WHAT IS PURIM?
Purim is a favorite Jewish holiday for feminists, young people, queer folks, and party animals of all stripes. Purim’s narrative, the Book of Esther (aka the megillah), tells a tale of a foolish king, a woman refusing to dance naked for all the king’s men, a beauty pageant, a secret revealed, and a time of tables-turning on the bad-guy known as Haman (may his name be blotted out)! The holiday calls for noisemaking, rule-breaking, binary-blurring and an end to business as usual. All of those elements come together in a traditional folk play called a Purimshpil.
HOW JFREJ CELEBRATES PURIM
Since 2002, JFREJ has sponsored a radical Purimshpil project founded by artist agitators and educators Adrienne Cooper (zts”l) and Jenny Romaine in partnership with the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter-Ring and the Great Small Works theater collective. For the past few years, the Aftselokhes Spectacle Committee has worked with JFREJ and a long list of other artists and social justice organizations to produce Purim spectacles that bring together hundreds of revelers each year for a wild time. Each year, the Purimshpil offers a powerful example of what can happen when we use our cultural abundance in our political organizing. From 2002’s “Giant Puppet Purim Ball Against the Death Penalty” to 2004’s “Rehearsal for the Downfall of Shoeshine: An Immigrant Justice Purim Spectacular!” to 2007’s “Roti and Homentaschn: The Palace Workers Revolt! A Purim Carnival Spectacular” to 2012’s “Your Homentaschen Are Killing Me! A Purim Ball for the body, its resilience, its fragility, and its bounce!”, the shows have enlivened, enlightened, confused, and inspired JFREJ members and our friends and comrades.
Over the years, these radical Purimsphils have helped JFREJ strengthen and expand relationships with allied organizations including Domestic Workers United, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Mothers on the Move (MOM), Picture the Homeless, FIERCE, FUREE, The HIV Prevention Justice Alliance, PURSUE: Action for a Just World, Storahtelling, HEEB Magazine, and the AJWS-AVODAH Partnership. They have brought amazing artists into the JFREJ extended family, including Rebel Diaz, Galeet Dardashti, Blakbüshe, the Shondes, Kol Isha, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, Yiddish Princess, DJ Rekha, Frank London’s Klez-Brass All-Stars, Maracatú New York, DJ Ripley, and many many more.
To read more about JFREJ Purims past:
- Unmasked: Has Purim replaced Passover as the best holiday vehicle for expressing individual Jewish identity? TabletMag.com. Liel Leibovitz. February 26, 2010
- SPARE TIMES: March 2 – March 8; ROTI AND HOMENTASCHN, New York Times. Melena Ryzik. March 2, 2007.
- Wrestling with Esther: Purim Spiels, Gender, and Political Dissidence. Zeek.net. Ezra Nepon. March 2006.
- Celebration Condemns the Death Penalty, Peoplesworld.org, Louis Shipman. March 22, 2002
Selected Moments from Purim History:
About the Purimshpiel:
The Aftselokhes Spectacle Committee and a coterie of celebrity brass bands, rock stars, Yiddishy supernovas, cabaret singers, activists, and jesters of all stripes present a very ancient, yet totally contemporary Purim masquerade Ball.
The Purim Ball (Your homentaschen are killing me!) is an original work of art grounded in the traditional pan-Jewish practice of staging transgressive folk plays re-enacting the scroll of Esther, and delivering a fanciful, somewhat drunken but always profound, critique of power. At the heart of the event is a glittering original handmade Purim Shpiel. Expect oversize costumes and puppets, dazzling sets, the drag will be high, low and medium, and the age and gender spectrum will runneth over. Many of the languages of our kingdom of Shushan, NYC will be spoken.
The party is created by a collaborative group of artists, activists and civilians (including Julie Davids, Avi Fox-Rosen, Anna Jacobs, Daniel Roza Lang-Levitsky, Dr. Rachel Mattson, Abigail Miller, LJ Roberts, Jenny Romaine, Zach Scholl, Hannah Temple, Josh Waletzky, Cassandra Burrows, and the Occupy Wall Street Puppetry Guild) in the style of a carnival mas camp. The crew, originally gathered under the tutelage of visionary Yiddish scholar and beloved Diva Adrienne Cooper (to whom this year’s Purim shpiel is dedicated), has been working together for a decade, in collaboration with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Workmen’s Circle, and Great Small Works.
