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Yiddish Theatre

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The Live Frog as Prop in the Purim Play of the Bobover Hasidim
By Shari Troy

Each year, members of an ultra orthodox sect of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn stage a purimshpil, an amateur playlet celebrating the festival of Purim. Jews of various communities have traditionally enacted skits as one element of this holiday’s revelries. However, the Brooklyn based Bobover community has elevated the purimshpil, along with a number of performative events surrounding it, to an exceedingly important place in its Purim observance[.2] The event is held in the community’s house of study and prayer and is attended by more than a thousand spectators including coreligionists and guests. To all intents and purposes, the purimshpil is the focus of the celebration. Yet the play itself is only one part of an elaborate fete which commences at dusk and lasts until dawn.

In the Bobover community, the purimshpil celebration is organized as a metaphorical feast. Referred to simply as tish, (the Yiddish word for table), the spectacle literally and symbolically takes place around a table. A huge platform, draped in white and resembling a Sabbath dining table physically dominates the center of the auditorium. Around the table, rows of benches seat approximately one hundred, and hundreds more are seated in rows throughout the large hall. Abutting the table at the same height is a proscenium stage on which the purimshpil is performed. This set-up enables action and actors to cross at times from the stage directly on to the table. Thus, the dining table also functions as stage. This extraordinary spatial arrangement has led one scholar to label the entire Bobover purimshpil a ‘drama on a table’[.3] In fact, various performances other than the playlet itself also take place on the table-top. The community’s rabbi sits at the head of the table before a dais, positioned directly across from the proscenium stage. The purimshpil is ostensibly prepared and performed for the pleasure of the rabbi who is its ‘privileged spectator’.[4] By watching both the performance and the rabbi, and by noting the pleasure he derives from the festivities, the spectators glean pleasure from the revelry.

Before the playlet is performed for the rabbi however, a number of ritualized activities take place which are part of the holiday celebration. The event begins with an extended wait for the rabbi’s grand entrance. Once he arrives, he leads the congregation in song, at the end of which he performs the elaborate hand washing rituals required before eating food. He then dines on a traditional holiday meal, taking only a bite or two of each course. The rest is distributed around the table to as many participants as are able to obtain a morsel of the leftovers. This ritual symbolically includes the entire congregation in the meal and establishes that all present have metaphorically shared in the repast[.5] After the meal, the play begins. The spatial set-up of table/stage engenders a sense of duality that imbues the event with symbolic meaning. Celebrants first eat a meal around a table which functions simultaneously as a stage. They then watch a play performed on a stage whose action flows on to an adjoining table. These activities establish the play itself as an element of a metaphorical repast. The theatrical feast prepared by the community members for the rabbi complements the physical meal that is shared by the rabbi with all around the table. Physical nourishment is suggested by the act of ingesting food and spiritual and emotional nourishment by that of taking in a theatrical performance. The tish concludes after a number of other performance activities which focus directly on the rabbi and take place on and around the table. These activities, such as group singing, ritualized petitioning by the congregants of their leader and, finally, communal dancing around the sage, end at dawn. At this time, the rabbi makes an abrupt exit and the audience quickly goes home. The party is over.

The entrance of live animals - frogs - onto the table and into the play in the 1992 staging of the story of the Exodus from Egypt seemed to me to imbue the performance with a fleeting sense of transcendent meaning. A videotape of the performance records a soaring and cathartic reaction from the audience in response to the frogs on stage[.6] My attempt to locate the cause of the extraordinary reaction lead to examination of some possible connotations of the frog as prop in the purimshpil. Since the leitmotif of the Purim holiday is disorder and topsy-turvy, the play was performed in the middle of the night. Contributing to the extraordinariness of the event and the festive feeling was the knowledge that frequenting, viewing or performing in theatrical entertainments is normally prohibited by Jewish law.[7] Indeed, in ultra-orthodox Judaism the anti-theatrical prejudice can acquire Tertullianesque dimensions.[8] Yet during the festival of Purim, when Jews are required to commemorate an ancient reversal of the community’s fortune by inverting their normative customs, masquerading and the making of amateur theatricals is permitted by law and custom[.9] It is in this spirit of inversion that the Bobover community gathers annually in the house of study to witness a theatrical entertainment.

