Jewish Museum Hosts Masked Purim Bash

By Masha Leon

Published March 18, 2005, issue of March 18, 2005.
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In concert with its new exhibition, “The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons,” the Jewish Museum’s March 2 “Gala Salon” Purim Ball labeled tables with the names of four of its 14 salonières — Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn), Berlin; Gertude Stein, Paris; Florine Stettheimer, New York, and Berta Zuckerkandl, Vienna. Masked arrivals such as Warren and Andrea Grover, and Mimi Alperin, wife of museum board President Barry J. Alperin, added the cachet of a Venetian Ballo in Maschera to the gala.

“I come from a little shtetl in Eastern Europe,” said honoree Fanya Heller, museum trustee, philanthropist and author of the new autobiographical “Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoir” (Devora Publishing). “After… [the war] I was looking for a place.… Art was healing.… My first trip was to the Jewish Museum, where I was welcomed by Morris Offit… and by [museum director] Joan Rosenbaum.” Also honored were museum trustee Barbara Horowitz and author and lecturer Francine Klagsbrun.

Concocted by writer/playwright Paul Rudnick, the ball’s Purim shpiel ran as follows: Ancient Persia’s king, Ahasuerus, aboard the Carnival Cruise ship, “S.S. Nosh,” calls for his wife, Vashti. Immobilized by a full-body Botox treatment and too busy with Fashion Week, she refuses his bidding. Bad move. He orders a pageant of all the beautiful virgins in the land. Rudnick said, “Mordecai tells him, ‘I know a beautiful Jewish virgin; my niece, Esther,’” whom he dubs, “Our Grace Kelly, our Diana, [who] then marries the king.” The vizier, Haman (groggers!), plans to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Mordecai appeals to Esther, “who took care of herself, stayed out of the sun… and read a page from her Talmud, called Pilates,” to intercede on behalf of her people. She agrees, but wants a party like Oprah Winfrey’s 50th. Okay. The Jews are saved, Haman is hanged. Esther’s party goody bags contain sand, separates in stretch sackcloth, the Dead Sea Scrolls and a pocket for a remote. She then opens Esther’s Mesapotamia Spa. End of story.

* * *

The next evening, in Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium during the performance of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” by The Collegiate Chorale, conducted by Robert Bass, I was struck by the remarkable parallel of the opera to the Queen Esther story! Stay with me. Floristan (Thomas Moser), whom narrator Roger Rees described as “a journalist addicted to the truth… who dared name names… [and] disappears in prison,” is rescued by his wife, Leonore (sublime soprano Deborah Voigt), who disguises herself as a man, Fidelio.

Her Esther-like wit and perseverance save her husband as well as the other political prisoners condemned to death by the prison’s governor, Don Pizaro — read Haman (Tom Fox). Every time Fox sang, I was tempted to spin my grogger (which I happened to have with me from the prior night’s Purim ball!). The libretto’s text: “… love allied with courage…. Liberty!… Do not kneel like slaves.… Let the vengeful sword of justice punish the villain,” was not too far afield from Purim’s theme of tyranny and survival, thanks to the power of a courageous woman. Hamantaschen to librettists Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke!

* * *

“Reimaging Relationship: Germans and Jews in the 21st Century,” an intriguing theme at the February 22 discussion held at the American Jewish Committee, was led by David Elcott, AJCommittee’s director of interreligious affairs, and by Rolf Schuette, senior German diplomat and AJCommittee’s visiting fellow. “No one is neutral in this room,” Elcott said. Born after World War II, Elcott, a son of refugees from Germany, said that he felt his parents’ hometown near Dusseldorf was “more real than rural Los Angeles, where I grew up.” Part of his German Kultur upbringing included the children’s book “Struwwelpeter,” which he displayed. Some guests in the room remembered it with nostalgia.

“I did not know any Jews until my 30s,” Schuette said. “German-Jewish relations and the Holocaust were something I read about… until my second diplomatic posting in 1989 in Israel…. For the first, time I met ‘Yekkes’… who exported German culture to Israel, spoke better German than I… and escaped to Germany because it rained,” Schuette said. “Talking with Americans or Israelis, the Holocaust is never addressed directly…. There is a fear of something… not spoken about.” That the “memory of the Holocaust is decreasing for the average German and Israeli, but not for American Jews.” Elcott touted teens’ trips “to Auschwitz to the trains… the walk to the gas chambers, then… [to] Israel. It’s a powerful way to establish a sense of identity.” But Schuette touted the need for dialogue. “Young Jews do not go to Germany nor meet modern-day Germans.” He cited German politicians’ “fear of ‘a slip of the tongue.’” As an example, he noted an Israel-friendly parliament speaker who “fell” because of a slip during a speech on the 50th anniversary of World War II. “There are now 120,000 Jews in Germany, and growing,” Schuette said. “More than 2.5 million young Germans visited [Daniel] Liebeskind’s museum in Berlin in the past two years.”

* * *

“Shockheaded Peter” (the English version of “Struwwelpeter,” now playing at the Little Shubert Theatre), a pediatric “Grand Guignol,” is scaring children silent while delighting adults with its Brechtian/Kurt Weillish inventive staging and mind-blowing performances by an avant-garde cast that includes the group The Tiger Lillies. Though a card in the lobby proclaims: “No Children Were Harmed in the Making of This Show… Yet”), this exemplar of childhood misbehavior and its consequences — i.e., chopping off the digit of a thumb-sucker! (even though the stage kiddies are puppets) — might not faze children raised on TV and computer-game mayhem. But will politically correct parents averse to corporal punishment remain silent? The story, written in 1844 by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann “to give children pleasure,” as psychotherapist Arnold Richards informs me, “was actually a very progressive story for its time…. The most famous English translation was made by Mark Twain.” Go figure.

P.S. It was shockingly good!

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