A Chinese spin on the Book of Esther

A Chinese spin on the Book of Esther

Fort Lee shul offers Budaixi Purim Puppetshpeil

The dragon emperor listens to the evil tiger Haman.
The dragon emperor listens to the evil tiger Haman.

Purim will have a decidedly Asian flavor at Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades this year when it sponsors the New Jersey premiere of Chinese Theatre Works’ Budaixi Purim Puppetshpeil, a retelling of the Book of Esther in the style of Chinese opera.

“This kind of program, like others we’ve offered to our congregation throughout the past year, responds to a need to evolve in meeting the needs of today’s Jews,” Craig Bassett of North Bergen said. Mr. Bassett has been the executive director of the Fort Lee shul since last October. “We all lead busy lives, so it’s important to create new and innovative ways to get people engaged as Jews and build community.”

Mr. Bassett said that Congregation Beth Israel has had a decline in attendance since covid and he believes that other synagogues have had the same experience. “Online Shabbat services and fresh and stimulating programming have kept our membership strong, but these new, virtual social patterns can be distracting,” he said.

“Rabbi Wasser and I see 2024 as the year to break the mold in the way traditional Shabbat services are held,” Mr. Bassett said. That’s Dr. Eric. L. Wasser, who has led the congregation since 2017. “We want to offer unique and relevant topics for Jews.”

Since January, Young Voices: Today’s Topics has presented interviews and performances during morning services. “We have brought in Shira Wallach to speak from the Israel Campus Coalition, an influential group that advocates for Israel on social media and offers relevant perspectives for Jewish students on college campuses,” Mr. Bassett said. “Neshamah Carlebach, a pop Jewish singer, and her sons have performed their favorite songs, Josh Sauer of 613, a Jewish a cappella group, has sung, and Leor Wasser, a social worker dealing with domestic abuse in the Jewish community, has discussed her prescription for shalom bayit — peace at home.

“Rabbi Wasser hopes to address ideas and behaviors that tie into the parshah of the week.” Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades also houses the Fort Lee Holocaust Museum, the only Holocaust museum in the nation to be inside an active synagogue. “While it’s been closed for a number of years, we are working hard to reopen it to the public, particularly since October 7,” Mr. Bassett said. “Overall, my role as executive director is to connect with our lay leaders and our community to help our synagogue grow with more multidimensional programming.”

“Purim is a fun and enjoyable holiday to celebrate,” Rabbi Wasser said. “Craig and I collaborated to offer a Purim program that would make a splash, serving as an entertaining and interesting complement to the diverse range of activities and events held at the synagogue.”

As he started planning, Mr. Bassett considered his personal connection to China and Chinese culture. “In 1993, I joined the MBA Enterprise Corps after earning my MBA from Columbia University,” he said. “The corps was based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but was a consortium of the leading U.S. business schools.”

His assignment brought him to a small Chinese town near Shenzhen, on the mainline coast north of Hong Kong. “Throughout the six months, I lived and worked as a local, not as a traditional expatriate,” he said. “I shared an apartment with my interpreter and it was a typical apartment for the town. I was paid a local salary and in Chinese currency that was equivalent to $150 a month. This helped me develop a unique perspective on China and an appreciation of its culture.

“I was also the only non-Chinese person taking part in the program,“ he added. “My best friend growing up was Chinese, and I celebrated Chinese New Year with his family every year, enjoying authentic dishes. His mother would prepare Peking duck for his birthday. This led to my gaining a great appreciation for Chinese cuisine.”

Mr. Bassett believes that Jews have developed awareness and interest in Chinese culture, from what’s become a traditional Jewish celebration on Christmas Eve of dining at Chinese restaurants to attending musical theater and Chinese opera. “We love Chinese food, so why not Chinese puppets?”

Mr. Bassett did some research and found the website for Chinese Theatre Works, a Flushing-based group whose mission includes preserving and promoting the traditional Chinese performing arts, including opera, shadow theater, puppetry, dance, and music. It was founded in 1995 by creative and life partners Stephen Kaplin and Kuang-Yu Fong.

Golden rabbit Esther and ram Mordechai plan to save the Jews of Shushan.

Mr. Kaplin designs, builds, performs, directs, and produces puppet theater and performs in all CTW productions. He studied puppetry under the direction of Dr. Frank Ballard at the University of Connecticut, at one of the only puppetry programs in the United States. Ms. Fong, who is from Taiwan, studied Chinese opera in college there. She came to the United States in the early 1980s to study theater and education at NYU. Stephen and Kuang-Yu married in 1995.

Their first book, “Tabletop Theater, Puppetry for Small Places,” was published in 2003. Chinese Theatre Works performs with hand or glove puppets on a portable stage. The traditional Chinese style hand-puppet productions feature the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

“The Purim Puppetshpeil was first conceived in 2016, when I began attending Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing, Queens, to recite Kaddish for my mother,” Mr. Kaplin said. “I struck up a friendship with the synagogue’s cantor, Moshe Bear, and invited him to attend a Chinese Theatre Works performance.

“Cantor Bear was enthralled with the performance, and that led to the creation of Budaixi Purim Puppetshpeil.” (Budaixi is Chinese for hand puppet.)

“Cantor Bear wrote the script with us and I worked with the team at CTW to work out the puppetry and staging,” Mr. Kaplin said. “The first two years we performed the Puppetshpeil, we were set up on the bimah of Temple Gates of Prayer, and the show was part of their Purim service and Megillah reading. This made it a little long. So in subsequent years, we set up in the banquet hall there and performed our program after service. It was a better option for us and the congregation.”

Budaixi Purim Puppetshpeil had its premiere in 2017 and was performed as part of the Purim service at Temple Gates of Prayer for several years. It has also been performed at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan and in other venues.

“We have collected many new puppets throughout the years to include in our performances for both Chinese and mixed audiences across the region,” Mr. Kaplin said. “The Purim show uses the same puppets as our other touring shows. We created new puppet heads for the animals of the Chinese zodiac. These were attached to traditional Chinese hand puppet bodies, which are about 10 inches tall and fit on your hand like a loose glove.

“We’re able to spin them around and do great tricks with them while your hand is inside the puppet; they are expressive little actors,” he said. “For Purim, Esther is played by a golden rabbit, Mordechai is a ram, Haman is a tiger, the emperor is a dragon, Queen Vashti is a horse with a great mane of hair. It is an interspecies cast!”

Stephen Kaplin and Kuang-Yu Fong, who live in Queens, perform predominantly in the New York metropolitan area. “In earlier years, we’d performed in mainland China, Taiwan and Korea, but as we’ve gotten older, we stay closer to the tristate area, performing in libraries, schools, and religious services,” Mr. Kaplin said.

“Since the Puppetshpeil is on Sunday morning, March 24, the traditional Megillah reading will take place the night before, after Shabbat,” Mr. Bassett said. “The Book of Esther appeals to people of all ages — and we wanted to offer a program that was unlike any Purim shpeil anyone has ever seen.

“Like the other events we’ve been offering throughout the year, the CTW Puppetshpeil reflects a unique character,” he continued. “We remain a traditional egalitarian Conservative synagogue that is reimagining ourselves to offer community and camaraderie; we want our members to feel like they’re coming home.”

The CBIOTP free program, which is offered to both synagogue members and the public, will take place on Sunday morning, March 24, at 11 a.m. Costumes are encouraged.

Registration is recommended by Friday, March 22; to register, email shul@cbiotp.org

read more: