Itzik Manger and his Purim Shpil

This is the translation of the speech which Michèle Tauber delivered at the presentation of the Purim Shpil Unesco project at the City Hall of Paris, on December 12, 2013.


 

Dos lid funem loyfer
“Zayt-zhe Yidn sha un stil!
Mir fangen on dem Purim-shpil.
A Purim-shpil in gramen,
Vos hot toyznt tamen.
Ver s’vet es leynen,
Vet vi a biber veynen.
Un ver s’vet es hern,
Vet lakhn mit trem.”
The Song of the Herald
“Hush, Jewish friends, be still
As we begin the Purim Shpil.
A Purim shpil in rhyme,
One that is truly sublime.
Those who choose to read the skit
Will laugh until their sides split.
And the cheeks of those who prefer to listen
With tears of laughter will glisten.”

 

 

The opening lines of a Purim shpil dating back to the 17th century, might you venture to guess? Not at all! It’s actually one of the most recent Purim shpils. The text was written by Itzik Manger in Warsaw in 1936 and subsequently adapted as a musical comedy in Israel.

But who is Itzik Manger?

He was born in 1901 in CzernowitzCurrently Chernivtsi in western Ukraine., the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural capital of Bucovina, then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The family home, where father and sons worked as tailors, was steeped in Yiddish literature and folksongs. Itzik’s father, Hillel, a poet in his own right, coined a Yiddish phrase which possibly served to inspire his son: those who write literature and study Torah deal in literatorah!

Later on, having discovered the heritage of Yiddish songs through his contacts with the Broder singersJewish itinerant performers in Eastern Europe. and the poet-troubadour, Velvl Zbarzher, Manger went on to write his first poems. In 1935, he discovered a new poetic genre. The Songs of the Pentateuch, followed one year later by an adaptation of the biblical story of Esther, The Songs of the Megilla, considered to be a modern day Purim shpil.

In 1951, Itzik’s Midrash was published; a work which encompasses the entire biblical works of Manger, including Songs of the Scrolls.

In Judaism, the midrashThe body of homiletic stories told by Jewish rabbinic sages to explain passages in the Bible. reconsiders biblical life by updating and enhancing the texts handed down over the generations while retaining their original meaning. Manger thought of himself as continuing this tradition insofar as the midrash he composes is one of his contemporaries, those educated – like himself – in the Yiddish language. In the style of the ancient midrashim, he assumes responsibility for his text by signing his name to it, Itzik’s Midrash and turns it into a work of art.

As for the Bible, it was read to him in Yiddish by his mother. To him, the Bible is a reflection of Yiddish, both the vernacular language and the written language. Insofar as it is a Jewish language, Yiddish contains all the codes of the tradition by virtue of its Hebrew components. Because he sees the Bible through the prism of Yiddish and Yiddish literature, Manger succeeds in removing the Bible from the historic sphere and making it a part of the everyday Yiddish speaking universe.

Manger transplants biblical characters and events in the spirit of his own times and employs numerous details to place them in the universe where he grew up. For example, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, becomes Reb Modkhe, the form of address commonly used by Eastern European Jews. As both a shadkhnmatchmaker and shtadlnmediator, he embodies two quintessential comic figures of the Yiddish literary tradition.

Manger adapts the natural and cultural decor as well as the traditional dress codes and eating habits of the original text. Queen Vashti wears a crinoline, Mordecai shows up with his umbrella, and the evil Haman pours himself “a little glass of vodka and nibbles a warm hamentashLiterally, Haman’s ear.”. The enemy of the Jewish people is portrayed as a Ukrainian who likes vodka and who, in a symbolic and humorous twist, anticipates his own pending doom by eating himself in the form of a hamentash, the traditional pastry bearing his name. The present exists in the past and vice versa. As she marches to the gallows for having disobeyed the king’s orders, Queen Vashti addresses the young tailors and the young girls, “I now leave this place for eternity, but when you play your Purim shpil you’ll speak of me more tenderly.”

In Songs of the Megilla, it is not uncommon for characters to be anachronistically aware of the future holiday of Purim and of their own role in the story as it unfolds. Thus, Mordecai reports on the conspirators who have been plotting the kings’ assassination, “But Mordkhe denounces all that to the tune of the Megilla,” and the poem ends with these words, “[…] the sky is blue, like a prayer./ Only the flies on the wall/ hum the Megilla of Esther.”

Songs of the Megilla is so much in keeping with the theatrical tradition of the irreverent, carnavalesque, parodic Purim shpil that in 1965, the Israeli composer, Dov Seltzer, set the entire work to music. In collaboration with Manger himself, he created a musical version of the play, in other words, a musical comedy: Songs of the Megilla was reconciled with its original purpose, to be played on the stage. The musical comedy was a rousing success when it was first played, in 1965, under the direction of Shmuel Bunim at the Hammam Theater in Tel Aviv. There were over 450 performances. Since then, there have been five new productions all over the world, including at the Golden Theater on Broadway, and there have been three filmed versions. Revivals of the musical comedy are regularly performed on stages in Israel, Paris, Warsaw, and New York. In May 2013, the Folksbine, New York’s Yiddish theater, offered a highly acclaimed production. In Paris, the YIKUT, Yiddisher Kunst Theater, a Yiddish troupe under the direction of Alain Fisher (of honored memory) played large excerpts of the play on several occasions. In Strasbourg, Rafi Goldwasser’s troupe, Der Luftteater, has regularly performed productions of Manger’s Songs of the Megilla by Manger. And, in 2014, Charlotte Messer and her Parisian Yiddish theater troupe, the Troym Teater, will put on Chaim Sloves’ play, Homens mapole, first produced in Paris in 1946 by the YIKUT theater and directly inspired by the Purim shpil.

So, let us go on celebrating the vitality of the Yiddish language and culture with the Purim shpil. Let us act, sing and perform it in every possible way: “Hush, Jewish friends, be still…”

All French translations of Songs of the Megila are the work of Berl (Bernard) Vaisbrot, the son of Kiva Vaisbrot, one of the founders of the Paris Medem Library. Berl Vaisbrot has done an integral translation of both Songs of the Megila and Songs of the Pentateuch. He is presently seeking a publisher…

Michèle Tauber

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