Performing Community Part 2

Posted on March 29th, 2018 by

Article by Avi Y. Decter, former JMM executive director, with Erin L. Titter, former JMM archivist. Originally published in Generations – 2003: Entertaining Maryland. To order a print copy of the magazine, see details here.

Part II: A Long History

Missed the beginning? Start here.

Community performances have a long history in Baltimore, both within the Jewish community and beyond. Documentation of these performances is, however, relatively thin. In the Jewish contact, we know of programs, events, and presentations dating back to at least the late 19th century, but photographic evidence discovered so far carries the story only from the 1910s to the present.

“Biblical Pageant” – Sculptor Ephraim Keyser seated center, wearing a fez. JMM 1995.77.3

One of the earliest photos we have depicts a “Biblical Pageant” at the Maryland Institute around 1913, presumably a program organized by sculptor Ephraim Keyser, then a faculty member at the Institute. But the precise occasion, content, and audience remain obscure.

Members of the Clinton Club, including Shackman Katz, Bertram Oppenheim, Harold Miller, and Emil Rosenthal, c. 1921. JMM 1988.79.19

Jewish social clubs, such as the Clinton Club, organized by middle-class young men and women of German Jewish descent, are known to have produced a variety of entertainments including a burlesque on The   Merchant of Venice. Lester Levy reports in an unpublished memoir that during the 1920s the Junior Assembly, an offshoot of the venerable Harmony Club, created a playlet on Mah Jongg, which at the time was enjoying a craze throughout the country. In this show, Reuben Oppenheimer wrote the lyrics to a number titled “The Only Possible Place”: “You go out to dine and you’re feeling fine/ your tux’s a perfect fit. You meet a friend and you gallantly bend/ and you feel a terrible split/ A rip, rip, rip, a devastating rip/ You’re in an awful case. As you grab for a char, you can feel the cold air/ In the only possible place!” This kind of self-spoofing, like nicknames, simultaneously amuses and reinforces group identity.[1]

Hanukkah play featuring students at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 1972. JMM 1992.108.53

Inadvertent entertainment is a frequent by-product of a common form of community performance – the school play, which parents and grandparents typically attend with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread. School plays, like other community performances, run the gamut. Some are staged by students, others by teachers, parents, and other amateur volunteers, and still others by professional performers. Plays in Hebrew and those on traditional Jewish themes like the Purim story are usually direct (and often didactic) in delivering their moral messages about the virtues of being Jewish and leading a committed Jewish life. For many years, The Associated Players presented a puppet show for children about “the squirrel who would not share.” The theme of philanthropic giving was pronounced and obvious.[2]

HIAS Purim party at Baltimore Hebrew University, 1992, with Rosalie Hollner as Queen Esther. JMM 1995.114.121

Children performing in a Hebrew play at the Jewish Community Center, 305 W. Monument Street, n.d, JMM 1995.98.40

Other kinds of performance assert the importance and persistence of Jewish identity within pluralist, polyglot America. In the Bicentennial year 1976, for instance, the Jewish community was invited to present the essentials of “Jewish American” life at a festival staged at the Inner Harbor. The vehicle chosen for dramatizing the vitality of Maryland Jewish life was “Café Tel Aviv,” where performances of Israeli song and dance celebrated a primary theme of Jewish history and tradition – Zion as the Jewish homeland. In an earlier generation, performances in Yiddish by groups like the Yiddish Folk Theater served a similar function, maintaining continuity with Jewish culture in Europe.

Israeli folksingers at Café Tel Aviv, Jewish American Festival, Baltimore, 1976. JMM 1992.205.56

Within the Jewish community, particular organizations promote the interests of sub-groups, communities within the community, as it were. Congregations, for instance, promote their special position and group solidarity through various kinds of performance. Chizuk Amuno Congregation, long a leading Conservative synagogue in Baltimore, has sponsored numerous performances over the years. Beginning in 1931, the Chizuk Amuno Brotherhood presented an annual play at the Maryland Theatre. Most productions were community theater at its purest, with scripts by local amateurs. The 1933 production, in contract, featured a Broadway hit from 1930 (Mendel, Inc.), written by David Freedman, a writer for noted comedian Eddie Cantor.

