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Low Culture in the Purimshpil
By Ahuva Belkin

Professor Ahuva Belkin, holds degrees in both Theatre and Art History from Tel Aviv and University of Toronto. She is the head of the Theoretical studies in the Theatre Studies department at Tel Aviv University and the chair of the Israeli Society for Theatre Research. Her books include The Joy of Purim in Gluckstadt (1650); Leone de’Sommi and the Performing Arts, (ed.) and The Purimspiel: Studies in Folk Theatre. Her articles on theatre published in journals in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the US and Israel focus on issues in history and politics, iconography, Jewish and Israeli theatre. e-mail : abelkin@post.tau.ac.il  

Elazar Shulman (1837-1904) the nineteenth-century critic of Jewish literature, speaks for the ‘Maskilim’ (the Enlightened) but at the same time voices the distaste of the Orthodox when he offers an unflattering view of the theatrical genre of the purimshpil:
…the gory show known as Akhashveyresh-shpil…[was] obviously conceived by some nameless devil, whose blood-thirsty language evokes horror and pain; [these are] words from a foul mouth, which the paper can barely suffer... The creator was a Polish wanderer living in Germany, the scum of the earth, the subject of incessant complaints.

Indeed, reading the surviving texts today, in an industrial world that has long abandoned unrestrained revelry, can be quite bewildering. The plays seem to be unstructured: many of the monologues do not belong to the main plot, the entrances are not motivated, and the mythical characters have been made into fools. Absorbed into popular humour, the language is totally unrestricted, containing indecencies and obscenities, insults, curses, and blasphemies.

Mordechai, the pious man of the Megillah, (The Scroll of Esther) makes frequent vulgar references. In Eyn Sheyn Purimshpil from 1697, he completes his long mock prayer with :יונה פישלוויץ,/ ברענגט איין זאק פפלוימן./ איך שטעק דען פינגר אין ארש./ המן לעק דען דוימן: (796–799) [ Yona Fishlovitsh / brings in a sack with plums./ I stick the finger in arse./ Haman licks the dung] ; in a somewhat later version of the Akhashveyresh-shpil (1708), he abuses the king: ".לשנה טובה שטינקדיגה ביצים. דען מלך זאלן גישוועלן זייני ביצים" (172–173) [Happy new year stinking eggs, May the king’s balls grow and swell], and no less vulgar: “אדוני המלך איך בין אין איין וואלד גיזעסן. אונ, האב אייער גיפליצט האב איך גיהערט" (203–204); [My king, once I was sitting in the woods and heard you fart…] When Mordechai weaves segments from various prayers into his supplication on behalf of the Jewish people, he deliberately blurs the liturgy. The parody on the translation of the bible into German by the ‘Maskilim’ offered another excuse to insert blasphemy and curses. Yet another play distorts the Hebrew of Jacob’s blessing (“The Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named on them, and the name of my father Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst if the earth.” Genesis 48:16 ) for example:
Hamalach – der Gesalzener,
Hgoiel – der Imgesipter,
Oissi –mir,
A Make dir,
Makol – der Stecken,
Ro – der bejser Stren,
Jeworejch – er soll machen Knieen,
Es –in,
Haneorim – di jinge Lompen,
Wejkorej –in es soll wern oisgerissen,
Schemi – dein Numen,
Jemach schemoi – in sein Numen,
Awrum –der Schinder,
Itzchok – der Blinder,
Jankew – hot ungemacht a vill Saeckele mit kinder,
Weidgu – in follst unlejgen,
Bekerew – mit’n Koepele,
Hoorez – in der Erd aran. Umejn! (223–239)

