Marc Chagall working on the New York Metropolitan Opera’s “The Triumph of Music” (1966). Art © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, Photo © 2017 Isiz-Manuel Bidermanas

LACMA exhibit turns spotlight on theatrical side of Marc Chagall


Marc Chagall is best known for his fantastical paintings of folkloric shtetl scenes, circus performers, flying goats and, yes, a fiddler on a roof. His use of light and color and his romantic portrayals of Eastern European Jewish life have made him a beloved artist.

Lesser known among Chagall’s work are the richly detailed costumes and backdrops he created for ballet, theater and opera companies. Those pieces finally get their turn in the limelight in “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage,” on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) beginning July 31.

“Our desire from the beginning was not just to do another large-scale Chagall exhibition but rather to focus on a lesser-known aspect of his production,” said Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at LACMA.

“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” concentrates on four theatrical productions created over a quarter-century: the ballets “Aleko,” “The Firebird” and “Daphnis and Chloe,” and the opera “The Magic Flute.” All were created during and after World War II while the artist was in exile in New York.

Featured in the show are 145 objects, including 41 brightly painted costumes as well as preparatory sketches and rare 1942 film footage of the original performance of “Aleko.”

Chagall was at the forefront of artists collaborating with the ballet, theater and opera by creating fantastical and visually stunning backdrops and costumes. His work with theatrical companies and opera houses in Russia, Mexico, New York and Paris included painting sets for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes traveling dance company as early as 1911.

Chagall’s costumes for the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris’ “Daphnis and Chloe” (1959)
© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, photo © 2017 Museum Associates/LACMA

“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” was organized with the help of museums in Montreal, Paris and Roubaix in northern France, and with the support of the Chagall estate.

Chagall worked in many formats, including stained glass, ceramics, book illustrations and tapestries. But one common theme was the appearance of musicians. His granddaughter Bella Meyer told the Journal that music always was an important part of her grandfather’s creative process.

“He always had records or a radio in his art studio, and very often worked while listening to music,” she said. “Most of the time, it was Mozart. And he would talk about music. He loved music.”

Meyer recalled her earliest memories of her grandfather.

“We’d go with my mother to his studio, and that’s where he would be,” she said. “After his happy and gleeful welcome, he would sit back and paint. I have many memories watching him paint.”

Barron organized the show with help from the museum’s costume and textile curators, and she leaned on their expertise to display the work.

“It’s one thing to hang a painting, put up a sculpture, do a drawing. But how you present costumes is a very complicated series of decisions that don’t happen at the last minute,” she said.

Barron previously has tapped Los Angeles luminaries like Frank Gehry and John Baldessari to install exhibitions. For this show, she turned to local opera designer Yuval Sharon and projection designer Jason H. Thompson. Sharon is the founder and artistic director of the experimental opera company The Industry and has grabbed headlines for his immersive productions staged in moving cars and at Union Station. But this was Sharon’s first time designing a museum exhibition. Barron wanted to emphasize the theatricality of Chagall’s costumes in a way that looked different than LACMA’s previous costume exhibitions, like “Reigning Men” and “Fashioning Fashion.”

“Yuval came up with this idea, which of course makes so much sense, to actually put them on stages. Normally, costumes are on platforms,” she said. “These are actually real stages with footlights and curtains and sound that comes out of the footlights and floorboards, instead of a painted deck like we usually do in museum exhibitions. So you walk in and there’s no question that you’re in a theatrical space.”

The exhibition is organized chronologically, with each of the four shows given its own area. Each section includes musical accompaniment. Also included are many of Chagall’s iconic paintings of musicians and theatrical scenes, as well as a series of video interviews featuring contemporary artists, costume designers and opera professionals.

Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Russia (present-day Belarus), in 1887. He developed an interest in theater at a young age, creating set designs for the Ballets Russes and murals and set pieces for the Moscow State Jewish Theatre.

He and his family, who were Jewish, fled Nazi-occupied France and immigrated to New York in 1941. The following year, the Ballet Theatre of New York (now American Ballet Theatre) commissioned him to design the scenery and costumes for “Aleko,” a new ballet based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Gypsies” and set to Tchaikovsky’s “Trio in A Minor.”