Purim is the Jewish festival of spring fever, of masquerade and parodies of all sacred things. It centers on the Scroll of Esther, the Megillah, a burlesque of a story that wears the mask of being a factual history. For centuries Jews have made homemade pageants like ours to tell this story and to talk about overreach—about how the powerful turn abysmally stupid and bring about their own destruction. But Purim also has a mystical side, and we learn from the Purim rabbis that this holiday is a campy stare at what scares us the most, in ourselves and in the world. It must be taken seriously. There are many paths to holy disorder, many routes to the place of perfect misunderstanding. The more we move towards what scares us, explore and embody it, the more we are entering into the practice of Purim and the more deeply we will be renewed. So set your watch to the wrong time, dress up topsy-turvy, and meet us between 8 and late at 220 36th street in Industry City, Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
The theme of this year’s Purim Shpiel is the body, its fragility, strength, and resilience. We are using the bodies of the heroes of the megillah to tell stories from the disability justice movement and from the domestic employers and domestic workers teamed up in the Caring Across Generations campaign.Caring Across Generations recognizes that we all give and receive care over the course of our lives. Their innovative analysis and organizing strategy are bringing together the home health care workers ofDomestic Workers United and the disability justice movement to address the many dimensions of the health care crisis in America. “Your homentaschen are killing me!” also draws together the energy (and puppeteers) of the Occupy movement with activists and artists who have been doing long term work to revolutionize the economics of health care.
Members of the Aftselokhes crew have worked with Circus Amok, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, Yiddish Princess, Jenny Romaine’s Sukkos Mob, and the Department of Transformation. Previous Purim partners include Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars, Jennifer Miller, Maracatu New York, Abigail Levine, Adrienne Cooper, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Nicolai Borodulin, Amichai Lau-Lavie, Mira Stroika, Una Osato/ExHOTic Other; [installation and video artists] Terra Incognita, Carrie Gleason, Kate Huh, Niknaz Tavakolian, Pearl Gluck, Seltzer & Salt, Heather Acs; [musicians], Michael Winograd, Rima Fand, Wollesonics, Sarah Aroeste, Michelle Miller, Judith Berkson, Xavier, Crosmopolitan; [bands & DJs], Kol Isha, Inner Princess, Yiddish Princess, Schmekel, Freetheopiques, Rebel Diaz, DJ Rekha, and DJ Shomi Noise.
Special thanks to the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance for their partnership in knowledge sharing and movement creation! The HIV Prevention Justice Alliance (HIV PJA) is a national coalition of more than 80 organizations and a network of 13,000 individuals working at the intersection of HIV/AIDS, human rights, and struggles for social, racial, gender, and economic justice. Since 2007, our network of thousands of people with HIV, activists, researchers, service providers, and change-makers is mobilizing in the fight for human rights and HIV prevention justice.
Report-back in JFREJ newsletter
It’s July, and I’m (still) sending and receiving emails with the word “Purim” in the subject line. Why? Well, it’s the puppets. They can’t stay where they are; they need to be moved to a larger space. And so, even though the month of Adar is long past, the work of Purim continues. I realize this might seem slightly loony. Purim occupies one day on the calendar. It is — according to my computer’s dictionary — a “lesser Jewish festival.” Moreover — isn’t it just a party? So why devote this much time to it? Here’s why: because my involvement in this annual event has offered me one of the most meaningful sites of activist, aesthetic, and community exploration I’ve ever known. It offers me the ecstatic opportunity to learn new things (about Jewish tradition, about current political campaigns, about how to use a glue gun); to participate in the work of making the world a better place; and to build new kinds of community. It also offers me the refuge of glitter, collectivity, and creativity during winter’s darkest days.
This year, winter was especially dark. On Christmas, Adrienne Cooper—the great queer yiddishist visionary who first dreamed up this particular Purim event—died of quick-moving cancer at the age of 65. A lot of us felt totally heartbroken, just ripped right open, by her death—and still did, when, just a few weeks after her passing, we met to begin the work of dreaming up and planning for Purim. It was good to gather together in that moment, and we held Adrienne’s memory close as we decided that we wanted to weave our grief into this year’s event—and alongside it, our joy that we’d been lucky enough to know her. We decided: we would mourn and celebrate her life and death by meditating on the body’s fragility (sickness, death) and its resilience (healing, ecstasy) with this year’s spectacle.
