Setting Purim to music

Setting Purim to music

Emanuel’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser pairs classical works with verses from the Book of Esther to intensify their meaning — also, it’s fun

Eitan Prouser
Eitan Prouser

We often think of Purim as a kids’ holiday — costumes, noisemakers, carnivals, happy confusion.

When we think of it as an adults’ holiday, it’s still a bit childlike — costumes, noisemakers, witty or silly or just plain embarrassing performances — with a bit of the forbidden thrown in, along with the traditional permission to drink until you’re stone drunk.

But when you step back and look at the text at Purim’s heart — the Book of Esther — you realize that this is a very adult work.

It deals with sex and death, with betrayal and revenge. It’s a story that you don’t necessarily want to tell to your children, at least without the camouflage of tiaras and funny hats and lots and lots of noise.

Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey knows that.

He also knows that one of the most effective ways to make those themes come alive is through music. So he’s decided that this year, his shul’s Purim service will dispense with the Purimspiel and the carnival, acknowledge that there aren’t many families with young children among its members, make use of the knowledge and experience of some his neighbors and friends, and present what he calls a “classical Purim.” (He still hopes that people will come to the Purim service in costume, although mostly he wants them to come, costumed or not.)

The evening will include a regular Purim evening service, Rabbi Prouser said, and a traditional reading of the megillah. It will be in Hebrew, “but at pre-designated points, the reader will pause, and a section of the verse will be read in English, and then a piece of classical music will be played that reflects the content of the mood of that verse. So there will be an ongoing musical commentary on the Book of Esther.”

He wanted the mood to be joyous — Purim is supposed to be fun, and music adds to any celebration — and he wanted much of the music to be classical “to make clear that the holiday itself speaks to sophisticated adults. So I thought that combining classical music with the somewhat carnival-esque holiday will address that goal.”

And music has a way of going directly to the heart, sometimes bypassing the more judgmental or conventional mind, he added.

There is another advantage that Purim offers, Rabbi Prouser said. It is one of the few Jewish holidays that comes with specific halachic requirements but is not a chag. That means that as a traditional Conservative rabbi, bound by halacha, on Purim he is free to use recordings, instruments, electronics, and all sorts of other things that are not allowed on Shabbat and chaggim.

Mitch Weiss

“The lack of restrictions on technology and music allows us to deploy a number of creative approaches to the liturgy that are not available to us on other holidays,” he said. “Although I find these restrictions to be inspiring and even liberating in their own way, this allows us to break from what it is that people are accustomed to seeing and hearing.”

Some of the music will reflect the narrative, and other pieces will explore the feelings that underlie it. Some of it will be funny, some satiric, some sad, some lively, some reflective. (All of it will be recordings. No one will play anything there.)

Rabbi Prouser loves classical music, he said, although “I am not a very good musician. As a kid, I played trumpet in a marching band, which prepared me to be a shofar blower of some achievement.” And music was all around him when he grew up. “My mother was a very sophisticated consumer and performer of music. She was a violinist — not professionally, but she played in orchestras both in high school and at Smith College, and she left behind a vast collection of albums of classical music.

“I listen to classical music regularly,” he added. “I have my car radio set to WQXR.”

Rabbi Prouser knew that he didn’t want to take on the task of matching text with music by himself. That job called for a committee. So he formed one.

Eitan Prouser, one of Rabbi Prouser’s sons, lives on Long Island. He is musician; in his day job, in Port Washington, he has the marvelous title of Band Master General in the local branch of an afterschool music program called “Bach to Rock.” “As a musician, my favorite thing to do is to get to be creative in bringing music to people,” he said, so the challenge of helping pair music — mainly but not exclusively classical — was perfect for him.

Mr. Prouser loves classical music, he said; “for years and years my dad and I would go to the New York Philharmonic together.” And he thinks it’s a wonderful way into the story of Purim. “I think that one of the beautiful things about music is that it allows people of any age to understand emotion.” Even young children can grasp the feeling, he said, even though most likely they couldn’t put it in words, or even explain it to themselves. But the fact and the direction of the emotion would be clear to them. It can also help them handle deep feeling; “kids get scared at big overwhelming things,” but music can help.

