A Word From the Weiss
Happy Purim, everyone! Here
are some thoughts to chew on while you have a hamantaschen.
During my early childhood, there was a popular TV show called Queen for a Day, in which women would air their tales of personal misfortune in order to vie for that title, along with lavish prizes ranging from washer-dryers
and other household appliances to a night out on the town.
YOU like to be queen for a day?” host Jack Bailey would intone grandly. Then that day’s
contestants would pour out their hard luck stories, and the one deemed most worthy according the studio audience
applause meter would be draped in a sable-trimmed robe, presented with a dozen
roses and a bejeweled crown to wear, and seated upon a velvet-upholstered throne to the accompaniment of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Although that early precursor to today’s give-away game shows went off the air by the time I was 9, I have grown up to earn my own self-actualized version of that
title. That is, every year I get to be queen for a day. And that day happens to be Purim.
I have achieved this coveted honor, at least in
my own mind, not by dishing about my own tales of woe, but by documenting another woman’s heroism. For the past 15 years,
I have written the lyrics to my temple’s annual Purim spiel. Each time, I set the Biblical story of
valiant Queen Esther to tunes borrowed from some popular Broadway musical or other
– or, in the case of last year, to the even more universally popular tunes of The Beatles in a rockin’ Purim extravaganza called “Across the Jewniverse.”
So at least in my neck of the woods – among Reform
Jews in Central Connecticut, that is –
I like to joke that I am the Purim queen.
This year, as it happens, though, for once, I actually did get to play her.
That’s right. I may be a bit long in the tooth to portray this teenaged role model – OK, let’s be honest, a LOT – but this happened to be a special year, and frankly we had no choice.
We had no reasonable choice, that is, because the lovely young
woman named Naomi who had assumed the role for the past two years – never
mind that by last March she was very visibly pregnant – decided she wanted to abdicate her throne this year. And none
of the other potential candidates were much past the age of their bat mitzvah.
When we held auditions back in early January, and our Cantor asked who wished to compete to be our queen for a day, several youthful hands darted up.
Aiming to be diplomatic, she began to explain as
delicately as possible that she wasn’t even going to deign to hear the voices of the many young lovelies who clamoring
The problem was not a matter of
their abilities, because several of them sing like birds.
Neither was it an issue of paying their dues, because at least four of them have been with us
ever since they turned 8, the absolute minimum level of maturity I long ago stipulated for participation.
The real problem, in fact, wasn’t their own ages at all. It was the age of the king.
In the 15 years I have been involved
with this enterprise, the same eminently talented trio of amateur thespians have almost invariably assumed the three lead male roles. Talk about the usual suspects! Although they may juggle from
year to year who plays the fun-loving king Ahasuerus, the villainous Haman, or Esther’s noble cousin Mordechai, after 15 years all three fellows have held each part several time and have by now surpassed the age of 60.
In fact, Fred FitzGerald, the gifted tenor we targeted to reign over the kingdom of Shushan this year, is now in his late 70s. How would it have looked to let him sing upon the bimah of his budding love to a sweet
young thing who had barely reached puberty?
So I dared to interrupt the negotiations that ensued
between the Cantor and the bevy of hopeful young ingénues and put my personal spin on it in the latter’s language.
“Does the word ‘skeevy’ mean anything to you?” I asked the girls.
with no other viable candidates in sight, I assented to undertake Esther’s royal role myself.
Besides, as I mentioned earlier,
this was a special year, and not just because I chose to follow up my Beatles tribute by borrowing 13 tunes from their California compatriots, those famous Jews, The Beach Boys. So I called it – what else?
– “Good CHAI-brations.”
I like to joke that I am the Purim queen, and this year
I may have played her. But the elaborate annual production we rehearse all winter is a completely collaborative effort. And the person who really reigns over that
enterprise, the true queen of Purim, is retiring after this year.
I am referring to our Connecticut synagogue’s incomparable cantor, Pamela Siskin.
is the only thing I do at Congregation Beth Israel. She does many things. Many, many things, in addition to infusing our sanctuary with song, by singing at Friday night services and intoning a world-class “Kol Nidre” on Erev Yom Kippur
And when it comes to Purim, I merely write the lyrics. As director, Pamela does everything
else required to bring my words to life. She stages the entire production, presides over rehearsals, arranges the choreography,
rules on the costumes and props, and comes up with all of the clever shtick that makes my songs jump off the page and onto the stage.
