July 18, 2019

Purim Spiels: Going Behind the Curtain

The Shushan Channel spiel. Photos courtesy of Rob Kutner

 Several months before most Jews start to think about Purim, there are those who pay special attention to the world around them, the cultural themes and products of the moment, the politics and social proclivities. These Jews are the comedically inclined creatives who feel Purim approaching in their kishkes. They are the ones who craft sketches, song parodies and Purim-based satire to entertain their communities.

Longtime spieler and comedy writer Rob Kutner first caught the spiel bug while studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem between college and the start of his professional comedy writing career, making him perhaps “the only person in history to be studying Mishnah while simultaneously writing a spec script for ‘Frasier,’ ” he said. The Pardes spiel was “a way to join the two halves of my brain,” he said. “It was my ad d’lo yada (“until you don’t know the difference”) moment, except instead of conflating Haman and Mordechai, it was ‘sacred text’ and ‘funny sketch.’ ”

When Kutner moved to New York in the early 2000s to write for “The Daily Show,” he had to leave his L.A. spiritual home, “my beloved Shtibl Minyan,” and “hit upon the idea of staging my own spiel (The Shushan Channel) with professional actors and writers as a way to create my own community. You know the saying: ‘If you grog it, they will come,’ ” he said.

Thanks to Kutner’s “Daily Show” connections, he was able to recruit guest performers like Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry and Ed Helms to read the Purim story and deliver an unfiltered comic take on the Megillah in a segment called “The Goyish Rebuttal.” One year, he had his “Daily Show” colleague, comedian J.R. Havlan, do the rebuttal, except he forgot to tell Havlan what happens when you say “Haman.” 

Jews are people of the book. We are storytellers. Coming together for Purim to laugh and play and remember is exactly what we’ve done forever to keep our spark alive.” — David Schwartzbaum

“This is literally my office-mate from work, he’s doing me a favor and I put him in front of a crowd who’s repeatedly booing him at what seem like random times!”

A few years in, I became involved in Kutner’s production, first as a volunteer, then as a writer and “sort-of” (not very good) very occasional actor. My spiel journey has continued for the past several years at IKAR; our writers convene at Bibi’s Bakery about six weeks before the holiday, so that resident baker and funny man Dan Messinger can be part of the comedy collusion. Our table has writing and production alumni of TV shows past and present, and a few comedy civilians, either recruited or self-selected into the creative company. 

Actress Rena Strober, who directed and performed in last year’s Temple Israel of Hollywood spiel, is helping to create this year’s spiel at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where she will play “The Marvelous Mrs. Shooshan.”

“I love telling Jewish stories through song, scene and sometimes comedy and dance,” Strober said. “It makes it more enjoyable for people of all ages to connect to the people of our past.” 

Lizzie Weiss, Cantor at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (TEBH), called the spiel “one of the best tools of engagement” because it’s supported by kids and parents alike. This year TEBH’s musical theme is Bruno Mars; previous spiels have featured the music of the rock group Queen or the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”  

“In a Reform congregation, we are cognizant that people aren’t always aware of the Megillah,” Weiss said. “The music of ‘Hamilton’ was the magnet we needed to attract kids to this awesome community event and ‘sneak’ in the wonderfully tumultuous story of Esther.” 

“Jews are people of the book. We are storytellers,” said comic and actor David Schwartzbaum, who will be spieling this year at Open Temple in Venice and Temple Israel of Hollywood. “We’ve passed down our story for thousands of years. Judaism is a communal religion and we come together in times of grief and in times of joy. Coming together for Purim to laugh and play and remember is exactly what we’ve done forever to keep our spark alive.” 

Jenna Turow, a student at and spieler for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, started spieling after years of writing and acting in sketches and song parodies at camp and in United Synagogue Youth (USY). 

“It makes me feel more connected because it’s a chance to get everyone to laugh, especially at themselves,” Turow said. “I love making people laugh, and encouraging people to not take themselves too seriously. Plus, I feel that I can properly toe the line between appropriate jokes and pushing the limit, [which is what] Purim is all about.”

Turow also found spieling, and Purim in general, to be really helpful while dealing with her mother’s terminal illness. “It is a blessing to be given the responsibility to cause joy for myself and others,” she said. 

Spielers are divided on their approach to incorporating politics. Weiss recalled the 2018 Purim season, which came at the height of #metoo-related conversations. TEBH Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron created a monologue by Vashti as “a pivotal teaching moment,” she said, which addressed “what it meant when Vashti said ‘no’ and when Esther used her femininity to further the cause of the Jewish people. Although Purim can be a time of blurry-eyed drunkenness and hysterical laughter,” she said, “there are always teaching moments for our kids and teens.”

Turow tries to avoid politics in the spiel, “because I’d rather focus on things that we can laugh at more recklessly, without the worries of everyday life creeping in,” she said. 

Kutner includes political references, but avoids entirely political spiels.

“Not to avoid taking a side,” he said, “but because I feel we’re already drowning in that, and Purim is supposed to be an escape.”