Mordechai indulges in numerous instances of scatological humour, from comic gesticulations and sexual allusions to blunt talk of sex and genitalia. Even in the relatively dignified edition of Akta Esther mit Akhashveyresh, issued in Prague in 1720 under Rabbi David Oppenheim, Mordechai’s obscenities are still in evidence . He defies the courtiers and when he is asked about his status at court, he answers: "די מלכה איז מיין שייסטר קינד" ,(772) [The queen is my niece] “shvester” – sister is spoiled deliberately to “sheister” which sounds like “shaise”- dung, upon which they reprimand him and ask what language he is using. He answers: "אויף לעק דיין ארש”. (778), which sounds very similar to Latin, but in fact is a command that they lick his ass. In reply to their repeated question וואז איז דען דז פר איין שפראך" “ [what language you use], Mordechai makes a further play on words, איך בין אין תחת”” (779) [ I am in the bottom] with “ "תחת [ tokhes –bottom] punned with טועס”” [ toes - mistake]. Mordechai and Haman behave like two quarreling fools, exchanging insults such as: ‘Villain!’ ‘Thief!’ ‘Idiot!’ ‘Stupid!’. In those places where the stage directions call for an improvised vocal response, such as “"קומט מרדכי אונ' זאגט וואז ער זאגט" (610) [Mordechai enters and says whatever he says] or “ענטפרט מרדכי וואז ער ענטפרט “ (1090) [Mordechai answers whatever he answers], we may assume that the players used the margin of improvisation allowed them to go even further than the written text allowed.

The indiscipline, licence and excessive use of freedom that were so pronounced in the purimshpil , drew the wrath of the community elders. The strong objections which the rabinical establishment has always felt vis-`a-vis the very institution if the theatre, was now vindicated by this challenge to Jewish asceticism. And once the improvised text of the play became documented in writing and thus subject to more sober scrutiny, it was doomed.
Schudt, who published the 1708 edition of Akhashveyresh-shpil in 1714, records that the Jews themselves were ashamed of what they had written and, indeed, the elders of Frankfurt burned the entire edition at the stake.

Up to the twentieth century, research ignored most forms of popular culture, including folk theatre. Owing to the traditional link between theatre research and written dramatic texts, theatrical genres not based on written texts have either been neglected, or have been treated as inferior—to quote Brecht, as “a mixture of earthy humour and sentimentality, homespun morality and cheap sex.” The poetics of drama tend to relate to literary, well-made drama, produced by famous playwrights whose work is staged by established theatres or read by an elite readership. Only in recent decades, which with the rise of postmodernism have brought an increased recognition of the “other”, has folk culture emerged as a subject worthy of literary study.

Modern scholars writing about the history of Jewish literature have dismissed the purimshpil dramatic texts as instances of literary degradation. They have emphasized the lascivious language and indecencies, treating this genre as marginal and trivial, and its writers as merely inebriated clowns. There has been an assumption that a learned primary dramatic text existed, which the folk players, “…those tasteless, ill-bred, barbarous boors have taken…and brought down with coarse humor and plain language”. Suspecting that the plays were the result of corruption, the critics went so far as to accuse the anonymous authors of plagiarism. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the literary criteria of “high culture” have been applied to the texts, while the productions themselves, together with their theatrical aspects, have been largely ignored.

I would like to suggest that the parody, grotesque humour, crude physicality, obscenities, swearing, and cursing in the purimshpil were part of the folk festive culture and a sign of normality in the life and culture of the Jewish people. Whether the purimshpil has a literary prototype or not, the popular theatre of the feast of Purim should not be considered a degenerate literary genre. The purimshpil should be judged as a folk play, rather than according to literary or poetic criteria. The players, themes, motifs, and style accord with the definition of the folk genre: a traditional show based upon a well-known myth, put on at festival time in small communities whose members are also the performers.

The Purimshpil, moreover, as a liminal phenomenon that re-invents itself as a self reflective parody, a theatrical imitation containing the liminal function of the Purim ritual, may be regarded as a liminoid manifestation if we embrace Victor Turner’s term for the new collective creation of liminal phenomena in complex societies. In identifying the liminal phase, characterized by a digression from social norms, he follows anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep who has described the three phases of the rite de passage of the individual passing from one stage in life to the next: separation, transition, and incorporation. During the intervening phase of transition which Van Gennep calls limen (threshhold in Latin), the individual is in an ambivalent situation. He finds himself in a period and area of ambiguity, in the words of Van Gennep, “betwixt and between”. The anthropologists borrowed this individual tripartite structure and applied it to communal activities and seasonal festivals which are regarded as liminal events.