Visitors may notice a Mexican style in the hand-painted costumes and preparatory studies. That’s because “Aleko” was supposed to debut in New York but union rules didn’t allow Chagall to paint the backdrops himself, so he and the Ballet Theatre completed work on the production in Mexico. It premiered in Mexico City, went to New York and was performed at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 1943.

“Aleko” led to Chagall’s second commission, in 1945, from the Ballet Theatre, of Igor Stravinsky’s iconic ballet “The Firebird,” which had premiered in Paris in 1910 at the Ballets Russes. In grief over the recent death of his beloved wife, Bella, Chagall and his daughter, Ida, threw themselves into the project, designing more than 80 costumes for “The Firebird.” The depictions of animals and monsters were beautiful and strange. It debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York to great critical acclaim.

The eight costumes from “The Firebird” in the exhibition only surfaced thanks to some serious sleuthing by Barron.

In recent Chagall retrospectives, “The Firebird” was represented by only a single costume. The others could not be found. Barron and fellow LACMA curator Kay Spilker, with the help of Bella Meyer, went to the storage archives of the New York City Ballet last summer and located and negotiated the loan of “The Firebird” costumes.

“The Firebird” has stayed in the New York City Ballet’s repertoire with newer costumes. LACMA is showing the originals.

In 1956, the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris commissioned Chagall to design new sets and costumes for Maurice Ravel’s ballet “Daphnis and Chloe.” Based on a story by a Greek poet, the blue and earthy oranges and browns of the costumes and sets were inspired by Chagall’s own visits to Greece.

Chagall’s only opera production was Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for its inaugural season at Lincoln Center in New York in 1967. It was a complex project, with 14 sets and dozens of costumes that took him three years to make.

Chagall’s imaginative work for the stage, along with his many commissioned murals and other decorative projects, helped make him an international celebrity. But to Bella Meyer, he always was just her grandfather.

“I had no idea that he was famous. I was probably a bit naive. There could have been many hints. My mother would take us to every big opening. She would always make sure we would have a nice dress on,” Meyer said. “Everyone would call him “maître,” master. That seemed to me normal, not that it happened to any of us, but I had no understanding that he was known outside of our immediate world. I adored him as a very special, dreamlike, fantastical person. That’s how I always saw him.

“I was a teenager when it dawned on me that he might actually be famous. But he was my grandpa. He was the most humble of people.”

“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” will be on display from July 31 through Jan. 7 at LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.  

Shabbat on Halloween: Horror of horrors or wonder of wonders?


With a borscht-curdling geshrei, Halloween this year falls on Shabbat. On a Friday night, trick-or-treaters, even Jewish ones, will be knocking.

Should we open the door? Or should we be spooked about joining the celebration?

After reading that on Oct. 31, Urban Adamah, a Jewish-oriented educational farm and community center in Berkeley, Calif., would be holding a “Challahween Kabbalat Shabbat” — chanting and meditation plus a potluck dinner and Halloween dessert candy bar — I wondered: Should I have a Halloween Shabbat dinner as well?

Yes, I know that when it comes to costumes and treats, Purim is our holiday, and that Halloween has murky pagan and Christian origins. But the multibillion-dollar Halloween costume, decoration and candy industry has morphed so far beyond that I wondered what I could pull from that bubbling commercial cauldron and adopt to season my Shabbat.

Not that I would want to serve brisket with candy corn, but what about trying pumpkin spice challah? I didn’t have to cast a spell to find a recipe online.

But what to wear, especially since I would be greeting the neighborhood children as they came calling. Could I use the opportunity to dress up as someone more shul-ish than ghoulish?

For ideas, I hit a neighborhood costume warehouse, Halloween City, not expecting much in the way of Jewish population. Was I wrong.

Though a Halloween warehouse will never be confused with a Judaica store, I was surprised by the number of items that with a little imagination suggested ways to remember (zachor) Shabbat on Halloween, and even to keep it (shamor).

Searching for something overtly Jewish, I was disappointed at first, only finding costumes more suited to Catholic tastes. One could dress up as a Blessed Mother, priest and friar, but not a rabbi.

