being a minority, being hated. And it's so much about resistance.

PRICHEP: And this year, many Jewish communities are feeling their minority status. Portland's Jewish community center, which shares a campus with the Jewish Academy, was evacuated due to a bomb threat earlier this week. But the next day, the fifth graders were back at rehearsal.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Purple rain, purple rain...

PRICHEP: Because even when things get turned upside down, or even especially then, the spiel still goes on. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "PURPLE RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.