Though the liminoid as creative, reflective leisure activity distances itself from the rites of passage and becomes individualized when a lone artist produces the liminoid phenomena, it is out of the collective experience of liminal symbols that the artist makes free use of social traditions. The purimshpil as a liminoid event preserved as conspicuously as any other folk drama the liminal traits of the ritual, which became explicit in the uproarious Jewish carnival feast. The customs of the feast – including its liturgical conventions, like the official reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther) and the abuse of Haman that provides the plot of the play – retain the primary liminal features of reversal. The privilege of parodying their cultural heritage faced antagonism in the Jewish society where these liminal traits were still sacrosanct

Nevertheless, as a liminoid phenomenon, the purimshpil amalgamates its dual origin: a festive theatre that affirms the hegemony of Jewish culture, and an expression of popular culture in which the canonical sources are harnessed in order to parody the authorities. The feast of Purim became dramatized only when it began acquiring elements from the “other culture”, as Bakhtin calls the carnival culture: parody, echoes of ready-made motifs and folk sketches, bawdy jokes, self-deprecation, obscenities of sex and violence, preoccupation with the body, scatology and ribald dialogues, all intermixed. Through the influence of carnival revelry in Europe and its festive-dramatic annual revival of the liminal narrative through symbols and masks, transgressing every border, the seeds of the Jewish folk theatre germinated.

While it is true that the Akhashveyresh Shpil, as a meta-text, parodies the biblical original, perhaps more than any other genre it realizes the intertextual mold of spectators who are perfectly familiar with the original. Impersonating the ancient myth, the players enhanced the ritual through the fictional world, drawing their audience 2000 years back in time to the palace of Ahasuerus in Persia. And although the show evolved, or degenerated as the orthodox authorities would have it, into clownish manipulation, portraying the mythical heroes as a parody on the contemporary Rabbi, matchmaker, cantor and other familiar community members, in which the spectators saw themselves, the liminal symbols were intensified. Though the mythical events were represented by ‘home-spun’ actors in a burlesque that evolved actual parody, the spectators performing their ritual, repeating the same myth, identified with it. They identified with the plot and the message of the Purimshpil and regarded it as analogous to their situation as Jews in the Diaspora. They were the Jews still suffering persecution and winning redemption; they were the Jews whom Haman disparages in his “delivery”; they were the members of the community whose institutions and professions, habits and behavior were parodied in the play.

Both the carnival culture and the official culture are integrated into the festive theatrical genre, in respect to the intertextual connections as well as the messages.
The Megillah was read in Hebrew, the language of religious literature, liturgy and scriptural commentary, while the carnival show required an everyday, informal language that everyone could understand. The vernacular Yiddish eased the transition from non-dramatic parody to theatre. The popular language shattered the solemnity of the ritual and of the biblical scheme, replacing them with parody and adding oral material such as sketches, jokes, satires and folk songs.

The study of Jewish popular theatre brings to the fore questions regarding the interaction between folk culture and elite culture. The various approaches adopted by contemporary folklore research raise the question of whether it is possible to draw distinct polar contrasts, such as “high-low” or “educated-illiterate,” and whether we can settle for the designation “popular” when describing early works. Admittedly, every culture has a social foundation, but when it comes to the purimshpil, the relation between culture and society is more complex than the term “popular culture” may imply. Itzik Manger might be correct in saying that the real heroes of the purimshpil were the tailors. Nevertheless, the anonymous writers and performers – actors for the occasion – the craftsmen, batkhonim (jesters), klezmorim (musicians), yeshiva bokhers (students in the Jewish orthodox schools) who produced the shows and brought them into the homes of the ‘balebatim’ (home owners) were not illiterate, and the cultural life of the elite was also a part of their own. In Jewish society, illiteracy had been virtually unknown since antiquity, particularly among its male members, and that literacy prevailed even during the Middle Ages. The vast majority of Jews could read and write, and their culture was almost certainly a written one. The revelers thus had at their disposal a wealth of tradition – both literary and popular – to draw upon. The existence of that tradition, together with the literacy that made it accessible to the general Jewish public, made their folk revels somewhat different to other expressions of popular culture.

As Le Gaff points out, although folk culture is interspersed with fragments from higher forms of culture, it uses these fragments with a great deal of creativity. However, in the case of the purimshpil, we are not in the presence of a simple example of ‘gesunkenes Kulturgut’ [sunken culture assets]— a term coined by Hans Naumann. Naumann maintains that popular culture utilizes artistic material that, in previous centuries, belonged to the upper class, but that had fallen into disuse over the years.