On a nearby rack, though, when I found a Doctor Who costume — a red fez and bow tie — I knew I was in the right place to make a fanciful connection to Shabbat. How on earth? Since according to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “the meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space,” who would be better to have at my Halloween Shabbat dinner than a Time Lord?

Searching further in the area with costumes representing ethnic stereotypes,  I found that one could dress up as a “Big Shot Scott,” a “Mystifying Gypsy” and a “Luscious Leprechaun” complete with a “Want to get lucky?” pot of gold.

The “Tequila Poppin Dude” costume  came with two shoulder bandoliers with shot glass holding loops. Improvising, I figured on Shabbat I could put on the bandoliers and a kippah and be a poppin’ dude, too, only with Manischewitz.

On an end rack I saw some Shabbat potential, at least thematically in costumes based on the short, yellow, one- and two-eyed characters in the movie “Despicable Me.” There in clear packages were a “Minion Dave” costume complete with blue coveralls and goggles, as well as a “Female Minion” costume.

Ahhh, I could have a “minyan” at my Shabbat Halloween dinner — it would even be egalitarian.

Walking past the display of plug-in, animated skeleton fiddlers (from a Sholem Aleichem nightmare?), I found myself in the aisle of ancient get-ups. If I wanted to turn my Shabbat dinner into a toga party or night of Roman-themed excess I was all set. But didn’t we fight a few wars to get away from all that?

On the top of the rack, however, I found a blue and gold Egyptian pharaoh’s headdress.

“That will work,” I thought, trying it on, remembering that in the Shabbat Kiddush are the words “zecher litzeat mitzrayim,” “recall the Exodus from Egypt.”

Walking by an entire area of black and gray fake headstones (there were no Styrofoam pebbles to leave on them), I came to an area that seemed more heavenly.

In recent years, angel wings have become a Halloween costume staple, and the warehouse had an entire display in every shape and color. To begin every Shabbat, my family always sings “Shalom Aleichem,” wishing peace to the “attending angels.” Would they be offended, if in their honor, I wore a pair of wings to dinner?

In the next aisle over I found myself amid costumes for girls and women. Was there something here that would invoke the image of Shabbat Hamalka, the Sabbath Queen, who we greet with song on Shabbat evening?

There were costumes for a woodland fairy, a gothic temptress and a “divine goddess” that included a blonde wig and hair jewelry, but nothing close to what I imagined to be the Sabbath Queen.

Then I realized: With a Sabbath Queen, angels who visit on our day of rest and celebrations of time rather than space, we didn’t really need any help from Halloween to conceptualize the fantastic.

On Halloween, I could set the table with orange plates on a black tablecloth and wear a pharaoh’s headdress. But on that Shabbat evening, as we rise before dinner to face the door and sing the last verse of Lecha Dodi, “Come my beloved,” even if the doorbell rings, do we really need all that stuff to imagine who might appear at our threshold?

Hollywood Costumes from the Golden Age to the present


Chances are, even if you haven’t seen the movies, you can picture the costumes.

Harrison Ford’s fedora and leather jacket in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” John Belushi’s “college” sweatshirt in “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” Eddie Murphy’s fur coats and lavish gold jewelry in “Coming to America.” And Michael Jackson’s red jacket in the music video for “Thriller.”

The designer for these and many other iconic costumes is Deborah Nadoolman Landis, founding director of UCLA’s David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design. She’s also the curator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ newest exhibition, “Hollywood Costume,” which runs from Oct. 2, to March 2 in the Academy’s new museum space in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art-owned historic Wilshire May Co. building, where Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap retrospective took place earlier this year.

“Hollywood Costume” is a traveling show that originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. For the L.A. showing, 40 new costumes were added, for a total of more than 150 original costumes — from Darth Vader’s ominous mask and robe from “Star Wars” to Marilyn Monroe’s dress in “The Seven Year Itch.”

The exhibition begins with the Golden Age of cinema and reaches to the present, with such 2013 releases as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle” and “The Great Gatsby.”

“Dallas Buyers Club,” 2013 Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC

The exhibition also includes a section with specially commissioned interviews between directors and costume designer collaborators, such as Quentin Tarantino and Sharen Davis, who worked together on 2012’s “Django Unchained.” 

