What was Purim in 19th century Italy like?

What was Purim in 19th century Italy like?

Here’s a look at it, through an anonymous Purim-shpil

Writer, teacher, and Yiddishist Curt Leviant’s new novel, “King of Yiddish,” will be published this month.

Discovered, introduced, translated, and edited by Curt Leviant

I found this mid- to late-19th-century rhymed Purim-shpil from Italy in the archives of a branch of a municipal library in Italy while I was doing research on a totally different topic. The library does not permit a manuscript to be photocopied or even copied by hand. Note-taking, however, is permitted, and I was given special permission to translate this charming Purim play.

Because vowel endings in Italian are ubiquitous it is easy to rhyme in that language. An Italian novelist once remarked, jokingly, that for writers in Italian it is very difficult not to rhyme. But English is not Italian, and so on occasion I had to take some liberties to capture the spirit of the story. The librarian, however, kindly permitted me to quote the lively Italian couplet at the end of the play. Note too that, uniquely, in this version Zeresh takes a more active anti-Semitic role. I’ve never seen this accented in any other Purim play.

There is no telling that this Purim-shpil was chanted as was the typical Purim-shpil in Eastern Europe. But if the chanted exchanges I once heard on the streets of Venice during Carnivale some years ago are any indication, I would assume that for the preparation of this Purim-shpil during the Jewish Carnivale, the parts may very well have been chanted, as were the recitatives in the Commedia del Arte.

The rhymes are in iambic tetrameter; most are in couplets. For variation there is an occasional triplet, and, once in a while, the rhyme scheme, instead of a-b, a-b, is offered as a-b-b-a.

Ahasuerus: I’m Ahasuerus, the mighty King, (aside) (and this Purim-shpil’s director,
editor and set erector).
When I speak — to attention spring!
Our Jewish Commedia del Arte,
a comic story, soon will start-e.
Here are all the Purim-shpiller
to play for you the great megilla,
so please sit still, and even stiller.

(Ahasuerus points to Mordecai and Esther)

For our heroes a hearty cheer!

(He points to Haman and Zeresh)

And for these villains a growling jeer!

(Haman and Zeresh retreat in fear and huddle in a corner of the stage.)

Zeresh (steps forward):

I am Zeresh, Haman’s wife.
Do I like stress, do I love strife!
But as for hate, it’s Mordecai,
who with his clan is doomed to die.
Soon will come that destined day,
So let all Persians shout: Hurray!

(She turns to Mordecai)

You’ll see, when we claim victory,
you’ll be swinging from a tree.

Mordecai: Ladies first, that’s courtesy.
Try it, then report to me.

(Enter Haman)

Haman: All the world knows Haman’s name.
The Book of Esther made my fame.
I am favored by the King,
for to his coffers gold I bring.
When Jews hear “Haman” they shout boos.
What do you expect from no-good Jews?
No good will come from those Hebrews.
I just proposed; the King gave orders
to kill the Jews within our borders.
I’m not as bad as people say.
I’m quite okay; the Jews say nay.
My wife is worse. She’s thinks she’s Zeus,
that self-indulgent, silly goose.
It’s Zeresh who should get the noose.

(Haman goes and hugs Zeresh. She slaps his face. He whispers loudly, improvising)

I don’t mean the words I say;
it’s just the script I’m forced to play.

Esther: Follow script, stick to megilla,
you evil man, you mean gorilla.

Ahasuerus: You heard my name is Ahasuerus.
Pronounce it, please, as Ah-ha-swear-us.
I declare it all the time:
my name impossible to rhyme.

Chorus: One cannot rhyme a name so long,
Not in poem, shpil or song.

Zeresh (steps forward):
And don’t forget my odd name too
the poets try but none can do.

Chorus: Our loud and lengthy lusty hisses
to that evil brazen missus.

Haman: What a gorgeous name have I;
more elegant than Mordecai.
For my name too we have no rhyme,
a name so rare, a name sublime.
Whenever I decide to choose,
I’ll rid my Persia of the Jews.

Chorus: Haman lets out hue and cry:
to rhyme my name don’t even try.

Mordecai: Why waste our precious Shushan time,
with childish thoughts, like, can we rhyme?
Because of evil Haman’s hate
he decreed our people’s fate.
Since I refused to bow, he said,
Soon all your kinsmen will be dead.