The following is an analysis of one scene from the video of the 1992 folk theatre production entitled Meiavdus L’Cheirus, (From Slavery To Freedom). My analysis focuses on roughly four minutes of the performance. Within that short time span, live frogs which were released onto the stage caused a complete shift in the dynamics between characters on stage and between actors and audience members. Themes of obliteration of boundaries and the overthrowing of norms were evoked by the momentary bedlam that ensued when the frogs were tossed about the stage. The notions of overcoming established orders and hierarchies crucial to both the story of the Exodus and to the Jewish festival of Purim, propelled the scene in question. The use of live frogs as props in this production is rife with significance; foregrounding strangeness, evoking taboo thoughts, calling to mind prohibited behaviors, recalling associations with the grotesque, and eliciting a cathartic release for at least some audience members. The decision to use leaping frogs on a stage where direct physical contact between audience members and fictional characters was possible encouraged a wild response from spectators. Close proximity of some of the viewers to these uncontrollable creatures heightened the general exhilaration. Audience reactions captured on the video reflected the types of irreverent behavior sanctioned for observant Jews during the festival of Purim.

Used as props in the Bobover staging of the Exodus story, live jumping frogs made the potent image of the biblical plague of frogs palpable in twentieth century Brooklyn. The frog scene in the video actually begins with Aaron relaying to Pharaoh God’s threat to send a plague of frogs to the land of Egypt. Soon, a strange animal-like sound is heard in the distance. Pharaoh notices and inquires about it. Next, a large green plastic frog statuette with gaping mouth appears on stage. Pharaoh comes forward, laughs derisively, and points at the thing. Live frogs begin to be observed in the mouth of the statuette as an actor on stage removes a few of the creatures and throws them about the stage. Pharaoh picks up a frog, examines it and cries ‘a frog’, deliberately tossing it in the air towards the table, and thus the audience.[10]Meanwhile, another character on stage frantically follows the jumping frogs around the space. The king comments on the foolishness of sending frogs. Sitting exhaustedly on his throne after the burst of excitement, Pharaoh mentions his hunger and orders his servant Mahmud to get food. When the repast arrives it is a loaf of challah, the braided bread traditionally eaten by Jews on the Sabbath. The sandwich is accompanied by a stuffed Kermit-thefrog toy which Pharaoh flings to the side of the stage. While eating the meal, he bites into a live frog which was hidden in the bread. Miming revulsion, he spits it out of his mouth. At this point, the audience gets visibly excited and the noise increases. Next we see Pharaoh in a state of agitation, finding a three pound bullfrog under his royal headdress. He tosses the creature forward onto the table around which the audience sits. The children in the vicinity of the big frog begin to murmur excitedly. The space is charged with emotion. The large bullfrog, sitting on the table top is the object of intense fascination for the audience. Indeed, the table top, now a stage, is the focus of the playlet. A character from behind the proscenium arch soon crosses onto the table to catch the bullfrog and put it back into the mouth of the statue. He then deposits the figure and its contents unceremoniously on Pharaoh’s throne. Meanwhile, the king enacts hysteria, repeatedly spitting the imaginary repulsive frog out of his mouth. Later, during an extended scene in which Pharaoh burps, clutches his stomach and is apparently flatulent, the audience delights in recognizing that the frogs have infiltrated the very body of the ruler. When he returns to the throne he is aghast to find the frog statuette sitting there proudly, usurping his throne. At this time, little boys from the audience play excitedly with frogs at the edge of the table/stage. In their enthusiasm they begin shouting. Soon we hear a voice from offstage asking for quiet. One of the other characters removes the remaining frogs from the stage and gradually calm is restored. Pharaoh plops down on the throne, saying ‘So they sent us a bit of frogs.’ Order is reestablished.

On stage the frogs had a far more commanding psychic affect on the audience than one would have expected judging by stage time or their numbers per se. Technically, the amphibians only occupied the action for four minutes. There were probably no more than ten of the creatures in the performance. Indeed the ‘plague’ of frogs was only one of the ten plagues enacted in the playlet. Yet, it was in a frog-filled moment both fleeting and significant that the performance rose to the level of the sublime. As the frogs jumped about on stage they caused a reaction of similarly wild abandon among the audience members closest to the stage. That moment was so emotionally charged, so temporally and spatially important that it would be difficult to imagine the same frogs in another environment - say at the edge of a river - having a similar impact.