Many of the designers featured in the exhibit are Jewish, including Adrian (formerly Adrian Adolph Greenberg), who designed the costumes for 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” and other Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films of the 1930s and ’40s. The “Hollywood Costume” exhibit features the original ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” along with Dorothy’s blue-and-white gingham pinafore dress.

Another is Edith Head, credited as costume designer of more than 400 films, nominated for 35 Academy Awards and winner of eight of them, starting with “The Heiress” (1949) and ending with “The Sting” (1974). Her Oscars will be on display in a special case. 

“I think it’ll be an incredible selfie moment,” Landis joked.

More recent examples of Jews in costume design are Judianna Makovsky (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Hunger Games” and “Seabiscuit”), Jeffrey Kurland (“Inception,” “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Collateral”), Ellen Mirojnick (“Face/Off,” “Speed” and “Cloverfield”), Julie Weiss (“American Beauty,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “The Ring”), Michael Kaplan (“Blade Runner,” “Fight Club” and “Flashdance”) and Albert Wolsky (“Grease,” “Manhattan” and “All That Jazz”), among many others.

Landis is Jewish, too; she grew up among Yiddish speakers in the Bronx and the Catskills, where her parents had a summer camp for deaf children. Her father was chief pharmacist at Bellevue Hospital, and her mother was the principal of the Hebrew Institute for the Deaf in Brooklyn. Her grandfather was an upholsterer; Landis learned to sew from her grandmother, and her parents regularly brought her and her brother to the theater.

One theory Landis offered regarding the prominence of Jews in costume design is that thousands of European Jewish immigrants, beginning in the mid-19th century, passed through Ellis Island and found work in the needle trade. The connection to the garment industry goes back even further: Generations of czars and emperors in Europe stripped Jews of the ability to own land, forcing them to work as tailors or salesmen or bankers and relying on their skill in determining the needs and desires of the majority. Centuries of discrimination accidentally helped them develop the tools needed to advance from factory workers to trendsetters in the worlds of fashion and design.

But does their Jewishness inform their design? “If you read their interviews — as I have, in terms of costume scholarship — you can see their humanity, and their interest and passion for the human condition,” Landis said. “If that doesn’t define Judaism, or should, I don’t know what else does.” 

Designers such as Adrian and Edith Head, Landis said, “always considered the character first, always put story first, always were trying to discover who the people were in the screenplay. And that’s why those movies are so great.”

The exhibition is really about the role costume design plays in storytelling, Landis said, and the importance of substance over style and glamour. When Kate Winslet appears in a sparkling gown at the top of the stairs in “Titanic,” and Leonardo DiCaprio falls in love with her, “That’s the director telling the story. That is not the costume designer showing off the dress.” The exhibition’s real title, Landis joked, should be “Hollywood Costume: It’s Not About the Clothes.”

“Titanic,” 1997

“Costumes should never be seen out of the narrative and dramatic context of which they were originally designed,” Landis said with a laugh. “So maybe it’s a really bad idea.” But the show, she said, is meant to teach people about what makes costumes work — and to remember those outfits that captured our collective imagination.

If audiences can take one lesson home from the show, Landis said, it’s that story comes first. People wouldn’t dress as Indiana Jones or the Blues Brothers (another of her creations) on Halloween if the movies weren’t good. “Costume has to be woven into the narrative,” she said, “in a way that it disappears. Because all we care about, ultimately, is story.”

My last Halloween


These days it creeps up on me like an ache — the occasional pumpkin in a front yard, the synthetic cobwebs in trees, the subtle turn in the weather and, yes, there’s that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the hollowness of those dreams in which you’re lost in a white tunnel, with nowhere to go but forward, though you know that every step will take you farther away from home. 

I know why Lot’s wife looked back. 

From early September, the discussions begin. What am I going to be this year, and when are you doing to decorate the house, and do we have enough candy for the trick-or-treaters, and why don’t you dress up as well — my friend’s mom wears a costume every year and my teacher painted her feet green. Throughout October, negotiations revolve around which stores we’re going to shop at and how many trips we’re going to make and how many hours in total we’ll spend looking for “the same as last year, but different.” My older son is a ninja redux, the younger one wants to dress up as a cowboy, even when it’s not Halloween. My daughter, who likes fine clothes and red lipstick, has been a ballerina three years in a row and wants to be a ballerina again, “only not the same kind of ballerina,” she says, and the boys join in the chorus, “and not a ballerina that has to wear a sweater if it’s cold.” Ninjas and cowboys, needless to say, don’t wear sweaters either. 

