Thursday, March 24, 2005

For tonight we'll merry merry be

Hey, all. Hate to leave you hanging in the middle of the meme thing, but I'm taking a break tonight in honor of the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Yee-hah! Sound the graggers! Wear the costumes! Eat the hamentaschen! Be the silly!

There was a big thing at our synagogue tonight, but we didn't go. It gets kind of crazy, and I'm sick, and we're all pretty beat. Instead, MG opened up the package which arrived today from Savta: an entire set of Purim finger puppets! AND a set of three Purim-character masks. The perfect present for our girl. MG assigned parts and we acted it out as a finger-puppet play. Naturally, she snagged the part of Brave Queen Esther. Renaissance Woman was the wise and virtuous cousin Mordecai, and guess who got to play the wicked Haman [booooo!]?

Well, it is a juicy role. I doubled as the dopey King and had a good time with it.

One thing I've noticed about Purim these days, even the version MG learned at Hebrew school: it's been totally cleaned up, with all references to death removed. Instead, wicked Haman's plans consist of vaguely "sending the Jews away," and when his scheme is foiled, he has to "go away" instead. In the real version, he plans to massacre the Jews, and hang Mordecai on the gallows, but instead he is hanged on that same gallows himself! Boo Haman! Yay Esther!

Even the songs have been changed. Check it out:

Here's the popular Purim song "Once There Was a Wicked Wicked Man," as I learned it in the dark days of the '70's.

Here's the version currently being bruited about. [warning: music will play!]

Okay, I can see how the original is kind of...bloodthirsty. More than I remembered, in fact. ("A little hanging party"? Sheesh!) And I understand not wanting to teach vengeance as a value, or scare little kids with tales of genocide narrowly averted (which is what Purim is, when you strip away the farcical court story).

But I was brought up short by the contrast. I mean, if the Jews are going to be killed, the stakes are so high! Of course Esther has to try to save them, even if she might die herself in the process! If they're just being, um, "sent away," the whole premise kind of sags. More niceness, less drama.

It made me think about fairy tales and traditional stories in general: is there a compromise between bloodthirsty and bloodless? And what about the authenticity factor: how much can you change a traditional story (Biblical or otherwise) before it's pointlessly distorted? Or is this phenomenon just part of the folk process in action? Maybe there's a time to tell a softened version, and a (later) time to tell the "real" version?

Where do you fall on the continuum? What old stories do you tell your kids, and how do you change them?


Blogger That Girl said...

This is one of the things I have studied my whole life - how fairy tales evolve and cross-culture stories.

Most cultures/generations change stories to reflect the fears of the time. Maybe with Israel in its second generation non-Israelite Jews are much less afraid of genocide.

It's just an ass-theory.

Much as I loathe Disney I much prefer their version of most of the fairy tales.

6:14 AM  
Anonymous Robyn said...

i noticed it too when we went to tot shabbat last weekend. that the jews were to be sent away instead of killed. but i figured...that this was the pre-school crowd..and maybe the rabbi was giving it a G-rating?

Harris had his first hamantaschen last weekend too at tot shabbat. he was all into it being a triangle...and making triangle shapes with his hands. so cute!

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Ellen Kushner (Mermaid Girl's Honorary Great Aunt and actual 2nd Cousin or something) said...

I am appalled! I think children should be scared - and inspired - by tales of genocide narrowly averted. It's the whole Bettelheimian (and now Terri Windlingian) "Fairy Tales are Good" argument again, ain't it? See Terri's Endicott Studio for Mythic Arts site:

. . . Now I understand a little better why the Young Folks at my "Esther: the Feast of Masks" performances look so grave!! They really don't know the real story...?? What is the point of having the Megillah doggedly read aloud in the synagogue for hundreds of years if we're now going to hand them off a fake translation? Sheesh.

On another note: when we created our show, I found the original words to "Wicked Man" - it's a takeoff on an 18th? century English drinking song, and the chorus is actually:
"For today we'll merry, merry be [i.e., get sloshed a la 18c]
Tomorrow we'll be sober!"

Happy Purim, all. You can read about and actually listen to the radio version of "Esther: the Feast of Masks" (which won a 2004 Gracie Allen Award - how cool is that?!) at

11:01 AM  

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