Ahasuerus: Look, here comes a delegation
from the chosen Jewish nation.

Chorus (of Jews): Oh great king, oh Ahasuerus,
your evil Haman’s out to snare us.

Chorus: Why claim we cannot rhyme his name?
Those who do, they bask in fame.

Ahasuerus: An Italian proverb: rice is
eaten in a crisis.

Mordecai: What link has that to the megilla,
when we fear the Persian Titus?

Ahasuerus (shrugs):
It’s just a catchy, rhyming filler.
Injustice, yes, a moral stain.
But a Purim-shpil must entertain.

(The king sees Esther entering)

Here comes my lovely lady royal,
my Queen, devoted, wise and loyal.
I love to have you, Esther, near.
What glad tidings bring you here?

Esther: :No glad tidings, my dear sire,
but wail and woe, grief and ire.
My folk in danger, Ahasuerus!
The Jews, my kin, you’ll have to spare us.

Chorus: One cannot rhyme his longish name,
no poet wild, no poet tame.

Zeresh (points to Esther, improvises):

Why’d they choose her for a queen?
She’s as skinny as a bean,
And looks just like a piece of wood.
I should’ve been the queen, I should.

Esther (improvises): You’re not, Zeresh, even Jewish.
You’re mean, you’re jealous, sly, and shrewish.
Your soul is made of wood, not love,
and Zeresh fits you like a glove!

(applause from the audience)

Ahasuerus (improvises):
Now, now, now, let’s stick to script.
The Purim tale we must depict
in honest fashion, nice and strict.

Mordecai (to Ahasuerus): Recall, I overheard a plot
where plans were made to have you shot,
but my good deed you soon forgot.

Ahasuerus: I’m so sorry, Mordecai!
A foolishness that makes me sigh.
Not giving thanks to my minister
for saving me from men sinister.
I for this lapse apologize.
Here, try my signet ring for size.

Mordecai (inclines his head in gratitude):

Worse is Haman, Ahasuerus.
With your kind help he will not scare us.

Chorus: The king has constantly opined,
no rhyme for him can we find.

Ahasuerus: What’s your wish, my chosen bride?
To half my kingdom, long and wide.

Esther: To save my people, gracious King!
That’s the only prayer I bring.

Chorus (Jews): Mighty ruler, Ahasuerus!
Give us life! Free, declare us!

Ahasuerus: Who’s the cause of this great sin?
Point him out. I’ll do him in.

Chorus (pointing to Haman and Zeresh, who point to each other)

Esther: Haman’s plan to kill us Jews,
that’s his nasty, wicked ruse.

(Haman and Zeresh cringe, retreat. They do not huddle.)

Haman, Haman is the killer,
as we read in the megilla.

Haman: No, no, not me, it’s all my wife,
who has compassion like a knife.
One thing, Jews, I must make clear,
that your demise, that’s her idea.

Zeresh (to Haman)Then why’d you sign this damned decree?
Hang him alone on this high tree.
And while you’re at it, Mordecai.
It’s time to bid him fond goodbye.

Ahasuerus: No, not in Shushan, this fine town.
So Haman, Zeresh, fret and frown,
your schemes they’re now turned upside down.
Evil Zeresh, cunning Haman,
you wagon-draggin nasty drayman.

Chorus: Who says we can’t rhyme Haman’s name?
Monarch does it all the same.

Ahasuerus: Prepare the rope, for two not one;
the shpil is over, justice done.
Hang them on the nearest tree.
Let Haman swing with missus Z.

Chorus: King even found a rhyme for her;
You did it, Ahasuerus, sir!

Zeresh (improvises): You’re a bunch of anti-goyim,
Jew-bilating on your Purim.
Anti-goyness is a crime
of which you’re guilty all the time.
Don’t like the way I’m being treated.
Once this so-called shpil’s completed
I’ll get even, count on me
and members of my family.

(Chorus takes both Haman and Zeresh away to back of stage.)

Ahasuerus: With hopes that no one’s been offended,
our comedy is now upended.
Finished now with our megilla,
we turn to drinking and akhilla,
pasta, olives, and tequila.
Yes, all agree that for the Jews
on Purim day it’s fun and booze.

(Now everyone joins hands; Zeresh reluctantly)

We wish to every Jew and goy,
old and grown-up, girl and boy,
a happy Purim, full of joy.

Buon felice festivale,
gioiosa Carnevale!

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