Murray Slatkin and Selma Berkow are shown in an episode of the “Eutaw Place Scandals,” a musical revue written by Fred Katzner, which will be presented at the Maryland Theatre by members of Chizuk Amuno congregation, March 1935. JMM 1984.12.5

In 1971, on the occasion of the congregation’s 101st annual meeting, “The Chizuk Amuno Theatre” presented The Building Bug, a farce in one act. In this spoof of the congregation’s long history of dedicating a new synagogue every generation (1876, 1895, 1922, and 1958), Chizuk Amuno celebrated its own vitality and growth. One of several musical numbers went like this:

Contractor, contractor,

Build us a Shule

A Chapel that’s cool

A hip swimming pool

We want Beth Tfiloh and Beth El to drool

So build us a perfect shule![3] 

On another occasion, Chizuk Amuno feted its long-time cantor, Adolph (Abba) Weisgal. A cast of middle-aged men who had studied for their Bar Mitzvah ceremonies with the cantor performed in a musical revue, replete with canes and lapel buttons announcing them as “Adolph’s Boys.” Entertainments such as these mobilized the congregation while boosting morale.

Continue to Part III: Popular Entertainment

 

[1] JMM MS 77 Lester Levy Family Papers, Lester Levy’s Memoirs, n.d., Box 6, Folder 213.

[2] Telephone interview with Carole Sibel, August 13, 2002.

[3] Lyrics for The Building Bug were based on the book by Stanley I. Minch and written by Ronald Israel, Stanley I. Minch, Jerry Cohen, and Gwen Cohen. Courtesy of the Chizuk Amuno Congregational Archives and Congregational Archivist Jan Schein.

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Esther’s Place Comes Alive with Celebration and Noisemaking this Purim

Posted on February 22nd, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Office Manager and Shop Assistant Jessica Konigsberg. For more posts from Jessica, click HERE.

At the beginning of the month, Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker and I embarked on what I’ve learned will be our bi-annual adventure to the NY NOW gift show in New York City. The gift show serves as an opportunity to meet and reorder with existing vendors and to discover wonderful new vendors and products that could enliven our Gift Shop offerings. The gift show was an exhausting and productive experience where we ordered a range of beautiful and inspiring new Judaica, books, games, and gifts.

But more on these items in a future post—today’s post is all about the delightful (and noisy!) new products we picked up for the upcoming Jewish festival of Purim.

This year, Purim begins the evening of February 28 and ends the evening of Thursday, March 1. Purim encapsulates so much of what makes a holiday or tradition powerful and engaging—story, imagination, and liveliness—which is why I’m so excited to celebrate the holiday in the JMM Gift Shop, Esther’s Place.

Purim is celebrated each year on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month Adar and recalls the rescue of the Jewish people from Haman, a grand vizier to the Persian King Ahasuerus during the Persian Empire. Haman was incensed when Mordecai (guardian of the King’s new queen, a Jewish woman named Esther) refused to bow to him and ordered all Jews throughout the Persian Empire killed. Esther later courageously revealed her Jewish identity and successfully implored the King to save her people. The King ordered that all Jews be allowed to defend themselves against their enemies.

The story of Purim is told in the Book of Esther or Megillah, which is read in the synagogue for the holiday. Learn the story in more detail from The Little Book of Jewish Celebrations by Ronald Tauber, available at Esther’s Place (JMM Gift Shop). Or find a helpful overview of the holiday in The One Hour Purim Primer by Shimon Apisdorf, also available in the Gift Shop.

Rejoicing and celebration are key pillars of the Purim celebration so one of our missions at the gift show was to acquire a selection of noisemakers (or “groggers”) and hand puppets to complement our existing inventory of Purim-themed dress-up items and other whimsical gifts. The noisemakers are used to drown out Haman’s name during the reading of the Book of Esther, and make for a fun, seasonal gift for the spirited young (or young-at-heart) people in your life.

The Hebrew word for grogger is ra’ashan, from ra’ash, which means “noise” (thanks volunteer Rena for sharing this with me).

We were fortunate to find several varied options at the gift show, including Haman wood groggers, “Happy Purim” brightly-colored noisemakers, and wooden pop-out hand puppets (my personal favorite of our finds because of their vintage, nostalgic feel). Items now on display in the Gift Shop include a wide selection of groggers, some marionettes, Purim gift boxes, and masks and crowns (which cater to the Purim children’s tradition of dressing up).

