Through most of my pre-teen years I got to play Haman in the Yiddish School Purim Shpiel. There were no tryouts for that part – everyone wanted to be Queen Esther and there was vehement competition. It usually went to the dignified and lovely Gittel, while her sister Leah had the smaller and less attractive role of Vashti. Little Velvel always won the part of Achashverus and the part of Mordechai was played by different enthusiastic boys every year. And I always breathlessly awaited my opportunity to wrap my long black hair in a white turban, draw a luxurious black moustache and bushy eyebrows over half my face and strut my flagitious will all over the stage.
The backdrop of our little theatre was always the same, the bright-colored mural of muscular workers in gold and green fields that gave depth to the Socialist-Zionist speeches in Yiddish. Behind us the romantic sustaining dream of Israel, before us the haggard-eyed audience of survivors only a decade away from the Holocaust, and here on this stage of the Farband House – we are happy to present the story of miraculous survival from far away exotic Shushan. This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a tale of arrogant and self-assured evil, of purposeless and powerful malevolence, and it is my duty, as the first minister, Haman, to show how close it can come to succeeding.
In those days I used to have a recurring dream – while my family is sitting about the dining room table on a Friday night or at the Passover Seder, singing prayers in unison, the door of our home bursts open and Hitler and his men storm in. I am small, manage to slide under the table, and witness the slaughter only from the thighs down. But when it is over, a pair of black boots halts before my hiding spot, one knee bends to the floor, and Hitler himself reaches out to me, a jar of poison in his hand. “Am I dead now?” I would ask myself, and force myself awake.
But on the stage, on the evening of the Purim Spiel, I was filled with bravado. I became the incarnation of all I feared. I played Haman like the villain of a silent movie, swaggering out from behind the red curtain with the certainly of the crowd’s approval, exaggerating every gesture with gleeful irony, curling my moustache and leaning out to the audience to whisper of my unprecedented success, my personal humiliation of the Jew, my infallible plans for world power.
It made that sudden moment of confrontation all the more cathartic. Taken from the stage bewildered and silenced, my role was over. No longer Haman, I peeked through the red curtains of the back room as all the other characters celebrated wantonly on stage. With what comfort I watched the gentle and brave Queen Esther reap the applause of the evening. And then, when I came out to take a bow, I pulled off my turban and let my long hair flow over the now bloody costume, as if to say, “I’m not dead – Haman is.”
Karen Alkalay-Gut home