How was the holiday of Purim celebrated back in Europe? This funny childhood memory is one of the tales told by award-winning storyteller Roslyn Bresnick-Perry in her new collection, "I Loved My Mother on Saturdays" and other tales from the shtetl and beyond.
There is a section of this story in which I enumerate all the delicacies that my aunts and grandmother prepare for the holiday. I relate how I pestered them to let me help them in all they attempted to do. Then I ask in the story, "So what could my grandmother do?"
At one performance, before I could give the solution, a man yelled out from the audience, "Give you a good spanking!"
"Yes," I answered him, "but then you wouldn't have a story." -RBP
Purim is coming--you can smell it in the air. Even the snow, hard-packed and glistening in the sun, feels it and cries a little, making puddles in the well-worn pathways. Poor snow; it knows that if Purim is here, Pesakh can't be far behind, and it brings with it the sweet and glorious spring. Soon the rains will come and turn everything to mud. Purim is coming, and the long winter with its boring nights and icy days is just about over.
There is lots of gay talk in my grandparents' house. Everyone is busy preparing for Purim. Everyone is busy writing, making lists. My grandmother and my mother are making a list of all the ingredients needed to make and bake all the Purim delicacies. Teiglakh, cakes, tarts, cookies in all shapes and sizes, scones filled with prune jam or currants and, of course, those tasty, gooey hamentashen. My aunts Liebe and Shushke are compiling lists of who is to receive shalakhmones, gifts of delicacies exchanged by one family with another. My mother and my grandmother really have the final say on this matter and will no doubt rearrange the names.
My uncle Avrom-Layb has enlisted the services of my Aunt Fiegel to help him write a new version of the Purim Shpil, which will then have to be presented to the Dramatic Society for approval. My uncle is a gantzer makher, a big wheel in this society, which can boast of the best and the brightest young people of the shtetl.
This dramatic group was originally organized to perform Bible stories like "The Selling of Joseph," or the story of Hanukkah or Purim, told through satire. But it expanded its repertoire with the influx of more educated, more enlightened young actors. It now performed Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov in Yiddish. There was always a charge to attend a performance, and the money would go to support the town library. During Purim, however, the actors put the money given to them by the householders in whose homes the story of "The Megila of Esther" was performed into a fund for the needy of the shtetl, for Passover provisions. And I, Raizelle Kolner, was part of this troupe!
How did this all come about, you may ask? Well, if you'll give me a moment of your time, I'll tell you about it.
Since my father was in America, and although my mother and I lived in our own apartment, my mother, who was the oldest of four sisters and one brother, practically lived in my grandparents' house. And, since she was always there, where should I be if not with her? I was the only grandchild and smart for my age, so I became the pest of the entire household. But before holidays, even those saintly people gave up on me. I was constantly underfoot, involving myself in all the intricate preparations that were being planned for the holiday celebration.
Imagine having a child of six declaring loudly that she wants to mix the poppy seeds with the honey for the hamentashen, knead the dough for the challah, fill the scones with prunes and press the cookies!
Well, my grandmother is no one's fool, so she sends me off to my Uncle Avrom-Layb, whom I adore. And no small wonder, because to me he has all the qualifications of what God must be like. Tall, blond, handsome, full of fun and stories. Besides which he is a hero to all the young ladies of the town. Wasn't he always the most important character in the plays? Didn't he always have the biggest parts? Boy, I sure was lucky to have him as my uncle. (A fact which my cousin Zisl, on my father's side, used to tell me whenever she went with me to my grandparents' house.)
So what was Avrom-Layb going to do with me? As usual, he hit on a most ingenious plan. Since I had a very loud voice and was not ashamed to use it, he decided to dress me up as a Purim Shpiler, a little raggedy clown with a grogger, a noisemaker, in my hand with which I called the people gathered to see the Purim Shpil to attention. When I had them listening, my uncle would give me a sign, and then I would call out loud and clear, "Zietye Yiden sha un shtil--mir haben on de Purim Shpil!"
Then after the play was over, I would bow graciously to the audience and say, "Hynt iz Purim, morgen is oys--Git undz a grosen un varft undz aroys! Today is Purim, tomorrow it's done--Give us a penny and tell us be gone!"
I would then take my cone-shaped hat, which had a large red pompom on it, turn it upside down, and use it as a bag to collect the money. The Purim Shpil was always a hit, and my participation in it was not only an asset to the company, but it was also a great relief to my mother and grandmother, because I wasn't underfoot.
The last Purim Shpil I was involved in was a most memorable occasion. Actually, it is really the reason why I am telling you this story.
For that year's Purim Shpil, my uncle had a brand-new scenario on the megilla story.
That year, it seemed that the beautiful Esther had a heretofore unknown boyfriend who was broken-hearted that she had allowed herself to be talked into applying for that beauty contest by her uncle Mordekhai. Now that she had actually won it, he decided to confront Mordekhai himself about Esther's Ahashverus. My uncle Avrom-Layb, who always played Mordekhai, was now playing the broken-hearted boyfriend.
There was, however, a subplot to that Purim Shpil. You see, my uncle was himself courting a girl who was considered to be a great beauty. Not only was she beautiful, but her father was one of the wealthiest men in the shtetl. He did not look too kindly on this modern notion of his daughter going out with young men, especially those whose yikhes (status) was not to his liking.
I had often heard my family joke about my uncle's romance with this rich girl, whose name by the way was also Esther. They did not take it seriously. My uncle, after all, was all of seventeen years old. But to him, it was a painful situation.
Well, to continue with the Purim Shpil. After going to several homes and performing this original version of the Megilla, which by the way was greeted with much fun and laughter, we finally came to the home of Reb Fievel Rosenfeld, the owner of the one factory in the shtetl, a tannery in which my grandfather worked. He also happened to be Esther's father.
Reb Fievel, his wife and children, along with other family members, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and cousins, were seated around a large table, heavily laden with the best that Purim offered. The beautiful Esther, my uncle's love, was seated at her father's side.
When the play began and Reb Fievel became aware of what was now going on in the Purim Shpil, he got up from the table and asked if he could take over the role of Mordekhai. Since everyone knew the traditional story, this was not such a far-fetched request. However, with this year's additional character of the boyfriend, everyone waited for the unexpected. The actors all looked at one another with meaningful glances. What was now going to take place was a play within a play. Avrom-Layb was now going to plead his own case. But how should I, a child of six, understand all this?
Reb Fievel was in great humor, enjoying every minute of my uncle's pleading for his Esther. Everyone was in stitches, everyone was laughing, but not me. I forgot all about Purim, I forgot all about the play, all I heard was my uncle's voice, all I felt was my uncle's pain. Then when Reb Fievel called his daughter Esther over and asked her if she would rather marry this penniless boyfriend instead of the great king Ahasverus and thereby save her people, and when she answered without a moment's hesitation that she would rather marry the king, I jumped up, ran over to my uncle and cried out with all the soul in me, "Don't feel bad, Avrom-Layb. You don't need her. Just wait for me to grow up, and I will marry you, I promise, I promise!" I then started to cry as if my heart would break.
My uncle grabbed me in his arms, hugged me close, and to the accompaniment of the raucous laughter of everyone in the room, I buried my head deeply into his shoulder.
"Raizelle," said my uncle, "it's only a Purim Shpil!"