Jewish popular culture, rather, rests to a large extent on the existing “higher culture”, perhaps more so than any other folk tradition. The elements of its folk plays betray its closeness to a literary origin, and are manifested in a rather unusual relationship between high culture and folk culture. Even the least pretentious versions of the purimshpil clearly reveal this reliance on elements from the learned Jewish sources: the scriptures, Midrashim, Targum Sheni, Aggada, liturgy, and other “high” genres, including misogynist poetry. Although the interaction between literary and folk genres in Jewish society was quite different from that in illiterate societies, the purimshpil does reveal signs of oral transmission. The handful of purimshpil texts that have remained in print are the scant survivors of a deeply-rooted, time-honoured tradition of Purim plays, passed down by word of mouth, which flourished in the Jewish community in Europe until the early twentieth century. Throughout the generations, the plays were transmitted either in writing or more often by word of mouth, together with their special melodies and traditional costumes. In many places, a purimspiel remained in the domain of one family, which produced it by concessional right. In many testimonies, reference is made to the oral transmission of texts, tunes, and production conventions.

Siegfried Kapper (1821–1879) recalls a purimshpil held in the Prague Ghetto in 1825 and 1826. An old musician, known as Itzik the Fiddler, would come to Kapper’s family home and recount how he had devised an Akhashveyresh-shpil that was acclaimed by Jews and Gentiles alike. Late into the night, he would recite whole scenes from memory, singing arias, accompanying himself on the violin, and performing the roles of the king, of Haman, Mordechai, and even Queen Esther. Another testimony mentions a baker, who was employed as such only during Passover. The rest of the year he was idle, receiving bread in exchange for purimshpil songs, which he knew by heart. Aaron Levdiev tells of a purimshpil in Hommel, in which he participated. Haim Meir, the butcher, mastered all the texts, and at Purim time he organized a company of players that went from house to house, performing the spiel. Mordechai Chemerinsky recalls the purimshpil in the town of Motili. The company leader, Wolf, could recite the entire repertoire and every detail of all the parts.

In the surviving texts, we can detect evidence of the originally oral form: the way the rhymes are used, the openings and endings, contrasts, primary and final positioning, repetitions and refrains. It is evident, for example, how the sound of the rhyme helps the actor to remember the text, as in the song sung by Akhashveyresh when he is crowned and mounts the throne: “ ניט צו העצן ניט צו שפעצן, נאר צו זעצן אויפן שטולעצן”. [Nit tsu hetsn nit tsu shpetsn, nor tsu zetsn ofn shtuletsn]. In many instances, we can also see how the players used an alternative text when only the sound of the rhyme had been remembered and the original words were long forgotten. In the Akhashveyresh-shpil published by Schudt, Mordechai greets the king:
דו בישט דער מלך, איך העט דיך איאר אן גיזעהן פאר איין וואמפין וואשר. פאר איין שטריק טרעגר.
פאר אין מוישב פעגר.
פאר איין הונט שלאגר.
פאר איין קאצין יעגר.
מאחר דאש דוא יוא דער מלך בישט.
האלט מיר דער שטעקן.
אין מארש זאלשט מיך לעקן. - 190) 199)
[You are the king? You look to me like a guts washer./ Like a rope bearer. / Like a messy of corpe./ Like a dog beater./ Like a cat hunter. But since you are the king./ Hold my stick. Lick my bottom. Take off my shoes. And lick me.]

Two more impulses marked the creative process of the oral transmission of the purimshpil: one reduced and narrowed, the other expanded. The reduction focused on the essence of the biblical story itself, with a single thread running through the plot; at the same time, comic characters and random elements from beyond the world of the biblical myth were used to expand the tale.

As happens frequently in folk plays that appropriate elements wherever they can find them, outright anachronisms appear. In the Purimshpil on the Megillah theme, Akhashveyresh is described as the king of four continents: Asia, Africa, Europa and America ( Akta Esther mit Akhashveyresh 357-8 ). Christianity is the religion of the surrounding Gentile world, and all the citizens of Persia are refered to as Christians including Haman, who is wearing a cross on his back (Eyn sheyn purimshpil 292-3). In this play, Talmudic law is ante-dated to biblical times and Mordechai is privileged by king Akhashveyresh to pronounce judgment on what is forbidden and what is permitted, accordingly (250-1). Characters from different places and periods are thrown together on the stage. In the Purimshpil on biblical themes, we find dramatis personae who are not connected to the original bible stories. In Mekhires Yoysef [Sale of Joseph] by Berman Limburg (1707c.), the German jester Pickelherring crops up , while the spy Lizhinsky features among the Philistine Goliath’s men in the play Dovid un Goliyes haplishti [David and Goliath the Philistine ] (1717) . In Mordkhe und Ester (published in the early 1770s), we discover contemporary types such as Shvelie de Metz Gvidrl and Freilein Makhlei, Esther’s friends who distanced themselves from Jewish tradition, while the Devil himself appears in the Akeydes Yitskhok [Sacrifice of Isaac].
With the narrative continuity supplied by the myth, the play could distance itself from the original narrative and elaborate on the core story through use of extras, comic fragments, local allusions, jokes, liturgical parody, songs, a medley of gibberish, as well as sketches on locally known rabbis, doctors, and cantors. The point of departure and the denouement were anchored in the holiday myth, enabling the players to elaborate on the core story dramatically, and then work the many components into a unified whole.

