By Mark Dreisonstok
Wednesday evening marks the holiday of Purim, a festive day on the Jewish calendar which remembers the biblical Book of Esther. Queen Esther becomes the Jewish wife of the gentile King Ahasuerus, who “set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen,” as we read in the Scriptures (Esther 2: 17). This places Esther in a powerful position to prevent the wicked designs of the villain Haman, who wishes to kill her uncle Mordecai and, indeed, the entire Jewish people: “I and my people [are] to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish,” Esther exclaims to her husband and king (Esther 7: 4), but it is Haman who is defeated and destroyed instead.
In addition to a reading of the Esther narrative from the Megillah or scroll, Purim celebrations traditionally include a “spiel,” that is, acting out the story, sometimes in a humorous way. Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church does so in an innovative and memorable fashion, saluting (as well as parodying!) Broadway and Broadway-style musicals such as (in years past) Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” Recent Falls Church transplant Yoni Bronstein (New York native, son of a Rabbi and Cantor, and with an MFA in acting from Columbia University) has arrived just in time to take on the directorial honors.
The theme Mr. Bronstein has chosen for this year’s celebration is the music of pop star and balladeer Billy Joel. Mr. Joel writes songs celebrating the common man and woman’s experience with life’s loves, challenges, and disappointments, drawing on the musical traditions of rock and roll, blues, and even, on occasion, jazz. His music is about the jostle of life and what one makes of it, as well as the small joys which can be found even in times of adversity. In the current Purim celebration, Temple volunteers enact the Esther story, and for the music of the “Piano Man” (a famous song by, and a sobriquet for, Billy Joel himself) we have as sole musician the Piano Guy, as show pianist Gary Rimar calls himself. Mr. Rimar tells the Falls Church News-Press that he does not try directly to imitate the Billy Joel style but instead improvises on all of the piano work, based off of his own arrangements.
We asked Mr. Bronstein why he has chosen Billy Joel’s music for this Purim Spiel. “The music is fun, approachable, intergenerational, and family friendly,” he tells us. “His music also has drama, and Purim attendees can perhaps relate to this very famous Jewish pop star.” Attendees of this week’s Purim Spiel, however, should not expect the usual lyrics of Billy Joel songs such as “Uptown Girl,” “Moving Out,” and “The River of Dreams.” The lyrics are instead altered in a way to reference the Queen Esther biblical narrative, as well as lampooning the players themselves and even Jewish tradition. Mr. Joel’s “Scenes at an Italian Restaurant,” a three-part ballad encompassing a restaurant visit, recollections of youth, and celebration of love, is here recast with Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus seated at an Italian restaurant, complete with checkered table cloth. There are also the women in the play who hurl insults at the villain Haman (anachronistically) in Yiddish!
On the point as to whether this satiric approach is irreverent of a classic and indeed holy text, Mr. Bronstein provides a thoughtful answer: “The Book of Esther is a biblical soap opera, but one with high stakes. This is about an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, and the spirit of Purim is one of laughing in the face of evil.”
Last year’s Purim Spiel at Temple Rodef Shalom was conducted virtually, and whether or not this year’s event would be live was “touch and go” until the very last minute. Fortunately, as it turns out, it is live in the sanctuary of the Falls Church-based synagogue, and this year’s stars (including Jen Jacobsen as Queen Esther, David Steinhorn as King Ahasuerus, Larry Chalmer as Mordecai, and Jason Steinbaum as Haman) are happy to share the festive spirit of Purim with the congregation.