By Arnie Silverman
Secular scholars believe that the 2,000-3,000-year old story of Purim is pseudo-history. In the story, a Persian king chooses the beautiful Esther to be his queen. Keeping her Jewishness hidden, she has an uncle, Mordechai, an avowed Jew who earns the Prime Minister Haman’s hatred and anger when he refuses to bow down before him. In his anger Haman decides to destroy not only Mordechai, but to annihilate all Jews in Persia. Haman tells the king “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them”. The king agrees to have his Jewish subjects exterminated.
Now, to save her people Esther reveals to the king that she is Jewish. Shocked into new understanding, the king orders Haman hanged on the gallows originally built for Mordechai. But he is powerless to reverse his genocidal edict, so instead he allows the Jews to arm themselves in self-defense, and on the day of the planned extermination, they slay Haman. A great, inspiring story for orthodox Jews who still lamented the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, I remember it’s also being inspiring to me growing up in the ‘30s with fear from the rantings of Adolf Hitler.
All of which brings me to my story. We lived in Washington D.C. during the ‘30s, and were members of a congregation there. When considering my present secular state of mind, you may not believe it, but I was a devout Hebrew student then. I would play my games – baseball, football – after school, and walk the close to two miles to the temple for Hebrew classes (I had knees then). Sometimes in the hot, humid spring or summer after an afternoon of tackle football, I would arrive sweaty and turf dirty, but my teacher did not mind. If I was prepared for the lesson, it was okay.
Now, one year, 1937 or ’38 the rabbi and faculty decided to put on a Purim play. It was going to be a modernized version of the Purim story using current dress and substituting a caricature of Hitler for Haman. After innumerable failed requests for volunteers, I offered to play the Hitler/Haman character. I was given my lines and with my then memory, learned them that night. After several rehearsals, the rest of the cast and I were ready.
The first day of Purim arrived. Late that afternoon my father drove me to the temple, and dropped me off. The rabbi greeted and escorted me to the dressing area where I was advised to get into my uniform, a homemade, storm trooper jacket and cap. They then subjected me to my first (and last) thespian make up experience. With my hair combed forward over my eyebrows (I had hair then), and a glued mustache under my nose, I was shocked to see the Adolf resemblance.
The temple filled; the play started. In the second scene I was to enter the home of a Jewish family and arrest them. After pleadings from them, I was to be offered a hamentaschen cake, a traditional, fat/cholesterol-filled sweet bun with all kinds of fabulous fillings, guaranteed to cause immediate cardiac arrest. The taste of that morsel was to be so spectacular that I am persuaded to order my “men” to release the family, and leave the premises.
On cue in my Nazi-like uniform I angrily burst into the family’s room and ordered my men, “Do your duty with these Jew dogs! Arrest them all!” The wife of the family pleads with me and begs for mercy. She offers me the poppy seed-filled delicacy, and asked me to try it. I do, but I take too big of a bite, and the sticky poppy seed filling locks in my throat. I can’t speak, and the damned filling is starting to choke me. The startled, petrified “wife” of the family looks at me in terror and anger waiting for my next line, but I can’t get it out. I feel some of that terror too when I start to hear some twittering from the audience. Finally, one of the other kids (one of my “men”) sees what is happening, and in the great tradition of the theater, comes over to me, slaps me on the back, and asks, “Sir, shall we let the prisoners go?” His slap helping to dislodge most of the food in my throat, I was able to spray a moist, poppy-seeded “Yes, let them go!” all over the poor “wife”, and marched off the stage.
Although I received much praise for my performance, the “wife” of the play remained angry with me. As a matter of fact, she did not speak to me for the rest of my stay there. Even my father congratulated me, and effused about my performance with my mother. I cannot remember why she did not attend that night; I guess she did not know what a great actor I was. Then again, Hollywood never called, so maybe she was right.
If you’re a Jew have a happy Purim. If you’re not, have one anyway. (Purim begins at nightfall, Saturday, Feb. 23.)
Arnold Silverman, commander of the Laguna Beach VFW Post 5868, served in the Korean War