Refrains were added to many of the songs and some of the dialogues. Such creativity is found not only in the manipulation of the scripture stories, but also in the introduction of the Midrashim and Agadda. Different literary materials were also borrowed, such as the literary misogynisic genre found in Dos Purimshpil, reconstructed by Samuel Weissenberg. After Vashti’s execution, the executioner recites a long poem, listing the faults of the biblical mothers of the nation: Eve, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Miriam. After each one, he concludes in refrain:
Drim sug ich eich…
In sug es eich,
Jabirin noch mit ejnem,
Hoert nit Fruen, Wabsgebirt. (255–258)
[So I am telling you/ and say to you/ never forget, never listen to women, born of women.]
The moral is obvious: A wife should obey her husband.

In the world of the feast, in the “betwixt and between” break in the ordinary flow of time—“neither here nor there, neither one nor the other”, as Van Gennep describes the liminal stage, the revelers could afford to parody everything that was sacred, and turn the tables: buffoonery replaced seriousness, the profane subverted the holy. The sanctity of the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays, as well as Jewish customs such as dietary laws, were similarly targets for parody. In Eyn sheyn purimshpil, Mordechai’s description of the High Holidays includes a fantastic dream, in which his cow fulfils all the activities of the liturgy: with her hoofs shaking the palm-branch and beating its breast in a ritual gesture of atonement, while simultaneously blowing the Shofar (ram’s horn) with her buttocks. (573-5)

The mythical heroes of the liturgy such as Mordechai and Esther, become laughing stocks, and their authority is subverted and ridiculed. In a purimshpil from Mohilev in Russia, which was performed up until the beginning of the twentieth century, Mordechai is introduced thus:
פוס-איד מאנדרעכאי,
א שלעפער, א בעטלער, ווא א חתונה, ווא א ברית
דארטען האט גרניט געפעהלט
און א טעלער געשטעלט:
א פאטאעט – אויף איהם צו קוקען
א הארב אויפ'ן רוקען,
אין דר' ערד טוט עק קוקען.
נאך א סימן וועל איך אייך זאגען:
מ'האט ניט לאנג איהם באנקעס געשטעלט צום רוקען.
Wandering Jew Monderkhe
A pauper, a beggar, in every wedding, every Brith [circumcision]
Where nothing is missing
And everything is laid on the plate:
A portrait – to look at
Stares at the ground
And another sign I will tell you:
Recently he was treated with bankes [cupping glass] on his back.

In the world of the purimshpil, where “דיא וועלט איז פר קערט גיווארין פון וואונדרלכין דינגין " , [ the world has been miraculously turned upside down] as Mordechai concludes in Dos shpil fun Mordkhe un Ester, [The play about Mordechai and Esther] the miraculous match between Esther and the great king, who has dismissed Queen Vashti, provides the perfect pretext for references to sexual matters, for parody on marriages and matches, ill-assorted couples, verbal violence, offensive mockery of the grotesque body, lewd gestures, and attempted rape. The Megillah tells us that King Ahasverus commanded his seven chamberlains “to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to show the people and the princes her beauty, for she was fair to look on” (1:11). Dos purimshpil makes much of the Midrash, according to which Ahasverus orders Vashti to appear before him totally naked. The displaced awareness of physicality and reference to the naked body violated prevailing taboos. In the play, the sense of unease that should be elicited by defiance of this taboo is replaced by excitement, with the courtiers crying out in unison: “Nacket in nacket mit ihr Bloisen lab” [Naked, naked left only with her skin] (62). In the aria, after her fate is sealed, Vashti sings:
Far wus sollst di vargessen alle dein Zeiten,
As di host gethun bapusen meine klure schnejwasse Seiten…(145–146)
[Why have you forgotten the time/ when you used to/ fondle my snow-white breasts…]
Such a description might well have transported the audience to the realm of the classical mode, which perceives the human body as harmonious and beautiful. But when a man plays the part—
מיט א סימן פון א בערדל אין א קורץ שמוציק קליידל, פון וועלכן עס קוקן ארויס גרויסע, גראבע שטיוול."
[With signs of a beard and a short dirty dress, beneath which one can see big coarse boots], the description given for Vashti in Der Priziv by S.Y. Abramovitsh (Mendel Moykher Sforim) —Vashti’s reference to her “snow-white breasts” becomes an absurd parody, and renders the body even more grotesque.
In their memoirs, contemporary spectators of purimshpil performances record the abrupt changes in atmosphere, from laughter to tears, and from pathos to low farce.

