The Purim Story, Updated
Thu, 03/07/2013
Special To The Jewish Week

Moses never stopped to pray the afternoon service, but that didn’t stop generations of Orthodox rabbis from projecting all kinds of Jewish rituals on their biblical forebears.

In the world of theater, perhaps the most creative blending of different periods of Jewish history is Itzik Manger’s Purim play, in which the characters in the Book of Esther, who lived a century after the Babylonian Exile, were updated to interwar Poland. Directed by Motl Didner, a musical version of “The Megile of Itzik Manger,” last seen on Broadway in the mid-1960s, gets a rare revival this season by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, which is now in its 98th year.

While Yiddish theater was frowned upon in Israel during the state’s first two decades, a musical version of Manger’s “Megile,” directed by its composer, Dov Seltzer, ran for 450 performances in Israel in 1965, before appearing on Broadway and being turned into three films. The musical was first produced by the Folksbiene two years ago,  in a concert version.

Manger, who was born in 1901 in what is now the Ukraine, was the son of a tailor who loved books so much that he called them “literatoyreh,” mixing the Yiddish words for literature and Torah. A celebrated poet and playwright, Manger took biblical stories and recast the characters as Eastern Europeans. Beginning with a series of modernist poems, “Itzik’s Midrash,” he moved on to the Purim story. And for the latter, “Songs of the Megile,” published in 1936, he introduced a character of his own invention, Fastrigosso, who plots to assassinate King Achashverosh as a way of regaining Esther’s attentions after being jilted by her.

In an interview, Didner told The Jewish Week that the “Megile” is “very radical — it opened up a lot of Pandora’s boxes” by putting a contemporary spin on the politics of its time. By modeling his Achashverosh character on Paul von Hindenburg and his Haman character on Adolf Hitler, Didner noted, Manger “created an avenue for satire and gallows humor.” Manger’s fantasy, Didner said, was that the Polish Jews “could work a Mordechai-Esther type intrigue in order to save themselves from destruction.”

Noting that Yiddish theater itself is thought to have originated in the Purim shpiel, Didner compared late Medieval and Renaissance Purim plays to Mardi Gras and Commedia dell’ Arte in their use of tumblers, jugglers, puppets and other fairground performers. “Megile” will thus have a circus theme, since, in Didner’s words, the work “epitomizes the roots of the Purim-shpiel as a big, carnivalesque public celebration.” 

And as Zalmen Mlotek, the Folksbiene’s musical director, added, the musical transcends both the period of the Babylonian Exile and the early 20th century in Poland in order to sp eak to our day. “It’s tuneful and moving,” he said. “It takes the Purim story and catapults it to a timeless place.”

“The Megile of Itzik Manger” runs April 21 to May 12 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave. For tickets, $45-$55, call Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 or visit nationalyiddishtheatre.org