Our neighbors are mostly young families with small children. The house directly across from ours is one of those haunted mansions that spits out fog and echoes of laughter, with the shadows of headless corpses popping out of open coffins every 60 seconds. The owners have the whole decorating thing down to an art, so they don’t have to start until the weekend before the big day, but the rest of us, bumbling pumpkin carvers and clumsy spider-web spinners, get to work in mid-October and are still “perfecting” the set at 5 o’clock on the 31st, when the first few kids with their parents appear at the door. By then, my little cowboy has been dressed and ready for a couple of hours already, and has posted himself, basket of candy in hand, in the foyer. The ballerina is waiting upstairs for her cousin, Cleopatra, to arrive for hair and makeup, and the ninja is setting boundaries for me as to how much of the evening’s spoils I’m allowed to take in the name of tooth decay. 

So much of my remembrances of motherhood is traced with guilt — at the mistakes I made thinking I was doing the right thing, the chances I missed because I was focused on the wrong thing, my impatience and arrogance and just plain ignorance. So much of it, too, is condensed into a cluster of midnight feedings and birthday parties, school trips and beach outings and, “Alex, stop working and go to bed”; “Kevin do your homework and go to bed,” seven nights a week. Amid it all, those early Halloween memories sparkle — bright, fleeting, untainted, brimming with anticipation, rife with possibility. 

When did I last put my children to bed with the makeup still on their faces and the candy tucked under their beds? Close the door behind the last trick-or-treater? See the back of that young woman with the long, pale hair and giant angel’s wings? The zombie impaled with a sword and still walking? 

The next morning, the street is strangely quiet. The cobwebs have been cleared from the trees, and the doorbells no longer howl. The haunted mansion has been sold to a less theatrical family, and the basket full of candy remains, untouched, by the front door. The kids have grown up and left home. Oct. 31 is just another day on the calendar.  

It’s not that I have nothing else to do with my time, now that the obligatory visits to the pumpkin patch have stopped. It’s not that I have no identity outside of being a mother. On any given day. I’m a good few months behind on a whole lot of work-related projects, my domestic talents still waiting to be discovered. I can attend to neglected friendships and an ailing social life, spend more time with my parents, travel again with only my husband to places that are not necessarily child-friendly. But even with all that, I feel like a typewriter in the age of Siri: still operational, but functionally obsolete. 

I think that’s why Lot’s wife looked back: to see her daughters one last time and, through them, the part of herself she most liked. 

I do have other things to do with my time, yes. I just can’t think of anything better to do on those October mornings when I drive by the little preschool on my way to the gym and see tall those little fairies and wizards march, single file and effervescent with joy and pixie dust, before their adoring, admiring parents.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

The whole megillah: Ten reasons to love Purim


So what is Purim about? This short guide explains the various holiday traditions and celebrations, as well as a few suggestions of unique and fun ways to partake in the festivities.

1. Megillah Reading

One of four mitzvot, or commandments, on Purim is listening to the reading of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, at night and in the morning. In the tale, Esther, the new Persian queen, saves the Jews from destruction by the evil Haman. When reading the name of Haman and his family — symbols of all the Jews’ enemies — it’s customary to drown it out by making noise, often using groggers, or noisemakers. It is also customary to repeat the happy ending of the story: La’Yehudim hayta ora v’simcha (And the Jews had joy and light).

In conjunction with the community-building initiative Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim hosts its annual multilingual megillah reading, featuring Afrikaans, Klingon and Luganda, among others on March 3. In addition, Ugandan Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and his family will attend as special guests. A noisemaker and mask-making workshop, a pizza dinner (reservations needed) and Havdalah precede the 7:45 p.m. Megillah reading, followed by skits and Israeli dancing.

Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6000 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023, www.bcc-la.org.