The pieces for this Purim that stick most in his imagination include excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty,” which come at the beginning of the fourth chapter, where Esther is about to take on the terrifying task of helping to save her people, and the song “Nessun Dorma” — literally “Let No One Sleep!” from Puccini’s “Turandot,” which will be played in chapter 6. The verse is, “That night, sleep eluded the king.”

He is particularly proud of “False One! You Have Deceived Me!” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” for Esther’s plea to the king, telling him that her people have been betrayed. Also, later that chapter, there’s a song from Walt Disney’s Cruella de Vil.

And, as an example of fitting the text to words as well as emotions, in chapter 1, when Vashti refuses the king and we are told that “The king became enraged, his wrath burned within him,” the music will be from Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

Cantor Michael Kasper is the dean of cantorial studies at the Academy for Jewish Religion, the rabbinical seminary whose CEO and academic dean is Rabbi Prouser’s wife, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, so although he lives in Nyack and recently retired as cantor from his own shul, Sons of Israel in Nyack, his musical acumen and ties to the Prouser family made him a natural for the committee.

Cantor Michael Kasper

He is also a social worker and practicing psychotherapist, so he is even more logical a choice for pairing emotion with music.

“This helps everybody be aware of the emotional content of the story, even if you don’t understand a word of Hebrew,” Cantor Kasper said. “It was a wonderful process, to be so thoughtful about it, to go through it section by section.

He remembers picking the first piece the congregation will hear, the “Welcoming Overture” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety.” “I picked it because it is evocative of what is to come.” He picked another of Bernstein’s works, the third movement of the “Jeremiah Symphony,” for the beginning of the fourth chapter. The accompanying text is “In each and every province, wherever word of the king’s edict spread, there was deep mourning among the Jews.” “I picked it in part because it is prophetic — it’s Jeremiah! — and in part because, although you don’t get to hear it in the clip, some of it was written in haftarah trope. It sets the stage for something potentially terrifying to come.”

The theme from Exodus is there as well, Cantor Kasper said; it’s in chapter 4, where Mordechai tells Esther that she may not remain silent. “Perhaps it was for just such a time that you have risen to your royal station,” he says.

Among the many emotions in the Book of Esther, Cantor Kasper said, are “anger and fear,” as well as “a large portion of hope.” There’s a kind of cunning, which is not itself an emotion but is propelled by a mixture of envy and malice, which are. There is a sense of duty, which is not an emotion but evokes emotions. “Different people have different emotions attached to the same idea,” Cantor Kasper said. “The idea of obligation can evoke terror or joy. It depends on who it is and what the obligation is.”

Mitchel Weiss of Oakland is a member of Emanuel; he is also a musician whose decades-long career involved long stints in orchestras and on Broadway — he played, among other things, for Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein in the first revival of “West Side Story,” and he’s won three Grammys. His musical training, knowledge, talent, and instincts are incredibly well-honed.

He thinks that Rabbi Prouser came up with “a wonderful idea.”

Some of his contributions include Mozart’s banquet scene from “Don Giovanni,” placed, logically enough, in Chapter 5, where Esther invites Haman and the king to dinner, and Mozart’s Queen of the Night song from “The Magic Flute” for chapter 2, where we learn that Esther is “stunningly beautiful.”

There’s quite a bit more Mozart, including, perhaps inevitably, the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” also in chapter 2, where the king decides to make Esther his new queen. (He “treated her more kindly than all the other virgins,” we are told.)

Mr. Weiss liked the selection of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” for Chapter 6, where Haman is forced to put Mordechai on his horse and lead him in glory through Shushan; Copeland wrote it while spending the summer in a cottage in Oakland, which is exurban now and was gloriously rural then.

The underlying reason for his choice to set the Book of Esther to music was something that Victor Huge knew, Rabbi Prouser said. According to the nineteenth-century French writer, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser

What: Reads the Book of Esther with music interwoven throughout, set to specific quotes to intensify the underlying emotion.

When: On March 9, starting at 7 p.m.

Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes

The evening features: The readers are Dr. Ora Horn Prouser of the Academy for Jewish Religion, Temple Emanuel’s rabbi, Joseph Prouser, and its president, Ellen Lipschitz. William Kaufman, a Temple Emanuel member who now is directing “Kammeroper 1804” for the New York Opera Festival, will perform the English readings that lead into the music.

For more information: Call (201) 560-0200.

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