A skit or monologue performed, usually in the vernacular, in a domestic setting at the festive Purim family meal. The celebration of Purim, the Festival of Lots, is based on the biblical Scroll (Megilah) of Esther, which recounts how Mordechai and Esther prevented the massacre of the Jews ordered by Haman, minister of Ahasuerus, king of Persia. Various sources, particularly the Talmud (BT Meg. 7a–b, 9a; Sanh. 64b), mention entertainment at such celebrations associated with the reading of the Scroll of Esther, including pantomimes, parodies of liturgical texts, the custom of the carnival rabbi (Purim rov), and plays performed in the vernacular during the festive meal.
Students from a Tarbut Hebrew-language school in a Purim-shpil, Podbrodzie, Poland (now Pabradė, Lith.), 1939. (YIVO)
These performances of the story of Esther are based on opposition between the figure of Mordechai—who is split between the biblical figure of Mordechai and Mondritsh, the clown or entertainer—and Haman, incarnating anti-Jewish hatred and often represented at the end of the play by a mannequin hanged in a cathartic ritual. The playful, regenerative aspect of the festival and the theatrical nature of both the public recitation of the Megilah in the synagogue and the parodic performances based on it forged a link between Purim and the emergence of Jewish theater.
The purim-shpil developed continuously from the fifteenth century (or earlier) until the present, testimony to its central role in Jewish culture. Often it was larded with mocking references to personalities well known in the local community. One of the first appearances of the term purim-shpil dates from Italy in 1555, in a poem by Gumprecht of Szczebrzeszyn (Poland) inspired by the Scroll of Esther. In time, the tradition of the purim-shpil evolved into two main forms, while conventions developed governing writing styles, themes, and comic banter. One type of play was a performance based on the Scroll of Esther, in which serious thoughts intended for the edification of the audience alternated with burlesque scenes filled with obscenities, insults, and transgressive parodies in the carnival tradition of “the world turned upside down.” In 1598, a satirical poem in Yiddish mentions that a play titled Shpil fun toyb Yeklayn, zayn vayb Kendlayn un zeyer tsvey zinlekh fayn (The Play of Deaf Yeklayn, His Wife Kendlayn, and Their Two Fine Little Sons) was performed at Tannhausen every Purim.
The second type of play was a biblical drama. Such plays—an early example was the Akhashveyresh-shpil, which exists in two different versions: one in a Leipzig manuscript (1697) and the other printed in Frankfurt am Main (1708)—supplanted the comic genre in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, at a time when many features of Jewish popular performances were being suppressed, both by rabbis (because of the obscenities) and by church authorities (because of the plays’ anti-Christian connotations). Biblical theater was a more serious genre, in which the comic and burlesque were often absent. The subject matter expanded to include plays about such subjects and characters as the sale of Joseph by his brothers; Moses and Pharaoh; the binding of Isaac; Hannah and Peninah; Jonah; Eli; Solomon and the demon Asmodeus; and the wisdom of Solomon. Performances might take place in theaters—as they did in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Prague—and have an orchestral accompaniment.
Scene from Mekhires Yoysef (The Selling of Joseph), a Purim play presented at an ethnographic evening program at YIVO, Vilna, 1928. The Yiddish signs read (left) “Snake pit” and (center) “Dotan” [biblical site of the pit that Joseph was thrown into by his brothers]. Photograph by Moryc Grossman. (YIVO)
From this time on, the purim-shpil in the German lands evolved toward the musical and the operetta. In Eastern Europe, however, an oral tradition of plays rooted in parody and transgression continued into the twentieth century. It is telling that in the eighteenth century, Polish church authorities repeatedly forbade Christians to play the role of Haman in Purim comedies.
The purim-shpil primarily drew on themes from traditional Jewish texts, whether midrashim, moralizing commentaries such as the Targum sheni, or aggadot. These texts are not just paraphrased, but are turned into lively and inventive dramatizations of biblical and postbiblical stories. Also apparent are the ingredients of Jewish popular culture as disseminated by yeshivas (such as parody of the rabbis or comical sermons), cantors, and teachers, or by carnivalesque figures such as the clown (lets), the fool (nar), and the jester or badkhn. There is a master of ceremonies, called the payats or marshelik, charged with blessing the public; starting, summarizing, or commenting on the action; and introducing the actors, including such figures as the messenger (loyfer), the scribe, and the writer (shrayber). Because of the flexibility of the folk terminology, some of these terms became interchangeable—so that, for example, the master of ceremonies was also called marshelik, payats, or loyfer.
These various comic personages, who turned up at festivals and at domestic celebrations such as circumcisions and marriages, became the protagonists of the Jewish theater tradition that arose around the celebration of Purim. It was not only the transgressive tradition, with its obscenities, puns, irreverent retorts, jokes (vitsn, khokhmes), and burlesque mockery of communal leaders, that characterized the purim-shpil but also the festive ritual components, such as mime, costume, song, music, and dance—all linked to the klezmer (instrumental musical) tradition. Ashkenazic culture developed in dynamic interchange with its coterritorial cultures, and there is evidence of this in the purim-shpil tradition as well.
In the late eighteenth century, when enlightened Jews (maskilim) began to denounce the use of Yiddish, the purim-shpil tended to be rejected as a symbol of “ghetto culture.” While the purim-shpil in its amateur form continued to be staged in East European communities until World War II, the maskilic critique eventually produced a new professional theatrical repertoire, comprising musical melodramas and historical plays. But from Yiddish theater through the American Broadway musical, the purim-shpil was the foundation upon which modern Jewish theater developed. Avrom Goldfadn, the “father” of Yiddish theater, acted in purim-shpils at the rabbinical seminary in Zhitomir.
Purim celebration in Chabad House, Prague, Czech Republic, 2004. (Chabad House, Prague)
In modern times, the purim-shpil has undergone other metamorphoses. Consider, for example, the plays performed in the ghettos during the Nazi era, in which Haman was depicted as Hitler. Today the Purim theater tradition is alive in ultra-Orthodox circles—notably among the Hasidim, whether in Brooklyn, Bene Berak, Jerusalem, or Antwerp.
Far from being a single genre, the purim-shpil is a complex fusion of disparate, even contradictory, cultural ingredients, which have never stopped evolving and adapting to new historical and cultural environments. Because of the various components that it integrates—popular and learned, comic and serious—its various performance venues, from Jewish homes to theaters and opera houses; and its diverse forms, from simple comic monologues to more elaborate dramas, the purim-shpil is a living mirror of the multiple, contradictory dimensions of Ashkenazic Jewish culture.
Ahuva Belkin, Ha-Purim shpil: ‘Iyunim ba-te’atron ha-yehudi ha-‘amami (Jerusalem, 2002); Moisei Beregovskii, Evreiskie narodnye muzykal’no-teatral’nye predstavleniia: Purimshpili (Kiev, 2001); Evi Butzer, Die Anfänge der jiddischen ‘purim shpiln’ in ihrem literarischen und kulturgeschichtlichen Kontext (Hamburg, 2003); Ignacy Schiper, Geshikhte fun yidisher teater-kunst un drame fun di eltste tsaytn biz 1750, 3 vols. (Warsaw, 1923–1928); Chone Shmeruk, Maḥazot mikra’iyim be-yidish, 1697–1750 (Jerusalem, 1979).
Translated from French by Cecilia Grayson