Making the joy of Purim accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing, Temple Beth Am is introducing a special PowerPoint presentation of Megillat Esther at their 8:15 p.m. sanctuary service on March 3. At the service, geared for children in the lower elementary grades to adults, sixth- and seventh-graders from Pressman Academy will read the megillah, which will be projected in Hebrew and English, along with graphics, onto a large screen. The program was developed by the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities and is also suitable for the elderly and individuals with learning disabilities.

Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd. (310) 652-7353, www.tbala.org.

For more information about the Orthodox Union program, call Batya Jacob at (212) 613-8127 or visit www.ou.org.

2. Costumes

After the Jews were saved in the eleventh hour from Haman’s evil decree (implemented by King Ahasuerus), the megillah says their world was turned from sorrow to joy: “As the days wherein the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day.” And so Purim is topsy-turvy day, where people — kids especially — dress up in costume. Many wear costumes of characters in the Book of Esther, but others have made it into a generic “Jewish Halloween.”

Adele’s of Hollywood offers a 10 percent discount on all Purim costumes. Choose from hundreds of children’s outfits from newborn to size 14, from $25 to $65. Adult costumes are also available, for sale or rent, from $65 to $150. Open Purim day by appointment.

Adele’s of Hollywood, 5034 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 663-2231. www.adelescostumes.com.

Ursula’s Costumes has 2,000 costumes for purchase or rent. Adult costumes, mostly one of a kind, rent for $50 to $300 (the latter for an elaborate Venetian ball gown). They retail for $30 to $300. Children’s costumes sell for $20 to $60.

Ursula’s Costumes, 2516 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 582-8230. www.ursulascostumes.com.

Etoile offers a plethora of Purim guises, along with hats, shoes, makeup and other accessories. Rent an adult costume from $21 to $400 or more, or purchase one for about $45. Children’s costumes sell for $20 to $60.

Etoile, 18849 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. (818) 343-3701. www.etoilela.com.

3. Shpiels

One of the ways to celebrate the joys of Purim is the shpiel, a comedic performance planned for months in advance that ranges from satires of the original Purim story to skits parodying Jewish or communal life. Some synagogue shpiels use broad humor while others are roasts of the rabbi, president and congregational politics.

At Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, Cantor Marcelo Gindlin adds an Argentine twist to “The Megillah According to Broadway” by New York shpiel-meister and accountant Norman Roth. Featuring synagogue members and fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students, the musical will be presented March 2, following 7 p.m. Shabbat services and a megillah reading.

Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 456-2178. www.mjcs.org.

Boogie with Congregation Kol Ami at “Uptown Shushan, Esther in the Big City,” a full-scale, original Motown Purim production on March 3. The evening begins at 7 p.m. with Havdalah and a megillah reading in Hebrew, English and Spanish, followed by the musical with its cast of 25. Afterward, dance to the cool spinning of DJ Groovy David.

Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 606-0996. www.kol-ami.org.

Come to “Avenue P” at Temple Isaiah on March 3, where Mr. Rogers narrates the Purim story. Esther, Mordecai and the usual cast of Purim characters appear as puppets, along with three sunglasses-wearing, Haman-conspiring camels. Religious school students, with handmade sock puppets, serve as a Greek chorus. “Avenue P,” free and fun for the whole family, follows the 7 p.m. megillah reading.

Temple Isaiah, 10345 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310)277-2772. www.templeisaiah.com.

4. Carnivals

Purim is made for children. And so are Purim carnivals, which feature raffles, games, costume contests, food and fun. But carnivals are not just for kids. Adults can enjoy a little bit of cotton candy, too. While carnivals in the city often are held before the holiday, Purim falls on a weekend this year, and so do many carnivals.

Learn about organizations that tackle poverty, AIDS, illiteracy and other social ills at IKAR’s second-annual Justice Carnival at the Westside JCC and have fun at the same time. The Justice Carnival for Adults on March 3, 8:30 p.m., also features blackjack, Scotch tasting and dancing. For families, the Justice Carnival offers a moon bounce, face painting and spin art, as well as games and food on March 4, 1:15 p.m. $5-$25 (members), $10-$35 (non-members).

IKAR, Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870.