And still I call this a collaborative effort because it takes we two to do this tango (not to mention the extraordinary talents of our Sunday Morning Live Band and the earnest endeavors of our multigenerational
cast, whom I call the Not Ready for Purim Players).
There are many historic Jewish musical teams whose names trip off the tongue.
and Oscar Hammerstein.
Allan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
George and Ira Gershwin.
And although I wouldn’t presume in a million, billion,gazillion years to insinuate that my name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as theirs, I will dare to suggest
that our collaboration is unparalleled… with respect to the extent to which we get along.
As flakey as I may seem to some people, in these pages and
elsewhere, the truth is that I am a pretty exacting person when it comes to many things I undertake.
As for the Cantor, as petite as she may be in stature, she has earned a reputation – at least I have heard this
term be bandied about among congregants more than
once – as an immovable force known as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
Yet in 15 years, I cannot recall our ever having the slightest dispute. Even once.
I attribute that largely to the fact that she doesn’t ever tamper with my words… and I respect her talents
so much that I’m willing to just write those words, then let them go.
I didn’t question it when she insisted that I perform much of my song as Queen Esther, sung to the tune of the Beach
Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” while pretending to speak to all of my friends on my cell phone.
Wouldn't life be nice inside a palace
Maids and servants at my beck and call
And every time I shopped for shoes and dresses
Wouldn’t have to choose. I’d buy ‘em all!
No more always looking poor and
I’d be living life at Downton Abbey!….”
It is always astonishing to me how every Broadway musical I choose seems to incorporate the perfect song for each of
the main characters featured in the Megillah, and the
Beach Boys’ oeuvre was
This year, the departing first queen, Vashti, who refuses to dance naked before all the king’s men, got to sing “Run, Run, Run” to
the tune of “Fun, Fun, Fun.”
Mordechai, who counsels Queen Esther to summon the courage to save the Jews from Haman’s
evil plot, crooned “Help Us, Esther,” to the tune of “Help Me, Rhonda.”
And along with a soulful closing number, “We Are Jews” (to the tune of
“In My Room”), we had a trio of young lovelies sing about the courageous efforts of Esther, “God Only Knows Where We’d Be Without Her.”
That expresses exactly how I feel about Cantor Pamela Siskin.
And so, at the
end of the spiel, before abdicating my throne, I told the hundreds of gathered congregants that I had one more royal decree.
From now on, she will be known not as “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” but rather “She Who Will Be Missed.”
God only knows where we’ll be without her next year.
As for this year, to hear me sing my song as Queen Esther,
click on the following link: https://www.facebook.com/patricia.w.levy.videos/1035121466563180/
A Word From the Weiss
With temps slated to hit an unseasonable 70 here in
the Northeast this week, March seems to be meandering in like a lamb... or a very tame lion. Never mind that a blustery storm at the tail end of last month unleashed winds potent enough to blow down half the fence around our house and rob us of power (including heat and Internet service) for
nearly two days.
Yet after the previous week’s brush
with mortality, I am continuing to maintain my sense of bliss, no matter what comparatively minor inconveniences may blow my way.
And after learning that I don’t have cancer, every advent of adversity now, be it momentary setback or major ordeal, seems supremely minor, if not
insignificant, to me.
So don’t imagine that I’m complaining when I say that I was just too busy with various and sundry obligations to post even a short, slapdash entry last
In fact, busy as I may be, all that I continue to feel is blessed – so much so that I’m beginning
to wonder if my newfound upbeat attitude is creating its own good karma.
Consider this: When my husband and I arrived at our hotel in
NYC last weekend, I walked in to find a sign in the lobby announcing that I was their “guest of
Never mind that I had already managed to nab a king room in
this establishment, a Fairfield Inn & Suites in Long Island City, for an astonishingly reasonable $93
plus tax. The management had elected to honor me with an upgrade to a penthouse room with a sweeping view of the New York City skyline. We were also given coupons for
free drinks at the hotel bar, plus a goody bag full of snacks,
then invited to help ourselves to the
ice cream, beverages, and other
refreshments at the concession stand in the lobby.
What had I done to deserve all this special treatment? According
to the front desk clerk, it was literally the luck
of the draw; my name had been pulled out of a hat. But I suspect otherwise. I believe that my sense of being fortunate is mysteriously managing to beget more good fortune.
And what better fortune could any nice Jewish mom
ask for than to be invited to spend that evening with her daughter, daughter-in-law to be, and a few good friends for a rare girls’ night out on the town? My daughter had promised me all winter that, as a special birthday gift, she would take me to see The King & I at Lincoln Center, a widely acclaimed
production that won the Tony award for best revival of a musical last year.
But suddenly last week she decided to make good on that promise. And having been dealt a clean bill of health, I didn’t hesitate to accept, or need
to be asked twice.
Rather, I am so caught
up now in the spirit of enjoying life while I can that I readily
opted to expand our group, go out to
dinner, and make a fun-filled evening of it.
And I’m happy
to report that the production is virtually flawless. Even if you have seen this classic musical countless times, as I have, and you are able to sing along word for word to single every song –
as a decidedly tone-deaf woman seated behind poor Allegra chose to do, until at its stirring climax, the supremely exuberant “Shall We Dance?,” I finally flashed her the evil eye – it is performed so exquisitely that it set our very souls pirouetting into sheer
In fact, it brought me to a startling realization that I can only sheepishly confess. The next night,
my husband and I took in the favorably reviewed revival of a Sam Shepherd play, Buried Child, featuring a star-studded cast including Ed Harris
and Amy Madigan. And I can say we enjoyed it immensely. But
as a longtime theater buff who generally opts for modern, edgy, off-Broadway productions like that one, now enjoying an extended run at the Signature Theater, I suddenly realized that for me, there is still nothing
more pleasurable than an old-fashioned Broadway musical.
Sue me, sue me, what can you do me? I like thought-provoking, but I love schmaltz.
it’s not just because most off-Broadway productions, like this one, tend to be about poor people having tsuris in such squalid conditions that you go home feeling
miserable for the characters, as well as so grossed out that you want to take
Maybe I’m not as sophisticated a nice Jewish mom as I would like to imagine
myself. Or maybe, in my new spirit of living life to the
hilt, I am letting myself admit that there’s nothing quite as satisfying
as a happy ending or as thoroughly fulfilling as having
That is not to say that my life is suddenly filled with nonstop fun.
On the contrary, as I said, I have been busy busy busy. Too busy to even write.
morning, I had to take my husband in bright and early for cataract surgery. (He says that he now has 20/20 vision and can see me much more clearly than he has in years, which is not necessarily
a good thing.)
And the following morning, it was my turn to host my nice Jewish women’s book group, the Shayna Maidels, for brunch and a discussion of this month’s book, The Secret Chord, a modern reimagining of the life of King David, by Geraldine Brooks.
This was more of an ordeal than it may sound, because it is the duty of the maidel hosting
the meeting to not only prepare brunch-worthy items like my crustless spinach, leek, and goat cheese quiche, but to also do
some research about the book and the author and to lead the discussion that ensues. Although the greatest challenge for me, by far, to be honest, was cleaning
my house sufficiently so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed when they came.
Having to entertain guests now was not exactly ideal timing for me, I must admit, between my husband’s surgery and my son’s impending wedding. But with my son getting married this summer, there
is just no time that is a good time
to entertain guests.
Although as long as my house was relatively presentable for
a change, I chose to invite even more guests, some old friends we hadn't seen in awhile, to come over for Sunday brunch two
The good news is that I managed to do it all, and a good time was had by
all, and after I had tidied it all up again my house was still spanking clean –
so clean that I wish we could celebrate
Passover RIGHT NOW, this very instant, before the clutter creeps back and it gets messy all over again.
But maybe I can manage to maintain the order, along with
my newfound perspective, because having a relatively clean and organized house
is making me happier than ever.
So is taking time off from writing to spend more time with friends, including yet another girls’
night out last week to celebrate my January birthday a little belatedly.
not sure I can get used to all of this happiness. But sounds like I may have to. For when we went out for a delicious Peking duck dinner with yet more friends on Saturday night, the message in my fortune
cookie read (I kid you not), “Long life is in store for you.”
That’s not just good karma. That’s like winning the lottery of fortune cookie fortunes.
And if I’m going to be on the road for that long, well, guess I might as well enjoy the ride.
So bring on the schmaltz and feel free to sing along to this happy refrain:
Shall we dance? Shall we dance? We shall dance!