Such a range of responses gave the performances their popular appeal. The clown’s jests intermingled with the nobles’ decorum was typical to the Staatsaktionen on which the play’s form was based, much as a similar blend of the comic and tragic in melodrama ensured its popularity in the late ninteenth century.
Having wept as they listened to the dirges of Vashti and Haman before their executions, the audience was immediately compensated by a display of amusing buffoonery that elicited their laughter. Esther, the fair queen from the Megillah, is introduced by Mordechai, who compares her to an ugly frog, short, fat and green, and calls her the daughter of a whore. She is played by a man sloppily dressed as a woman; together with the king who, in the best Midrashic tradition, is drunk all the time, they create a comic double act, similar to that of the conventional ill-assorted married couple in the carnival plays. Mordechai, the matchmaker, pushes Esther into Akhashveyresh’s arms, takes advantage of the king’s predicament, and mocks him, his bride, and both of them as a couple. Esther’s introduction provides a focus for the grotesque description of the body and its functions. In Weissenberg’s Dos purimshpil, Mordechai introduces the bride:
Hoer ze, kindrig, ich hob vin deinetwegen a Mejdel
Is sie asoi groiss, wie a baerischer Wejde!
A zing mit a Pur Lippen
Chotsch in der Erd aranstipen;
Haklal sie is schejn
Mit oigesarzte Zejn;
Hur mit a stern,
Me konn dem ganzen Msrk oiskehren;
Mit a blechen Harz,
Mit a kipernem Bauch.
In a Pipek wie a Makrete…(356–367)

(Look here, little one, I’ve found you a girl
Tiny as a bear’s tail
She has a tongue, and lips
And all you have to do is lay her down
She is prettier than pretty
With holes in her teeth, a brow and thick hair
Good to sweep the market with
Her heart is made of tin, her belly is enormous and her navel –
What a surface…)

And if this was not enough to shock the spectators, he adds:

Noch a Male hot sie, darft di wissen,
As alle Naechet thit sie sech bapischen. (370–371)

(And another quality, I’ll have you know:
Every night she wets her bed.)

More taboos are broken and the sexual allusion is even more pronounced when Mordechai presents Esther to the king and openly refers to genitalia and intercourse. In Akhashveyresh shpil (1708) he introduces her: “My king, isn’t it a pleasure, to touch the breast of a beautiful girl? They say it’s nothing, until you have made it to her bed. And some say that even that is nothing, until you touch her as she is passing water” (650, ff.). The images used to characterize her features constitute a parody on The Song of Songs; however, in the mood of the inverted world of the festival, abundant images of animals and their organs, hyperbole, and fantasies defame Esther, disqualify her from her potential status as a heroine, and degrade her legendary beauty. In Eyn Sheyn Purimshpil, (1697) animal images are used to describe her physiognomy: her mouth like an old horse, her nose as big as a rabbit, her ears like a donkey’s and her brow like a bear’s bottom. (192-203 ). In Akhashveyresh-shpil, her nose is exaggerated and compared to a dead donkey (212-3). At the time, such grotesque depiction of body and face was typical of carnival, which favours grotesque characteristics such as protruding eyes, gaping mouths, and excessively large noses that are symbolic of the phallus.
The introduction of obscenity, pornography, and scatology into the parody of a text of Jewish spiritual values is not surprising. Bakhtin, who studied the popular culture of the Renaissance, noted that underlying all grotesque images was a particular perception of the human body, and a representation of physical life quite different from the classical mode or the naturalistic picture of a human body. Unlike classical aesthetics and its artistic canons, in which the body is harmonized, intact, and perfect, the grotesque tradition accentuates bodily processes, such as metabolism, fertilization, and death. Moreover, the carnival and all its properties have always represented the spiritual nature of the world through the body, emphasizing those parts through which the body is open to the world: the nose, the open mouth, the belly, and the reproductive organs. Breasts, phallus, and testicles are often physically exaggerated in dialogue, costume, or performance styles, creating images that centre on bodily functions. This convention can be found not only in the carnival tradition, but also in the grotesque tradition of pictorial art, which dates back thousands of years. References to passing water, defecation, and other such bodily functions are common to all festive genres, and such references can be found in ancient Greek comedy. In Aristophanes’ Frogs, for example, the god Dionysus is portrayed as a fool, defecating in public.