Purim, if you’re not familiar, is a carnival holiday—the forbidden is permitted, power relations supposedly upended, and costume and spectacle make political critique. It’s a holiday that members of JFREJ have celebrated, for the past ten years, alongside other artists and activists, in the form of a multimedia, politically engaged performance party. As always, we wanted to tie this year’s event to ongoing activist campaigns, so we invited JFREJers, the Occupy Wall Street Puppetry Guild, and others to a political education event at Great Small Works’ studio. There we heard presentations by Jodeen Olguín-Tayler from Caring Across Generations (CAG); JFREJ organizer Rachel McCullough; and HIV Prevention Justice Alliance’s Julie (JD) Davids. We also got a (culturally sensitive!) lesson in the New Orleans dance stylings of “sissy bounce” from Purimista Zach Scholl and a tutorial in Hasidic women’s line dancing by Jill Gellerman. Each presentation deepened our thinking about how to organize collectively—in the streets, in the legislative arena, and on the dance floor—to care for our bodies and the bodies of other people.
We spent the next two months in the usual frenzy of searching for an event space, corralling volunteers, herding musicians, learning songs, studying text, writing the script, lugging boxes of liquor, building puppets, and, in a radical new way, slowing down to listen to our bodies. Anna Jacobs and Hannah Temple shared personal experience and introduced us to radical writings on disability by authors including Eli Clare. In the end, we recast the Purim story as a tale about people who are both hurting and full of strength, facing the giant monster of the corporate healthcare system. We set the tale in “Shushan, Arizona,” a place “that prefigures the future of the U.S.: large percentages of the population are either over sixty five—maturing baby boomers who will soon need care—or immigrants ready to work and looking for a path to citizenship.” Jenny Romaine and Daniel Rozele Lang/Levitsky guided the audience though the organized chaos of the show—which featured beautiful choreography by Ariel Federow and J. Dellecave; Yiddish revery by Josh Waletsky and Gabe Levine; scenic madness by Abigail Miller and crew; and music remixes by Avi Fox-Rosen and friends. We heard testimonials about how different folks have given and received care. Members of Domestic Workers United performed as armored warriors of justice. We all delighted in a mash-up of the trad Purim song “LaYehudim Hayesa Orah” with Big Freedia’s sissy bounce hit “Excuse.”
And we sang a tribute to Adrienne Cooper: “Ballebuste, zisinke, zisinke zise ballebuste” — which, in Jenny Romaine’s loving translation, means “sweet chief woman in charge, deliciously sweet chief woman in charge, ridiculously sweet and attractive woman in charge.” So, yes. I’m still working on Purim even though it’s the thick of summer. And I’m lucky, because doing so helps me hold close what I have learned from Purim—and Adrienne, and all the people who work together annually to remake meaningful diaspora Jewishness by way of the carnivalesque—throughout the many months of the year.
— RACHEL MATTSON
One week after Purim celebrations, Malcah and Avi are in-studio to speak about the story of Purim, Megillah reading, today’s Haman(s), Esther-Vashti unity, and other gluten-free-hamentashen goodness.
Also featured this week, an interview with Katie Goldstein, community organizer for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) in NYC. On Saturday March 14, JFREJ, The Workmen’s Circle/ Arbeter Ring and allied organizations in the Lower East Side presented “Lower East Shushan: a Purim of Vacant Lots” a Purimshpiel that weaves current issues of housing justice, oral histories and the story of Purim.
Click here to listen (right-click to download).
About the March 14, 2009 Purimshpiel; Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring
How many long-time residents can you fit in a house of cards? Does Mordechai clean behind his ears? Will Esther take a stand? Are all alien nations against gentrification? Will CAAV get back from the Bronx in time? Just how DO you take over a building, anyways? And which one’s Mordechai, and which one’s Haman?
Dancing! Merriment! Food and Drinks! Hop, meine homentashen, and see the show! Workmen’s Circle and JFREJ present in partnership with the Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, and thanks to Great Small Works and the New Yiddish Repertory Theater.