We also have several great items left over from last year’s festivities, including, possibly, the noisiest of noisemakers, an elegant wood grogger.

A popular food at Purim is hamantaschen, a three-cornered pastry filled (typically) with fruit and rich with potential symbolism of the holiday. The word references “Haman,” the story’s villain; “mohn,” the original poppy seed filling; and “tash,” the pocket-shaped form of the cookie—and is often translated as “Haman’s pockets.” I enjoy hamantaschen (my husband once charmed me with homemade fig hamantaschen back when we were dating) so I’m delighted to better understand their origin and find a good occasion to make them.

Find hamantaschen and other recipes for the holiday in our beautiful Jewish cookbooks, and gather table-making ideas from our extensive collection of beautiful tabletop items. Stop by and share your own great traditions and recipes with us. Other traditions (in addition to the feasting and festivity) include giving to charity and giving special gifts to loved ones.

Purim is a time for whimsy, rejoicing, and celebrating the resilience of the Jewish people, and we hope you’ll find the perfect holiday gifts and inspiration at Esther’s Place. With just a few more days before the holiday, don’t delay in stopping by to pick up your Purim supplies!

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Mouth full of hamentaschen, heart full of bravery

Posted on March 24th, 2016 by

Whenever I find myself blogging about a Jewish holiday (whether volunteer or voluntold), I always start with Seasons of Our Joy by Baltimore-native Arthur Waskow.

Seasons of our Joy

Seasons of our Joy

When I reviewed that go-to text on Purim, I was struck by this passage on page 118:

“The custom grew of making Purim-Torah—parodying the prayers themselves on Purim night, parodying the rabbis’ Talmudic debates and discussions over how to apply Torah to life-dilemmas.”

And then a few pages later, Waskow writes that in some congregations, after the megillah is read, a “Purim-rabbi—a mock rabbi chosen for the occasion—might give a sermon that pokes fun at established traditions and institutions.”

This idea of a Purim-authority who is a parody of authority, really struck me. In this season of American electoral politics, I suddenly realized that I am waiting for the Purim-candidates to yield the stage to the real candidates. They’re not going anywhere.

Large wooden gragger (noisemaker for Purim), made from solid wood pieces, c. 1900. This gragger was found in the basement of a Highlandtown rowhouse on Fairmont Ave. JMM 1999.162.1

Large wooden gragger (noisemaker for Purim), made from solid wood pieces, c. 1900. This gragger was found in the basement of a Highlandtown rowhouse on Fairmont Ave. JMM 1999.162.1

But that’s one of the points that Purim makes, isn’t it? It’s the holiday on which we are commanded to get so drunk that we cannot discern the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.” But maybe the drunkenness is necessary only to get us to drop our inhibitions that create the difference in the first place. Maybe the equality is always there for us to see, if only we could (indeed, Rabbi Waskow points out that using gematria, the two phrases are equivalent).

And see it we must, as a later passage made plain to me:

When the original history happened, the sublime liberation of Exodus came long before the farce of Purim. But when we finish living that history and begin to learn it, absorb it into our lives, digest it so that we can make a holy future, then it may be important for us to laugh first, to let the farce come first. For power is funny, and those who hold power are ridiculous. The first stage of liberation is that we learn to laugh at them.

But power is also profound, and liberation is also at the root of all the universe. Having learned to laugh, we become ready to seek our freedom seriously. There is a time laugh—and then there is a time to ask questions. (page 127)

Today, for Purim, we eat and we drink to excess. We poke fun at everything—especially authority. And Rabbi Waskow is right. If we can see the ridiculousness in authority, we can hope to challenge it when it oversteps its bounds.  And so, with my mouth full of the taste of hamentaschen, wine, and laughter, I for one, am looking ahead to what will be needed to stand up to Pharoah, to choose right over comfort, and to leave my mitzrayim, my narrow place. I am putting on the costume of Esther’s bravery not to pretend to be something I am not, but to practice being something I know I am.

Pre- School Purim March 1974. JCC Collection, JMM 2006.13.1063

Pre- School Purim March 1974. JCC Collection, JMM 2006.13.1063

And so, dear friends, I leave you with this blessing: may we all use the foolishness of Purim to uncover the righteousness that is already in the world and in us, waiting to be exalted, and may “the memory of Purim never cease from among us.”

Purim Sameach!

Tracie Guy-DeckerA blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

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