It is a basic tenet of theatre semiotics that an object on stage bears multiple meanings. As Keir Elam notes in The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama,

It is an essential feature of the semiotic economy of theatrical performance that it employs a limited repertory of sign-vehicles in order to generate a potentially unlimited range of cultural units...This accounts for the polysemic character of the theatrical sign.[11]
Let us consider a few of the significations of the frog in the scene above. First however, it is worth noting that the phenomenology of living beings on stage profoundly affects meanings in a play. As Bert States has eloquently elabor- ated in Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, live animals on stage invite multiple readings. In his view the very fact of a living animal stepping into the space of the theatrical illusion elicits surprise from the audience. The live animal in the ‘magic circle’ invites oscillating readings. Spectators can see both the workaday and the illusionary signification of the animal, although probably not at the same time. In States’ view ‘to the extent that something on stage arouses awareness of its external... significations, its internal... signification is reduced.[12] ' The extended appearance of live frogs on the Bobover stage clearly invited a familiar reading, particularly for the children. There was enormous fascination with the animal as animal, indexed by the children’s attempts to touch and play with the frogs when proximity made this possible. While touching, admiring, and playing with the animals, the children were certainly not reading any biblical or illusionary import into the frogs’ presence on the stage. Yet when the everyday significance of jumping frogs inserted itself into the fictive biblical play, a sense of strangeness nevertheless pervaded. The individual audience members may not have been cognizant of the frogs as simultaneously biblical and back yard critters. Yet the realness of these green slimy frogs, leaping about in what was supposed to be a mimetic staging of a biblical story, engendered an unmistakable sense of duality and ambiguity.

Onstage in the Bobover Purim play, the live frog indeed occupies a shifting and slippery position. On the one hand, the frogs are tossed about by actors and audience who, at least in the on-stage moment, clearly disregard their status as living beings. Regarded as passive props, they are thrown about as any lump of inanimate clay. This could be viewed as cruel to animals by some and might raise questions about the ways in which members of this community regard animals. Yet theatrically, in the four minutes the frogs are on stage, they manage to rise above the level of mere props, assuming the function of active characters. Both live actors and inanimate objects are characterized by hierarchical relationships on stage.[13] In his essay ‘Signs in the Chinese Theatre’, Karel Brusak characterizes stage items in terms of function. At the top of the pyramid is the lead actor who, being the most dramatically active, captures the majority of the audience’s attention. After living characters, props that ‘participate in the players performance’ are next in the hierarchy and so on, eventually arriving at the lowest point on the scale - articles which are used passively or those not actually used at all.[14] In the play the live frogs completely discombobulate the hapless Pharaoh, effectively removing him from his throne and momentarily capturing it for themselves. Theatrically they wrest attention and control of the stage from the lead actor and, while enjoying it themselves, engender the dramatic highlight of the play.

The bedlam on stage which causes a shift of focus from the lead actor to the frogs is a metaphor for the festival of Purim. In the play, frogs as props momentarily assume the status of lead characters giving rise to a sense of elation in the spectators. The audience members experience this feeling of release when roles are reversed and they are able to laugh at the king being undone by the lowly amphibians. Similarly, the festival of Purim itself is a span of time in which rules are overturned and high is traded for low. This reversal creates the opportunity for community members to experience those feelings of freedom and cathartic release caused by temporarily letting go of their everyday rules and regulations. Once a year during Purim, as Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin maintains,

various ‘low’ cultural practices are explicitly prescribed in the halakhic literature or by custom. These include public drunkenness, treated by the Talmud as an obligation and the performance of plays that include cross-dressing.[15]
Certain established norms and hierarchies are set aside just long enough during the festival to give community members a sense that they are symbolically partaking in the Diaspora life which surrounds them. Since the dispersion, Jews have lived with non-Jews as neighbors in lands throughout the world. Nevertheless, those Jews who have continued to observe Jewish law scrupulously, as do the Bobover, have avoided assimilation and kept apart from the Gentiles, even while living as guests in their lands. The Purim festival is a structure which enables observant Jews to symbolically and for a limited time, throw off the strictures of their everyday lives by engaging in activities which they perceive as those of the non-Jew.[16] At the end of the festival of Purim, they return to their normative order:

behI will smite all thy borders with frogs. And the river shall swarm with frogs, which shall go up and come into thy house and into thy bed-chamber, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading troughs. And the frogs shall come up both upon thee, and upon thy people and upon all thy servants.[17 ]
In the Bible, the plague of frogs serves to temporarily overrun ‘the borders,’ i.e. the country of Egypt, just as the Purim holiday temporarily overturns standard religious laws. The purpose of God’s amphibious assault against Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus was to overwhelm Egypt so that the Israelites could leave the land. In both the Bible and on stage the havoc caused by the plague of frogs made way for a breakdown of the normative order. The biblical verse which in English reads as ‘And the frogs shall come up both upon thee and upon thy people and upon all thy servants’.[18] in the original Hebrew actually reads ‘And in thee, and in thy people and in all thy servants will arise the frogs’ (trans. mine).[19] The phrase has been interpreted to mean that the frogs literally found their way into the very bodies of the Egyptians from within which they croaked[.20] Similarly, Jewish legend maintains that the soft frogs conquered the hard Egyptians by crawling through their marble buildings.[21] In the biblical story, the frogs were able to cover and obscure borders of buildings, bodies and even nations, causing bedlam and temporarily disrupting decorum. Indeed, as part of the cumulative impact of the ten plagues, they helped to facilitate the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

In the Bobover Purim play the frogs wreak havoc on their domain, the stage. Catalyst of bedlam and agent of change, the frog serves the same purpose as prop in the Purim play as it did playing God’s factotum in the loathsome plague in the Book of Exodus. This small green creature diminished boundaries between the spectators and performers, between stage space and audience sphere. Like magnets, the live animals attracted the audience’s attention, thereby temporarily reordering the hierarchical relationships between characters and props on stage. They invaded Pharaoh’s house and usurped his throne. They made his own physical integrity meaningless as they got under his skin and lodged themselves within his body. Used as stage props, these unmistakably free agents caused a wild response from spectators precisely because the creatures in and of themselves, are uncontrollable. Had the stage really been inundated with frogs, as was Egypt during the plague, the performance would have ceased perforce. Instead, the brief appearance of frogs into the performance before being recaptured by the actors, engendered feelings of wild abandon in the audience and transitory bedlam on stage. The effect was a temporary catharsis among audience members. Simultaneously the frogs evoked the raison d’etre of the holiday of Purim; a temporary release from the prevailing notion of decorum into an ephemeral feeling of freedom.

For Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World the transgressing of boundaries, particularly where there is also an incorporation of separate poles into one body, is an element of the grotesque[.22 ]The frog scene in the purimshpil is particularly revealing because it was during that scene, when associations with the grotesque were heightened, that the audience experienced the most intense exhilaration. Returning momentarily to the image of a frog at the bank of a river, we find nothing strange nor even particularly funny in the picture; nothing that would summon forth deep laughter. Yet the scenario in which ungovernable frogs hop wildly around the court of Pharaoh was staged deliberately to induce the effect of uncontrollable levity, and it succeeded. Moreover, a variety of images that may not even have been deliberately staged but arose nonetheless may have had the most profound effect on audience response. When Pharaoh throws the big bullfrog on to the table that abuts the stage the table becomes a thrust stage; a focus of the drama. Yet just a short time before that very same space had suggested the Sabbath table and the rabbi’s meal. Clearly associations with purity of the Sabbath table are juxtaposed with feelings elicited by the sight of the slimy critter on the very same table. The frog itself has a shifting position regarding the Jewish laws of purity outlined in Leviticus. The frog, creature that both walks on land and swims in the water, is a liminal being - an animal not easily categorized.[23] As living beings, frogs are considered acceptable and pure; yet when no longer alive, they are considered unclean and therefore not to be eaten. When Pharaoh finds a live frog in his challah, another symbol of Sabbath purity, the idea of eating unkosher food might well arise.[24 ]In any case, the notion of ingesting a living frog harkens back to the legend that the frogs croaked from within the bodies of the Egyptians. Though repulsive, these associations brought forth the deepest laughter and glee from audience members. For Bakhtin, the incorporation of opposite poles into one body is seen as profoundly positive, corresponding to the lived experience of ‘the folk’. Judging by the squeals of delight and the receptivity of the spectators to the antics on stage, the use of live frogs as props was experienced as deeply positive by the community members attending this performance. The sense of the grotesque that at times hovered over the action only added to the electric atmosphere of the performance. Precisely because of its strangeness the grotesque is appropriate to the play and to the holiday of Purim. If not during this holiday, when Jews celebrate incongruity and strangeness, by inverting their normal customs then when? Behold, the frogs smote all the borders in Brooklyn. And the audience rejoiced.