Thus the curses, the obscenities, and the grotesqueries, all of which mostly pertain to the lower parts of the body, are not merely the scatological obsessions of certain Purimspiel creators. They are consistent with the age-old carnival mode and are an integral part of folk culture. Consequently, these references are, and always have been, a fundamental and vital feature of popular festive theatre. Moreover, even these distortions of “high culture”, these parodies of the orthodox mythology, expressed in some measure the hopes, aspirations, and problems of the Jews, the history of the community and its contemporary collective and lower-class experiences, possibly more so than did the elite, enlightened dramatic literature created for the Orthodox feast. However, like any original art, Jewish folk theatre was not only a complete form in its own right, and not only offered entertainment but also performed a subversive and serious social function. The players, who usually belonged to the lower stratum of Jewish society, used the masks of “national otherness” to express a mutiny of “social otherness”, and in so doing, debunked the elite by focusing their jibes on the nether regions of the powerful.


  • Elazar Shulman, Sfat- Yehudit Ashkenazit V’sifruta [The Jewish Ashkenazi Language and its Literature] (Riga: Eli Levin Press, 1913). [Hebrew]
  • Eyn Sheyn Purimshpil (1697), Leipzig, Municipal Library, Nr. 35. See Chone Shmeruk, Mahazot mikraim b’Yiddish 1697–1750 [Yiddish Biblical Plays 1697–1750] (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1979). [Hebrew]
  • In Akhashvyresh shpil (1708), See: Johann. J. Schudt, Judische Merckwurdigkeiten Vorstellende Was sich Curieuses und denckwurdiges in den neuren Zeiten, Vol. III, (Frankfurt-Leipzig, 1714–1718) pp. 202–225.
  • Dus Pirimspiel – Du Spielt die Rolle Humen und Mordche , edited by Samuel Weissenberg, in Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft fur judiche Volkskunde 13 ( no. 1,1904). Pp. 4-27. Dr. Weisenberg (1867-1928), the Jewish ethnograph and anthropologist from Yelisvetgard ( Harson, Russia) compiled his hometown verbal traditional Purimspiel to save it from oblivion . He wrote it in Latin transcription based on popular Yiddish. See Weissenberg’s introduction to the play under the title “Das Purimspiel von Ahasverus und Esther”, Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft fur judiche Volkskunde Pp. 1-3.
  • Schudt, Judische Merckwurdigkeiten. Vol. II. p. 316. On the antagonism of the religious Jewish authorities in Germany to the purimshpil see: Dov Weinryb, “Gormim kalkalim v’socialim b’ahaskala h’ihudit b’germania” (Economics and Social Factors in the Jewish Enlightment in Germany) in Kneset Lezecher Haim Nachman Bialik , Tel Aviv: Dvir 1938, pp. 432 ff.
  • Berthold Brecht, “Notes on the Folk Play”, in Brecht on Theatre (1957), ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), pp. 153 ff.
  • Israel Zinberg, Di geshikhte fun der literatur bi Yidn, vol. VI, Buanes Aires, 1943; Max Erik, who discusses the literary Yiddish genre, relates to the purimshpil as “primitive” , See: Die geshikhte fun der Yidisher literatur fun di eltste zeitn biz der Haskala tkufah. Warsaw, 1928.
  • Zinberg, Die Geshkhte.
    In their seminal work on the Purimspiel, Noah Prilutski and Chone Shmeruk managed to save some texts from oblivion, but they did not consider them within the context of the popular culture . See Noah Prilutski, Zamlbikher far yidishn folklor, filologye un kulturgeshikhte (Warsaw, 1912). זאמעלביכער פאר יידישען פאלקלאר, פילאלאגיע און קולטורגעשיכטע); Shmeruk, Mahazot.
  • Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: PAJ Publications, 1982.
  • Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage. trans. M. Vizedom and G. Caffee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).
  • See: Ahuva Belkin, “Citing Scripture for a Purpose – The Jewish Purimspiel as a Parody” in Assaph C, No. 12, 1997, pp. 45-59.
  • Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, translated by Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984)
  • Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore (Manchester University Press, 1984); H.C.E. Midlefort,“Sin, Melancholy, Obsession: History and Culture in the 16th Century” in S. L. Kaplan (ed.), Understanding Popular Culture (Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton Publishers, 1984), p. 114.
  • Beatrice & Uriel Weinreich, Yiddish Language and Folklore, Mouton & Co., 1959, pp. 12 ff.
  • Jacques Le Gaff, “The Learned and Popular Dimensions of Journey in the Other World in the Middle Ages”, in Understanding Popular Culture ,Steven L. Kaplan (ed.), New York, Mouton Publishers, 1984. pp. 19–39.
  • Hans Naumann, Primitive Gemeinschaftskultur (Jena, 1921).
  • Sigfried Kapper,”Ahasverus – Ein Judisches Fastnachtspiel”, Deutsches Museum – Zeitschrift fur Literatur, Kunst und Offentliches Leben, Leipzig, IV (1854), 490-497, 529-543.
  • M. Spektor, “Velvel der shiber” , Der Tog, 63(1904).
  • See: Zalmen Zilbercweig, (ed.) Leksikon fun yidishn teater (New York, Farlag Elisheva, 1959), vol. III, p. 1708.
  • Mordechai Chemerinsky, “Ayarati Motili” (My town Motili), Rashumot, Vol. 2 ,pp. 74-76. [Hebrew]
  • Chemerinsky, ibid
  • Now in the Bodleian Library , Opp.8o 1090. Mekhires Yoysef was performed in Frankfurt in 1707. (Schudt, Judische Merckwurdigkeiten).
  • The play, Aktsian fun Kenig Dovid und Golies Haplishti now in the National Library, Jerusalem, was printed in Hanau in 1717. See: Shmeruk, Mahazot Mikraim b’Yiddish [Yiddish Biblical Plays], pp. 623-706.
  • See: Yankev Shatski, “Geshikhte fun yidishn teater”, Algemeyne entsiklopedye II (Paris, 1940), pp. 298ff; H. Bar-Dayan, “L’reshito shel mahaze ha’haskala – al opera komit b’Yiddish” [The beginnings of the ‘Haskala’ plays - On a Comic Opera in Yiddish] ( Jerusalem, Second World Congress of Jewish Studies, 1957). [Hebrew]
  • The Sacrifice of Isaac, in Prilutski, Zamlbikher, no. 6.
  • B. Gorin, Di geshikhte fun yidishn teater ( New York, 1929), vol. I, p. 60.
  • Jerusalem National Library, Melman Collection, See : Shmeruk, Mahazot, pp. 261–328.
  • ש.י. אברמוביץ, "דער פריזיוו" ב- אלע ווערק פון מענדעלע מוכר ספרים , פארלאג מענדלע (ורשה, 1913) סצינה 11 עמ' 76–80. S.Y. Abramovitsh, Der Priziv in Ale verke fun Mendele Moykher Sforim, Farlag Mendele (Warsaw, 1913), pp. 76-80.
  • There are hardly any memoires or stories from the shteitl (small towns) in East Europe which do not contain Purimshpil experience. They are too numerous to quote all of them here. A bibliography is to be found in Zilbercweig, (ed.) Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. III, p. 1754-1756.
  • Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World.


Source: Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches
This article first appeared in Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches edited by Joel Berkowitz and published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization (2003). Copies of the book may be purchased from all good booksellers or via the publishers Price £39.50 / US $59.50 (ISBN 1-874774-81-1). Further information on this and other Littman publications can be found on
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Ahuva Belkin

Masks exhibition Haifa Israel Purim 2006

Haman and Vincent van Goch Sketch on Tel Aviv newspaper 2006

The Purimshpil players Prague 1725

Haman and his ten sons on the tree 14th Century

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