new york city -- the sign says Thou Shalt Not Park Here. We've arrived in front of the synagogue. It's Purim, the wildest of Jewish festivals in a religion that likes to keep up with the times, in a city that likes to burst boundaries. Anything can happen.
Purim's got everything you want in a Jewish holiday: a hero queen, a playboy, a villain and special treats in the form of fruit-filled cakes.
Plus -- and here's the biggest attraction -- it's the only Jewish holiday that specializes in spectacle. You must tell the story of Esther in what's called a spiel, a play with actors and audience in costume. And you must get so drunk that you can't tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. All of which is sorta like saying, "Go nuts."
I can feel it happening sitting in the fifth-row pew. The rabbi races through the service at a laughable speed, anything to get to the main event -- the Purim extravaganza.
Time to pass out the noisemakers, called gregors, that are supposed to be sounded whenever the villain appears.
"Puh-lease, parents, can you get your kids to keep the gregors quiet," says the rabbi. I look around. It's the parents testing the toys who are making most of the high-pitched clamour of clattering metal.
Finally the show begins. Two women from the choir enter in country-music costume. The rabbi introduces King Ahasueros, your basic party animal, who calls out wife Vashti to dance for his guests. No, no, she says.
She proceeds to sing a song from the musical Annie Get Your Gun -- which, not coincidentally, is currently in revival on Broadway -- with the words rewritten to match the scene. You Can't Get A Man With A Gun turns into You Can't Let A Man Run Your Life.
The king banishes Vashti and commissions a beauty pageant so he can choose a new wife. Enter one of the men from the choir and the cantor, the traditional holy singer, in drag. He is especially vivid in a denim skirt, cowboy boots and long blond braids. He/she is Esther and gets chosen by the king, who sings The Girl That I Marry and plants a kiss smack on his/her lips.
I am slightly in shock. OK, in T.O., at the very secular Morris Winchevsky Centre, gay boys happily cavort at Purim in dresses. But only in New York does Purim give permission for this kind of transgression in a synagogue.
The rabbi forges on. By the time the story's been told, the villain Haman has sung Anything Jews Can Do I Can Do Better as the gregors clickety-clack, Esther's saved her people to the tune of I Got The King In The Morning, and the kids have turned the centre aisle into a roller derby rink.
It all ends with the cantor, still in denim and braids, singing the prayer over the wine with the children sitting at his feet.
Days later, entering the Jewish Museum, I'm approached by a guy handing out leaflets and bellowing biblical quotes. He wants to lead me to Christianity. Who is he kidding?, I think to myself as I head into an exhibit of pre-Holocaust paintings. I've just seen a cantor in drag. Jesus freaks haven't got a chance.*
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