If you were to put ways to celebrate the upcoming holiday on a continuum, on one end you’d find pediatric Purim, all cute costumes and groggers and carnivals, noisy and great fun if you’re a kid and quickly tedious if you’re not.
At the other end of the continuum there’s drunken Purim, a time to get sloshed and sloppy, deaf to the difference between the sound of Haman and Mordechai, particularly if you’re a man or a teenage boy. (Yes, there are regulations against underage drinking. Yes, we know….)
All of this can be challenging if you are, say, the rabbi of a shul that no longer has a lot of children, does not go in for public drunkenness, but still wants to celebrate Purim.
It’s a challenge that Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes takes on every year with pleasure; last year, because Purim overlapped with St. Patrick’s Day, Rabbi Prouser was able to find parallels between the story of the two stuttering shepherds who became their people’s great emancipators; we retold that tale last year in a story called “L’chaim! Slainte!”
This year, Rabbi Prouser, a man of wide-ranging interests, which include American history, is drawing on his own history as a trumpet-playing member of his junior high and high schools’ marching bands to focus on the music of one of his heroes, the composer John Philip Sousa.
“I was not good,” Rabbi Prouser said about his skill on the trumpet. “I am the youngest of four siblings, and a distant fourth in musical talent.” Still, he played in Northampton, Massachusetts; “I was always third trumpet, but it was good training for shofar blowing,” which, after all, “requires less musical nuance.”
But what connects Sousa with Purim? A few things, Rabbi Prouser said.
First, erev Purim will be the 91st anniversary of his death. (Had he been Jewish, we’d have called it his yahrzeit, but he was not.)
Second, “when I looked for specifically Jewish connections in his life, I found a number of them,” he said. He hired Jews.
“He worked with many Jewish musicians; one was a renowned diva, Estelle Liebling, a lyric soprano who appeared with Sousa in more than 1,600 concerts. She never missed a single performance.”
Moreover, “she went on to become the vocal coach for a fellow Jew, Belle Miriam Silverman of Crown Heights, who was better known as Beverly Sills,” the famous and thoroughly adored opera singer.
The clarinetist and klezmer musician Harry Kandel “became famous as a member of Sousa’s band,” Rabbi Prouser continued. “He left the band and went on to compose much of what became standard fare in chasidic wedding music. A lot of it still is in the repertoire today.”
Sousa didn’t employ musicians because they were Jewish — instead, he hired people for their talent, and most of them were vastly talented — but “Sousa apparently was a real philosemite,” Rabbi Prouser said. “He spoke publicly about the importance of immigration, and of integrating Jewish immigrants into American society, not treating them as foreigners, outsiders, or different. He was quoted as saying that we want no Jewish ghettos.
“He publicly fired a member of his band for using an ethnic slur against Jews,” he continued. “He told him never to seek a job in his employ again.”
It’s not clear where Sousa’s loyalty and commitment to the Jewish community might have begun, but Rabbi Prouser has a guess.
“He got his start under the Jewish composter Jacque Offenbach, who hired a young John Philip Sousa to play violin in his orchestra for an expo celebrating the American centennial in 1876,” he said. “It was under Offenbach that Sousa was introduced to march music.”
Oh, and another thing. His name.
The story of Purim is set in the city of Shushan. “The Greek transliteration of Shushan is Sousa,” Rabbi Prouser said.
Okay, so Sousa was good for the Jews. He’s a good choice on that level. But how will Rabbi Prouser integrate him into the megillah reading?
One of Purim’s many felicities is that because it is not a holiday whose observance demands that neither electricity nor musical instruments be used, Rabbi Prouser is free to play music; in this case, recordings of the U.S. Marine Corps Band playing Sousa.
“A number of his marches fit the narrative of the megillah,” Rabbi Prouser said. “In the beginning, after Chapter 1, when we read about King Achashverosh in all his splendor, we will play ‘The March of the Royal Trumpets.’ After Chapter 2, when we hear about all the virgins from across the empire, we’ll play a Sousa march called ‘Daughters of Texas.’
“At the end of that process, when Esther is selected, the march will be ‘Bride Elect.’”
Why is there a march called “Bride Elect’? That’s a good question, Rabbi Prouser said; and of course a good question is one that the person being asked can’t answer. He has no idea. “It’s a strange turn of phrase,” he allowed.
“After we read about the selection of Haman, the march will be ‘El Capitan,’” he continued. In Chapter 4, where Haman persuaded the king to send out an edict declaring the deaths of all the Jews in the empire and, following Mordechai’s example, they put on sackcloth and covered themselves in ashes, the march will be “In Memoriam.” “Sousa wrote that for President Garfield,” Rabbi Prouser said; after Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield became the second American president to be assassinated. “No one remembers Garfield, but he was really a brainy guy,” he said. “He could simultaneously write Greek and Latin with each hand. He did math proofs for entertainment.” But we digress.
After Esther saves the Jews, the megillah “deals with the Jews defending and avenging themselves, and it was easy to find marches for that,” Rabbi Prouser said. “We will play ‘Sabre and Spurs.’ And after the successful defense of the Jewish community, we will play the ‘U. S. Field Artillery.’” (We might know that one as “The Caissons Go Marching Along.”)
“And the final march, when the holiday is declared as a time of joy and celebration, will be ‘Triumph of Time.’”
It’s fun coming up with programs for Purim, Rabbi Prouser said, but there’s a serious message behind them.
“People think of it as a kids’ holiday, that adults tolerate or endure, but we take it very seriously. It should be observed with all the sophistication of other holidays. The kids’ stuff is great, but you should never outgrow Purim.”
Megillat Esther “is a very adult book, with adult themes.” Aside from the sex, which is unavoidable if you actually read it — Rabbi Prouser said that “kids think that it is just about a beauty contest.” When they become teens, and learn what it really is about, “they often are shocked” — “the themes of persecution and genocide are not to be ignored.
“It’s really a holiday for adults.”
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser
What: Offers a full evening service and traditional megillah reading for Purim
Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey at 558 High Mountain Road in Franklin Lakes
When: On Monday, March 6, at 7 p.m.
For whom: The whole community
What else: Traditional Purim refreshments (think hamantaschen)
To learn more: Email email@example.com or go to tenjfl.org