When Lisa Brooks and Brian Schachter exchanged vows in 2003, family and friends “were blown away by the entire wedding,” she recalled. “But the puppet show was the icing on the cake.”
The puppet show?
Puppet shows detailing the story of how the bride and groom met aren’t usually a wedding staple, but those who’ve attended the weddings of Jen Miriam Kantor-Altman’s friends have come to expect them — and know they can often be a highlight.
Kantor-Altman, 39, of Oakland, is a mom, doula and childbirth educator. But in her spare time, she is also a puppeteer, percussionist and ketubah artist. She is part of the popular family entertainment band Octopretzel, and leads Tot Shabbat services at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley and Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont — always with one of her favorite puppets, Raizel the Camel, in tow.
Her love of puppets goes back to childhood, when she would put on puppet shows for the neighborhood kids in her Palo Alto backyard.
After graduating from college, she became a preschool teacher, and her love for puppets re-emerged. “I realized what a powerful tool they were for teaching and for conflict resolution,” she said. “For kids who were shy, they could really open up to puppets and tell them everything.”
The fascination kicked up a notch in 1999, when Kantor-Altman saw the movie “Being John Malkovich,” in which the main character is a puppeteer. “After that movie, I was on a mission,” she said. She built her own puppet theater and began performing with a few friends. They called themselves the Puppet Players.
In 2001, she used puppets to make a wedding toast. And when one of her fellow Puppet Players, Nell Friedman, married Chaim Maghel in 2003, Kantor-Altman got a few friends together for her first full wedding puppet show.
Maghel and Friedman met at a Rainbow Gathering (an annual event bringing together “tribes of the earth” to a national park around July 4). “I was there when they met [in 2001], and felt very connected to their story,” said Kantor-Altman. “I wrote a whole story about their separate lives leading up to meeting each other.”
Though Kantor-Altman had never before tried to sculpt puppets that looked like real people, she had worked with clay, so tried her hand at it. When she added yarn for hair, the proper eye color and other details such as facial hair and glasses, “I was surprised at how good they came out, they actually looked like them.”
“They set up this massive puppet theater,” recalled Nell Mahgel-Friedman. “It was huge, and they had so many props and a cast of thousands. It was the ultimate shtick for a Jewish wedding.” (She is referring to the Orthodox tradition of shtick, when wedding guests entertain the bride and groom with silly skits and entertainment.)
The puppet show was a “rip-roaring, overwhelming success,” Kantor-Altman said. “People were laughing hysterically and crying and cheering, and no one had ever seen anything like it at a wedding before.
“I knew I was going to have to keep doing this. Everyone wants to know the story of [the couple’s] lives and how they met, and it’s a delightful way to have that told.”
At last month’s wedding of her friends Rachel Kaplan and Douglas Chermak (see Unions, page 15), she performed her eighth wedding puppet show (there have actually been nine, but one was at Kantor-Altman’s wedding. She made the puppets, while friends wrote the script and performed it, so the bride and groom could just enjoy the show.)
“I really do take the mitzvah of entertaining the bride and groom very seriously,” said Kantor-Altman. “And this does it in such a great way. I can see how much joy it brings them.”
Creating a wedding puppet show is no small task. In addition to sculpting the puppets, Kantor-Altman interviews the bride and groom, their parents and childhood friends. She asks for specific stories, too. The scripts begin with tales from the bride and groom’s childhoods, up through their meeting and engagement.
And she walks a fine line between making fun of the bride and groom by exaggerating certain traits, but not so much that they’re offended.
For example, Rachel Kaplan’s mother had told Kantor-Altman that her daughter came into this world an “old soul.” In the puppet show, an infant Kaplan cried and her mother asked, “What’s wrong sweetie? Do you have gas?”
To which baby Kaplan answered, “No, Mommy. I’m just trying to understand why I came to this earth and who are you and why have our souls intersected? What does this all mean? This must all be happening for a reason.”
In preparation for the show at the Brooks-Schacter wedding, Kantor-Altman and former Puppet Player Sara Nicoletti had Shabbat lunch with the couple. (Lisa Brooks’ brother had commissioned Kantor-Altman to do the show without their knowledge.) At the lunch, Lisa Schachter-Brooks remembered, the puppeteers asked all kinds of questions about their relationship and how they got together.
The resulting puppet show had a “Sesame Street” theme — one of Brian Schachter-Brooks’ favorites as a child — and they “very cleverly made a puppet show that was funny to everyone, but was way more funny to us, because there were some background stories that others didn’t know,” said Lisa Schachter-Brooks.
Bob Fink was somewhat surprised by a puppet show the night before his wedding to Elizheva Hurvich in 2010. “As the story was unfolding, I realized [Kantor-Altman] had been talking to my family and friends,” he said. “There were just these little anecdotal stories that I hadn’t thought about in years.”
Fink had never seen a wedding puppet show before, but Hurvich had played leading roles in two friends’ puppet shows; she came up with an elaborate scheme.
“If I had suggested it, he would have been a naysayer,” she said, “so I convinced him that we should have a talent show the night before the wedding,” explaining it would be a great way to get the large number of children invited to their wedding involved. Even though Fink was concerned about the quality of the talent, he relented.
He admits he probably would have said no to a puppet show.
“It was hysterical,” he said. “It was funny to see myself in this puppet form. I felt like I was looking at myself, essentially, and after the show, seeing it up close, I was a little freaked out because it looked so much like me. I believe my quote of the evening was ‘the puppet looks more like me than I do.’”
Kantor-Altman agrees that the “Bob” puppet is her best likeness to date. “I couldn’t get it to look right, but within a few minutes of not looking at all like Bob, it suddenly became Bob and it was just staring at me as Bob,” she said. “It was like Bob materialized in my hand.”
Hurvich said that seeing Fink’s face when the Bob puppet came on stage was a highlight of their wedding weekend.
Kantor-Altman described the puppet show of Margie Walkover and Daniel Lev as one of her own personal favorites.
Given that Lev and Walkover met in their late 40s, they came to believe that Lev’s mother and Walkover’s father had met in heaven and arranged for them to be at the same wedding, where they met. Kantor-Altman re-enacted this, with the parent puppets above the puppet theater talking about setting up their children.
“It felt to me and to them as if their parents were there, at the wedding,” Kantor-Altman said. “It was pretty magical. As I was doing the puppeting, I really felt a presence and it was very strong, as if I somehow invoked their spirit in a really strong way.”
But perhaps Kantor-Altman’s biggest highlight was the 2006 wedding of former Puppet Player Nicoletti to Idan Bearman. Kantor-Altman invited Bearman’s childhood friends from Israel (Bearman is Israeli) up to the puppet stage. Only one of them actually did so: Alon Altman, who was so impressed by the puppet show — and more importantly, the puppeteer — that he married her.
For more information about Jen Miriam Kantor-Altman’s puppets visit www.jewishweddingwithjenmiriam.weebly.com
cover photo/ahri golden