Lena Dunham's Purim Shpiel and 'Two by Two'

By Masha Leon

Published March 07, 2013, issue of March 15, 2013.
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Lena Dunham of HBO’s ‘Girls’ Uncensored at Jewish Museum Purim Ball

Wearing a sleeveless silver-and-black sequined dress that showcased her tattoos, 26-year-old Lena Dunham, creator and star of the HBO Series “Girls,” exclaimed “Welcome to my bat mitzvah!” to the 1,000-strong festive crowd at the Jewish Museum’s Purim Ball, titled “Who Wears the Crown?” Held on February 27 at the Park Avenue Armory, which is as long as a football field, the ball raised a record $1.8 million for the museum. “There is no introduction for Lena Dunham,” proclaimed Claudia Gould, the museum’s Helen Goldsmith Menschel director.

Lena Dunham and Masha Leon
Karen Leon
Lena Dunham and Masha Leon

Guests sat at 10 super long tables — each with 100 place settings — beneath a sea of 25,000 multicolored balloons. Jewish museum chairman emeritus, Morris Offit, presented a silver kiddush cup to honoree Robert Benmosche, CEO of American International Group (AIG) whose daughter Nehama said Offit, “was a rabbi.” Honoree American pop artist James Rosenquist who was presented with an identical cup by Bill Goldston, president and director of Universal Limited Art Editions, proclaimed: “Hooray for Queen Esther and hooray for Claudia Gould who is trying to bring back contemporary art to the Jewish Museum.”

“I’ve decided to tell the story of Purim from the perspective of me at age 6, [as] inspired by 6-year-old Eloise, the [New York] City child who lives in the Plaza,” Dunham said. “I am Jewish, depending on which way you look at things. My mother is Jewish, and you are a Jew if your mother is one, too, at least that’s what the Jews say…. They couldn’t care less who your father is… unless he is on the board of the better New York hospitals…. My father is a WASP; that stands for White Angry Saxophone Protestant. He respects the Jewish religion, but he will not wear a yarmulke. He said it feels like a bird took a s–t on his head.”

Flip-flopping between her precocious 6-year-old persona and herself, Dunham told the crowd: “If anything I say offends you, please don’t f—–g Tweet it…. I was told to come here and make jokes about Jews…. I am a Jew, and it’s all coming from a really good place. At Passover time we make our traditional pilgrimage to the Holy Land — Long Island — …and we eat brisket, and we see relatives who spit food when they talk. In terms of holidays, I prefer Hanukkah to Christmas because there are eight whole days of presents instead of one measly present morning. Most of my friends are Jewish… even the Korean ones…. Things I love that are Christian: Pillsbury dinner rolls, being quiet. Things I love that are Jewish: potato latkes, matzo balls, musicals….”

Finally came Dunham’s take on the Purim shpiel. “It’s on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. Lord knows what that f—–g means. Jesus Christ, am I right?” she said as the audience laughed. “Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people as told by the Book of Esther. Is it just me, or are Jews absolutely always getting delivered? We never had anyone delivered to our house, only Chinese food.”

Backed by a cast of six Purim shpielers— including her svelte mother, artist and photographer Laurie Simmons, portraying Queen Vashti, Dunham made hummus of the Purim saga. She said that Mordechai “is so kosher, if he smells bacon, he begins to drool.” According to Dunham, “Esther does not tell the king she is Jewish, because religion is not something you talk about in mixed company… especially, don’t talk about Palestine at a party… if you don’t know what everyone feels.” She concluded: “There is a Haman and Mordechai inside all of us…. I personally do not support killing anyone even if they planned on killing you first. I think that everyone should just calm down and if there is a murder, please cross that bridge when they come to it. Purim is now like the Jewish Halloween.” Racing up to the stage, Gould gushed: “Lena! That was awesome! Thank you! Thank you!”

Jason Alexander and Tovah Feldshuh Launch a Sidesplitting Ark in ‘Two By Two’

At the Jewish Museum’s 2011 Purim Ball, Jason Alexander (aka George Costanza of “Seinfeld”) told the guests that he would “perform a miracle”: He would recite his version of the Esther-Haman Purim shpiel as he extricated himself from a Houdini replica straightjacket. He did it! On February 15, Alexander pulled off his latest miracle as a farblondzheter, or confused (he was lost in the woods), Noah, builder of the Ark, in The York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series production of “Two by Two. ” Noah’s first mate is the character Esther (not the sexy Purim babe of ancient Persia), played by the inimitable Tovah Feldshuh. Her verbal darts include such zingers as: “Why would God speak to you? My entire family won’t speak to you!” “We don’t have family names, only first names.” And, apropos servants: “You know Nomads, they are always wandering off.” Supported by a delightful ensemble of six actors and five musicians, the production had the audience in stitches.

“Two by Two” is based on Clifford Odets’s “The Flowering Peach.” Peter Stone wrote the book, Richard Rodgers the music and Martin Charnin the lyrics. Charnin directed this production and was aglow at the opening night’s performance. Audience members included Mary Rodgers, widow of the composer, and Elise Stein, whose late husband, Joseph Stein, wrote the book for “Fiddler on the Roof.” In his opening remarks, James Morgan, producing artistic director of The York Theatre Company, said, “’The Flowering Peach,’ which ran 154 performances in 1954 to 1955 at the Belasco Theater, featured [Yiddish theater star] Menasha Skulnik (1890–1970) as Noah.” Should “Two by Two” make a return voyage to any nearby theater, book passage!

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