Among Purim’s traditions, perhaps the most well known is the Purim spiel, a theatrical retelling of the Book of Esther that can be pointed, satirical, parodic or just downright silly, depending on the community and the year.
Often, Purim spiels use the story of Esther and Haman as a way of commenting on or joking about current events and the state of the world.
So, almost one year into the pandemic and only a month and a half since a violent insurrection at the Capitol, what are we ready to laugh about?
For performer and educator Kiki Lipsett, who runs an annual politically charged spiel in the East Bay called “Irreverently Yours, The Shushan Queens,” some of last year’s jokes would work just as well as this year. Better, even.
“A lot of it was going to be about election fraud and voter suppression, so that turned out to be a very real thing later in the year,” she said.
Unfortunately, very few people saw that oddly prescient spiel last year. In 2018 and 2019, the Sushan Queens spiels drew packed houses for multi-night runs at the Starline Social Club in downtown Oakland. But in early March 2020, just as the world was awakening to Covid-19, Lipsett’s crew did one performance at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek before cancelling the run in Oakland.
This year, Lipsett is repurposing one of last year’s musical numbers as a music video. “The show that we’ve put on the past few years has a lot of audience participation, and a big part of it is that it’s interactive theater,” she said. “So we decided not to try to replicate that.”
Last year’s performance included the audience voting on whether Jews should bow down to Haman, including on-stage voter suppression and tossing out audience ballots. (And if that isn’t pointed enough for you, the 2019 spiel had the king trying to build a wall around Shushan to keep the Jews out.)
Even if she could do a full, original spiel this year, Lipsett isn’t quite sure how she’d approach jokes about the pandemic.
“There’s a line between satire — poking fun at greed or corruption in the world — and making jokes about something that’s tragic and taking away so many lives,” she said. “There would’ve been a way to incorporate annoying things about the pandemic — distancing, masks — and making jokes about them can bring us a little comedic catharsis, but I don’t think that it would’ve felt appropriate to make the whole thing about the virus.”
At Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, they came up with a way to have fun with the reality of the pandemic. Taking a cue from the custom of dressing up and wearing masks on Purim, they’re having a virtual event during which attendees will decorate protective face masks.
“We just decided to run with it,” said Rabbi Mychal Copeland. “We’re thinking so much about: What can we do to lift spirits right now, to bring in some levity?”
Sha’ar Zahav also will do a virtual Purim night with a full Megillah reading and spiel, complete with musical numbers and unmuting to boo Haman.
“Everything we’ve done on Zoom has been completely interactive,” Copeland said. “So people will be chatting in the [comment section].” And for this event, they’ll even have a name — the Purim Pundits — the officially sanctioned commentators and complainers.
“Our community is full of humor, even in chat on Shabbat,” Cantor Sharon Bernstein said in an email. “We don’t tend to have off-limits topics at Sha’ar Zahav.”
According to Copeland, the impeachment will be fair game. But the pandemic itself might be trickier.
“There has been so much loss in our community, not just from the pandemic,” she said, alluding to the community’s history as an LGBTQ synagogue. “In our community, I feel like there’s an ability to laugh at ourselves and laugh at the world that is essential to getting by. People desperately need to laugh right now and find the funny in the dark and the absurd, but it has to be done with care.”
There has always been a dark flipside to Purim, said Rabbi Gershon Albert of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, emphasizing the role of Taanit Esther, the dusk-to-dawn fast on the day before Purim, which recalls Esther’s fasting before she went to confront the King.
“Purim is really a two-day holiday, a combination of Purim and Taanit Esther, two sides of a coin,” Albert said. “Taanit Esther is about revealing the vulnerability in the human condition. There is vulnerability, but the next day there is the joy of having survived to celebrate.”
Albert and Copeland’s synagogues are both gearing up for a relatively pandemic-friendly Purim tradition, mishloach manot, the giving of small gifts to friends, family and neighbors. Beth Jacob, like most Orthodox synagogues, does mishloach manot every year, but Copeland is excited that Sha’ar Zahav is organizing it for the first time, making sure that any member who wants to has someone to exchange mishloach manot with.
“Tons of people have signed up,” she said. “It’s the kind of thing that can really lift people’s spirits because there’s an element of real human connection in it.”
For Albert, an Orthodox rabbi, each pandemic holiday also brings new halachic challenges. But Purim is a little easier than Shabbat or other holidays because there is no restriction on the use of electricity on Purim. That means Megillah readings over Zoom, though there is some question of whether the mitzvah of hearing the Megillah read can be fulfilled over Zoom.
“There’s a lenient position that if you really can’t leave your home, you can hear it over Zoom,” Albert said. “But if you can see friends socially distanced outside, then you should take the stringent position and come hear it in person.”
Beth Jacob will offer a Zoom Megillah reading and an outdoor socially distanced reading.
And what about Lipsett’s music video? It’s a parody version of “True Colors” by Cindy Lauper, redone as “Jew Colors.” (Keep an eye on kikilipsett.com for that.)
“It feels like the right choice because of the recent uptick in antisemitism,” she said. “It’s a jokey song, but it’s about being proud of your identity.”
It’s safe to assume that any synagogue or Chabad center or JCC will have something going on for Purim, virtual or in person. But here are a few that jumped out at us as we perused this year’s offerings. (Check our full events calendar for even more.)
“Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish.” Aquarian Minyan’s spiel, a perennial mainstay of the Ashkenaz venue in Berkeley, will be virtual this year. There will be a full megillah reading followed by the Real Deal Shpielers. The promotional art features a painting of Trump being thrown in the garbage, so we’re guessing they won’t be mincing words. Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. $5-$20.
“Parked at the PJCC.” Peninsula JCC in Foster City is doing a drive-in with a dress-up-your-car costume contest, a honk-over-Haman megillah reading and the 2012 Pixar film “Brave,” which actually makes sense if you think about it. Feb. 28. at 6 p.m. Free, with registration.
“The Purim Masked Comedy.” KlezCalifornia presents instructor and actual shtick expert Bruce Bierman teaching how to inject old styles of exaggerated acting into the Purim story. Have a mask on hand. Feb. 28 at 11 a.m. Free, with registration.
“Da Whole Megillah.” Maggid Jhos Singer of Chochmat Halev leads a megillah reading with creating interpretations by the On-One-Foot Players. Here’s the kicker: This one comes with special Purim cocktail/mocktail recipes that get sent to you after registration. Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m. $5-$10.
“Purim Sparkle Party: Drag Queen Story.” PJ Library presents Bay Area drag queen Kylie Minono reads “The Purim Superhero” children’s book, followed by a virtual parade and dance party for kids in their own homes. Feb. 23 at 4:30 p.m. Free.