Esther Drescher? ‘The Nanny’ Tried New Role for Purim


By Masha Leon

Published March 21, 2003, issue of March 21, 2003.
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Strains of “Hooray for Hollywood” greeted guests filing into the Waldorf-Astoria’s Grand Ballroom for the Jewish Museum’s March 5 Masked Purim Ball, in part a celebration of the museum’s concurrent exhibition, “Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting.”

Among the 600 black-tie and masked revelers who helped raise a record $1.4 million were Morris and Nancy Offit, Howard and Amy Rubenstein, Michael and Judy Steinhardt, Bernard and Toby Nussbaum, Laurence and Billie Tisch, Samuel and Francine Klagsbrun, John and Robin Ruskay, Jules and Lynn Korda Kroll, and Dan Aykroyd and Donna Dixon.

Thomas Murphy, former chairman and CEO of Capital Cities/ABC, served as the ball’s chairman. Of the 1988 miniseries he helped create — based on Herman Wouk’s “War and Remembrance”— Murphy told the crowd: “‘Remembrance’ reached the largest viewership ever on a topic relating to the Holocaust.”

Among those touting the museum were honorees Doris and Saul Farber; museum director Joan Rosenbaum; Susan Lytle Lipton, its board chairman, and Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who delivered the evening’s blessing.

To a chorus of groggers, Fran “The Nanny” Drescher, author and performer of the evening’s Purimspiel, ascended the stage. Had she lived in Shushan in ancient Persia circa 356 BCE instead of 21st-century Flushing, Queens, it’s quite possible that we would be celebrating the “Megilla Fran.” For how could King Ahasuerus not have been smitten by Drescher in her body-clinging scarlet satin gown? With a megawatt smile and scimitar-sharp wit she made chopped liver of the king’s “pre-menstrual shiksa wife Queen Vashti.”

Drescher transformed Esther’s uncle Mordecai into a stand-up comic who tells her: “You must find a man who expresses his feelings, who makes you laugh, who loves to make love to you, who likes to do housework…. But it is important that these four men never meet.” After Esther reveals to Ahasuerus Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews, she mollifies the king with more jokes, including the ever-funny old saw about four men in the dessert: “A Russian says, ‘I’m thirsty, I’m tired, I need some vodka’; an Italian says, ‘I’m tired and thirsty, I need some vino’; a Greek says, ‘I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I need some ouzo’; a Jew says, ‘I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I must have diabetes.’”

After Ahasuerus dubs Esther “a woman among women,” Drescher — as Esther — informs her king, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did… but she did it backward and in heels!”

Searching for some Purim trivia, I found a treasure trove in David M. Hausdorff’s “A Book of Jewish Curiosities” (Crown, 1955). The author notes that among the frescoes Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is “The Death of Haman”!

* * *

“When the Home is on the Front Line: The Impact of the Security Situation on Women in Israel” was the topic discussed on March 6 at the home of Peace Sullivan, a psychoanalyst and co-chair of the American Friends of the Counseling Center for Women of Israel and board member of the Training Institute for Mental Health. The center, which sponsored the evening, is an independent nonprofit center in Ramat Gan, Jerusalem, where therapists help Israelis deal with issues of sexual abuse, molestation, trauma reduction, gender issues and the unequal role of Israeli women in the army. More recently, the center has taken on the issue of woman-trafficking, mainly women from Ukraine and Bulgaria who are smuggled into the Sinai and then brought into Israel by Bedouins. The center is dedicated to trying to “help [them] out of slavery.”

The evening’s presentation was co-chaired by Eva Fogelman, a psychologist in private practice and award-winning author and filmmaker. The evening’s guests included Dr. Judy Kuriansky, the psychologist known for her “Dr. Judy” radio program; psychiatrist Vincento Canigliaro, director of Training Institute for Mental Health; Jean Rosensaft, curator of the museum at Hebrew Union College; Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of Lilith Magazine, and Levana Kirschenbaum, gourmet kosher chef and author of “Levana’s Table.”

Joyce Rosman Brenner, head of Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work in Israel and a founding member of the center, discussed the traumas faced by Israelis: “We live with a great deal of pain… funerals, depression, a sense of hopelessness…. We make jokes, ‘don’t drive between buses’…. No one knows what to do. The Israeli personality is becoming even more aggressive…. There is such a high adrenaline flow in Israel; no one knows the long-term impact.”

Brenner cited “denial” as “necessary to get on with everyday life.” Among the coping techniques that the center offers is “teaching people not to feel guilty for not reading the newspapers or listening to the radio.” At the center, which treats mother-daughter groups, police personnel and wives and husbands, “We try to get husbands to talk more without losing control…. How to tell your husband who spent months sitting in a tank to change the baby’s diaper.” Citing a range of Israelis’ responses, Brenner noted: “Old-timers [to newcomers and immigrants]: ‘What’s new? We’ve been living like this before.’ Teenagers have a hard time; their parents won’t let them out. The buzz of a cell phone is a safety device…. Shoah survivors are a difficult read. Their attitude… ‘have money in your pocket and be ready to go… maybe [even] leave Israel’… and everybody is in the army.”

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