The Tale of the Allergist’s Mother


Shirl Bernheim is sitting in her dressing room at the Ahmanson Theatre, her cane tucked in a corner, preparing to transform herself into the hilariously fierce Jewish mama of Charles Busch’s hit play, "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife."

"I’m getting fapitzed," she says an hour before showtime, patting her blue-white hair and sounding like everyone’s kindly bubbe. Then she shoots a withering look at her costumes. "Here are the shmattes they make me wear," she says with disgust. "The most awful-looking dreck."

It’s the kind of blunt, spunky dig Bernheim has perfected as Frieda, who makes verbal mincemeat of her snobby but famished daughter, Marjorie (Valerie Harper) in Busch’s comedy.

Bernheim, 80, demonstrates the same tough-cookie pluck by performing seven shows a week despite crippling arthritis. But don’t make a big megillah about her age. "So it hurts me, so I get tired, so what?" she says. "I wanted to do this play, whatever it took, because I figured maybe it was my last chance."

When Bernheim — whose previous credits include the off-Broadway "Old Lady’s Guide to Survival" — hobbled into the "Allergist" audition, she wasn’t faking the limp. She’d been out of work for a year after being hit by a car in December 1998, undergoing surgery and three months in a rehabilitation facility. "I thought I’d never walk again, never work again," says the actress, who is divorced with no children. Then her agent sent her the "Allergist" script and she (figuratively) jumped at the chance to audition.

Busch was instantly impressed. "We’d seen some famous actresses, but they were all putting on ‘old’ or making Frieda weepy when it’s only funny if that old lady is lethal," he told The Journal. "Then Shirl walked in on her own cane and she just seemed like the real thing."

Bernheim went on to earn rave reviews (and some of the play’s biggest laughs) with outrageous one-liners such as asking Marjorie’s enigmatic childhood pal (Michele Lee) if she’s a Jew for Jesus. Another quintessential Frieda moment: Telling Marjorie, who’s proposed a trip to Germany, to have pleasant dreams on "pillows stuffed with Jewish hair."

Then there’s the rapid-fire monologue in which the character describes an outraged letter she’s written to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, signed "Hymie from Hymietown." "It’s a bete noire, a black beast," Bernheim says. "It’s hard to enunciate with my dentures."

Nevertheless, her bravura performance prompted Back Stage West to proclaim: "If there’s any justice in this business, this role will propel Bernheim into late-blooming stardom."

Bernheim’s arduous journey began early. As a kid in the Bronx, Bernheim’s mother shlepped her to audition at every radio station in New York. By her late teens, she was studying with the esteemed Russian drama teacher Maria Ouspenskaya. "She wasn’t impressed with me," Bernheim recalls. "She said, ‘Shirl, your voice limits you.’"

When Bernheim’s father, a furrier, heard Ouspenskaya’s assessment, he cut off Shirl’s drama studies. A few years later, the actress married and didn’t step onstage again until her 40s, venturing into a Queens, N.Y., community theater. She finally made her professional debut in a play called "Stag Movie" in 1970: "I played the towel lady in this place where a little Jewish man was shooting dirty pictures," she says. "I was the only person who didn’t take her clothes off."

It took 30 more years for Bernheim to land the role of a lifetime in "Allergist," although the part isn’t without challenges. "The first act for me is always traumatic, because I have a problem getting centered with all the tsuris I have to think about," she says. "So what I try to do is separate that Shirl from the actor, and then I imagine Frieda in her apartment, and I’m transported there, and I’m unhappy, and I’m just waiting to go visit my daughter down the hall."

Bernheim says she identifies with Frieda because "she’s a woman living alone, though I envy her because she has a daughter and a son-in-law and I don’t."

But the play has allowed the actress to forge some surrogate mother-daughter relationships. Costar Lee took her to lunch on Mother’s Day and inspired the audience to sing "Happy Birthday" to Bernheim on her 80th.

Harper, who’s lost her mother and stepmother, says she signed Bernheim’s Chanukah gift, "I love you, Mama."

"The show is exhausting, but Shirl performs with such energy," Harper said.

How does Bernheim accomplish that at 80? "I tell myself, ‘Don’t intellectualize, just do it!,’" she says while starting to fapitz herself in her dressing room. "Because if I hocked it a tchynick, I’d never succeed."