Notes
[1] A version of this paper was presented at the ATHE conference in San Francisco in August 1995. I wish to thank Dr. Eli Rozik, Dr. Marvin Carlson and Dr.    Judith Milhous for reading and making many valuable comments on this manuscript.
[2]. Bobover refers to a Hasidic community which originated in Poland in the mid-nineteenth century. Community members who survived the Holocaust relocated to Brooklyn after the war. For a detailed description of the Bobover community and its Purim celebration see Shifra Epstein, ‘The Celebration of a Contemporary Purim in the Bobover Hasidic Community.’ Ph.D. diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 1979.
[3]. Shifra Epstein, ‘Drama on a Table: The Bobover Hasidim Piremshpiyl’. In Harvey E. Golderg (ed.), Judaism Viewed from Within and From Without. Albany: SUNY Press, 1987; 195-217.
[4.] Shifra Epstein, ‘The Celebration of a Contemporary Purim in the Bobover Hasidic Community’. Ph.D. diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 1979, p. 222. For a discussion of the spatial set up accommodating the privileged spectator in the Italian Renaissance Theatre see Marvin Carlson, Places of Performance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989; 136-142.
[5.] For a description of this ritual, called shirayim, see Jerome R. Mintz, Hasidic People: A Place in the New World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992; 277.
[6.] Abraham Knobloch, Meaivdus L’Cheirus. Full text of a video produced by Abraham Knobloch and directed by Moshe Aftergut. New York: Freedman’s Photography, 1992.
[7]. Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 18a.
[8]. After minor earthquakes rocked parts of Israel in 1993, the ultra-orthodox Israeli newspaper Yated Ne’eman published the following pronouncement: ‘When the Holy One looks at the earth and sees theatres, the earth shakes’. Quoted in The Jerusalem Report, 26 August 1993.
[9.] Harold Fisch. ‘Reading and Carnival: On the Semiotics of Purim’, Poetics Today 15, 1994; 55-74. See also N.S. Doniach, Purim or the Feast of Esther: An Historical Study. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society Press, 1933.
[10]. The performance is largely in Yiddish with some Hebrew and English. Translations of dialogue are mine.
[11]. Kier Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London and York: Methuen, 1980; 11.
[12]. Bert O. States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of the Theatre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985; 36.
[13] Jindrich Honzl, ‘The Hierarchy of Dramatic Devices’. In Semiotics of Art: Prague School Contributions. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1977; 118-127.
[14] Karel Brusak, ‘Signs in the Chinese Theater’, In Semiotics of Art: Prague School Contributions. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1977; 59-73.
[15]Daniel Boyarin, ‘ Introduction: Purim and the Cultural Poetics of Judaism - Theorizing Diaspora’, Poetics Today, 15, 1994; 3.
[16] Monford Harris, ‘Purim: The Celebration of Dis-Order’, Judaism, 26, 1977; 161-170.
[17]Exod. 7:27
[18]. Exod. 7:29
[19] ‘u’becha u’beamecha u’bekol avdecha ya’alu hatzfardeim.’ Exod. 7: 29.
[20] Cohen, ed. and trans. The Soncino Chumash: The Five Books of Moses with Haphtaroth. London: The Soncino Press, 1983; 361.
[21]. Freedman and Maurice Simon, ed. and trans. Exodus: Leviticus Vol. 2 of the Midrash Rabbah. London: The Soncino Press, 1977.
[22]. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
[23]. Mary Douglass, ‘The Abominations in Leviticus’. In Purity and Danger. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.
[24] A previous play of the Bobover Hasidim ‘mocked the apparently arcane Jewish dietary laws’. See Samuel C. Heilman, Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra Orthodox Jewry. New York: Schocken Books, 1992; 110

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