Spectacle house band led by Avi Fox-Rosen with Judith Berkson, Lee Free, Mary Feaster. Special appearances by pianist Ray Santiago and master congero and singer Abran Rodriguez, Adrienne Cooper, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, Crosmopolitan, Gary Z, Xavier, and more. Star studded performing devising ensemble: Ariel Federow, Katy Rubin, Killer Sideburns, Abigail Miller, Michelle Malka Miller, Seltzer and Salt, Tamar Elster, Ora Fruchter, Abigail Levine, Aleza Summitt, Avi Rose, Rachel Yucht, Sam Wilson, Tine Kindermann, CAAAV Youth Group, WCKinder Shula, Copper Henningfield (the world’s greatest Magician)
WHAT IS PURIM? Purim is the Jewish festival of spring fever, of masks and costumes and parodies of all sacred things. It centers on the Scroll of Esther, a farcical story that wears the mask of being a factual history. It is a tale of overreach, a parody of officialdom in which the powerful turn abysmally stupid and bring about their own destruction. YAY!
The L.E.S. SHUSHAN Purim Shpiel of Vacant Lots is offered as a balm to the spirit. A Heavy Metal banana peel to the political soul.
Ritual expert Rebbetsin Hadassah Gross has said…There are many paths to holy disorder, many routes to the place of perfect misunderstanding… The more we move towards what scares us most, explore and embody it., The more we are entering into the practice of Purim..the more deeply we will be rearranged, supercharged and renewed.
This party is all about gentrification on the Lower East Side, and finding solutions to it through brilliant strategy by long-term residents, newcomers, allies, and gentrifiers together
Made by an impossible coalition of kids and elders, long term L.E.S. activists, artists, anthropologists, queers, religious n’ secular folk together.
THE MUSIC WILL ROCK YOU!
About the Purimshpiel; Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring & JFREJ Purim Spectacular
TERRIFYING performance! HORRIFYING costumes! DEVELOPERS that go bump in the night! SPINE-TINGLING drinks! STOMACH-FILLING food by Domestic Workers United! MONSTERS!DANCING! MAYHEM! THEATER! PUBLIC HOUSING! LIBERATION!
Music by: Michael Winograd and Friends, Rebel Diaz, The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, DJ Doom Dub, and more!
Spectacle by: Jenny Romaine! Adrienne Cooper! Daniel Lang/Levitsky! Killer Sideburns! Aleza Summit! Michelle Kay! Rachel Mattson! Ariel Federow! The Sukkos Mob! and many, many more…
In partnership with Mothers on the Move, Picture the Homeless, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), FIERCE, and the AJWS-AVODAH Partnership.
JFREJ newsletter reportback:
ZOMBIE CONDOS ATTACK WORKMEN’S CIRCLE
No one is hurt but the costumes
The JFREJ/Workmens Circle Purimspiel is a legendary annual event and this year continued the righteous and raucous spectacular & topsy-turvy tradition. The concept: murderous zombie buildings take over Manhattan, and only Esther and the collective efforts of the dispossessed can save the day. This zombie-gentrification horrorshow was created by a team of mad scientists under the fluorescent glow of Workmen’s Circle conference rooms, drawing on the Megillah as well as interviews with members of grassroots community organizations from the Right to the City Campaign: GOLES, MOM, Picture the Homeless, FUREE & FIERCE. Despite a giant pool of slippery fake blood on the dance floor, hundreds of sweaty JFREJ members, friends, and allies escaped death and/or dismemberment on Saturday, March 22.
Don’t believe the hype – this Purim performance did actually have a plot. Behind all those smooth Michael Jackson dance moves, beneath the sexy mermaids of the labor movement costumes, amidst the rats and roaches that ran shrieking through the audience, audible through the raucous tunes of Michael Winograd, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, Rebel Diaz, and the cheering crowd at Yankee Stadium – a highly inventive and clever production guided the audience through the pitfalls of the search for affordable housing in New York City. Representatives from partner organizations GOLES, MOM, Picture the Homeless, and FIERCE participated in the show and were able to pitch their campaigns to the general audience. Hundreds of postcards were signed. But mostly, we got to model the kind of world we want to live in: one in which the fight for economic justice is a catalyst for creativity and a full-on celebration.