Purim is this week, a joyous, fun holiday on the Jewish calendar – and the cause of much adolescent strife for me.
To Jewish girls, Queen Esther is our heroine, more than Cinderella (who never accomplished something as amazing as saving her people) or any other Disney princess. There are costume parties every year at the temple, and we all get to dress up as our favorite queen. But I wanted more than to be one of many Esthers in the Purim parade. I wanted to play the role in a retelling of her story.
When I was attending Sunday school at the Free Synagogue of Flushing, I found out about the Sing For Fun Club. The cantor would prepare musical entertainments featuring children of members of the temple. Generally, that meant two major shows – one for Hanukkah, another for Purim. There would be other smaller reviews over the year, but those were the ones everyone looked forward to the most.
Not being one for extra-curricular activities, I still enjoyed the Sing For Fun Club immensely, even though I only had a passable singing voice – but that was true of most of the other children in the club.
I don’t remember much about the Hanukkah shows – I do recall my sister and I singing a song dressed as Hanukkah gelt (money) – I was a dime and she was a nickel. Or maybe she was the dime and I was the nickel. I’m sure there were several Purim shows we participated in, but I only really recall two. Those were the two where I expected to be cast as Queen Esther. It didn’t quite work out that way.
If our cantor had not been a cantor, I’m certain he would have had a career producing/writing/directing Broadway shows. Because that’s what the Purim pageant was every year – a kind of Broadway show.
When he was ready to cast Hello, Esther (yes, set to the tune of “Hello, Dolly,” I kid you not) I was certain I was the front runner for the part of Queen Esther. I was finally old enough, I was taller than most girls my age, and again, while my singing voice wasn’t the best, it was passable. I had played several roles in other shows and was certain it was my turn to play one of the greatest heroines of my people.
Cantor Stone instead cast a girl older than me, but she was shorter and not only was her voice not passable, she couldn’t sing. AT ALL.
I’m talking I Love Lucy tone deaf here, folks.
I was stunned when Cantor Stone gave me the news that I was cast as Zeresh, Haman’s wife. Instead of being the heroine, I was to play the woman who conspired with her husband to murder all the Jews.
When I got the script, I found out I would have to kiss the boy who played Haman. TWICE. And I couldn’t stand this kid. For no particular reason that I can recall, just one of the kid things where you don’t like someone.
To add insult to injury, the girl playing Esther didn’t have to kiss the boy playing King Ahasuerus. This was one of my first lessons in the unfairness of life.
My best friend in the club, Alice, at least got to play the more glamorous role of Queen Vashti, King Ahasuerus’ first wife. (Who is set aside by the King to a song sung to the tune of “Just You Wait ‘enry ‘iggins” Seriously. I’m not kidding).
On opening night, in my mother’s purple velvet robe and my grandmother’s blond wig, I asked one of my cast mates if he thought anyone would know it was me. He looked at me like I was nuts, which is a fair assessment, I think. I considered changing my name and converting to escape the notoriety of having to play such an evil character. Years later, I saw a picture someone took during the performance and was even more appalled, because I bore an uncanny resemblance to Harpo Marx in drag.
To my surprise, the scene between Haman and Zeresh went over really well. What does the audience know, I thought to myself. They would have been totally wowed if I had played Esther! At least, I wouldn’t have hit quite as many flat notes.
There was some comfort in the fact that the boy playing Haman was only able to do the part once. I played opposite one of my friends for the other performances, though he also was at an age when kissing a girl in public was humiliating to him. At least we could commiserate.
The girl who played Queen Esther was very sweet and I found I couldn’t dislike her because she got to play the part and I didn’t. Besides, there’s always next year, I thought. I did well as Zeresh, I paid my dues, it’s my turn next.
The following year, Cantor Stone wrote an opus entitled Esther In Flushing. (I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.) That’s right, Queen Esther arrives in modern-day Flushing to teach everyone the meaning of Purim.
So who got the part this time? My friend, Alice. Of course.
I was instead cast in the role of a reporter, a kind of glam Barbara Walters-type, who lands an exclusive interview with Queen Esther. At least I wasn’t evil and got to wear someone’s mother’s made-over evening gown. It was a very over-the-top part, and I played it to the hilt, because, once again, I didn’t get to be the star.
That was the last year of the big Purim pageants while I was a member of the club, because Cantor Stone left the synagogue. His replacement as head of the club wasn’t a frustrated Broadway producer, but a law school drop-out who talked a lot about how hard it was to get through law school.
Not surprisingly, I drifted away from the club. But a funny thing happened. People kept coming up to me and telling me how much they loved my performances in the two Purim pageants. I’m talking about years after the fact. When I finally moved from the building where I grew up in Flushing and was saying my goodbyes to my neighbors, one took my hand and said he never forgot how funny I was in Esther In Flushing.
All I thought at the time was, but, but—I didn’t get to play Queen Esther!
The saddest part of this is I felt this way well into my thirties, not just when I was a kid.
Finally, FINALLY, it dawned on me how stupid I was to dismiss the roles I played in the pageants. Of course every great story has to have great villains, and I can finally appreciate the compliment Cantor Stone gave me by casting me in the role of Zeresh. And it’s not easy to put over comedy. How silly of me to miss out on enjoying my success instead of convincing myself I had failed by not getting the role I wanted.
A lesson Queen Esther could have taught me if she had ever really shown up in Flushing.
But it still bothers me that there are photos floating around somewhere of me looking like Harpo Marx’s sister. I hope they never hit the internet.