If you fancy bringing a little fun to your Passover in isolation, why not celebrate it with the Marx Bros
The running time of a Seder varies from family to family. Determined by levels of orthodoxy, it’s either a case of hunting for the afikomen before the frogs arrive or enduring a service that overtakes Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (220 minutes.)
The downside of the latter is that without Charlton Heston to lead us out of Egypt diners are prone to flagging before Dayenu. But what if Groucho Marx was pushing us to the Promised Land? Imagine how lively leaning would be if Harry Potter was handing out the charoset or if Sherlock Holmes was asking the four questions.
Thanks to Rabbi Shoshana Hantman all of this is now possible with her series of ten minute plays, published collectively as Passover Parodies:Short Plays For The Seder Table. With a contents list that includes Play It Again, Moses, a haimishe homage to Casablanca; the Shakesperian Much Ado About Bupkes and Dial M for Moses as a nod to Hitchcock, the plays are equally divided between American and British themes and will engage even the most inhibited Passover celebrants.
Raised in a“joyous Jewish household” in Philadelphia “where we took celebrations into our own hands and observed our traditions imperfectly and creatively,” Shoshana has even penned a Broadway musical –Give My Regards To Pharoah – to bring a sparkling dose of theatricality to the epic annual meal.
Currently education director at Keneseth Israel in Allentown in Pennsylvania.,Shoshanateaches professional workshops for Jewish educators, and writes plays for students and Purim shpiels for adults. But what is it about Passover that makes it so compelling to reinvent?
“Passover is THE holiday because it’s both widely celebrated and celebrated in the absence of Jewish authorities looking over our shoulders,” says Shoshana. “Unlike Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there’s no rabbi present at most seders, and we can indulge our imaginations freely and without fear of ‘correction. I think that’s why Passover has inspired incomparable myriads of new traditions over the centuries.”
Presented with a choice between delivering the story of the Exodus as an Italian opera -La Forza del Dayenu or a Doctor Who drama- From Regeneration to Regeneration, families with thespian tendencies will probably have to cast votes ahead of the First Night.
To give you a flavour of Matza Ball Soup: A Seder with the Marx Brothers.
Here is a taster but you can print the full script here:
Cast: Minnie, Sam, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Margaret Dumont.
GROUCHO: Take a walk with me down memory lane, into the world of my childhood, full of love and laughter and the pungent aroma of boiled cabbage. Above a butcher shop on East 93rd Street in New York City – in that cozy homestead, my parents settled down to raise a family.
The twentieth century had only just begun, and it was a time of dreams and struggles. That’s my mother, Minnie. To tell the truth, she’s more Maxi. You can see her slaving over a hot stove. But you can’t see the stove. She’s the only Jewish mother on the Upper East Side who won’t let her oldest son become a doctor. She wants me to be a singer. I think she’s been reading the script upside down.
And that’s my father, Sam, the worst tailor in New York. He married my mother because he wanted children. Imagine his disappointment when I arrived.
You may know my brothers – Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo. With a little hard work they’ll go a long way, and I wish they’d start now.
So, since you’re here, I guess you’ll be sharing our Seder. It will be entirely your pleasure. Just don’t ask too many questions. The seder’s already long enough with this bunch of clowns running it. I don’t know how I get through it myself, and if you think I’m stopping after four drinks you’re crazy.
SAM: Minnie? I can’t find the haggadahs. Where did we put them after the seder last year?
ZEPPO: Were they in a small brown cardboard box tied with bakery string, and marked “gefilte fish”?
ZEPPO: No, I haven’t seen them.
CHICO: Hey, whatsamatter wit’ these-a crackers, they taste just like-a the box they came in.
MINNIE: Chico, don’t eat that matza, the seder’s not even started yet. Where’s Harpo? I told him he could assemble the seder plate.
Different to all other Nights
In 1976 Rabbi Doug Kahn was still a student at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He was also an intern at the affluent Temple Emanu-El in Beverly Hills – the sort of shul that gets requests from Hollywood’s most influential Hebrews. In Doug’s case it was to lead the seder at Groucho Marx’s home in Bel Air.
“I tried to be very cool at the time of the request,” recalls the retired rabbi who now lives in San Francisco. “I told Groucho’s partner Erin Flemming I needed to check my book, but not surprisingly I was free.”
So was his best friend Jason Gwasdoff who had promised to be home for Passover. “But he was also a huge Marx Brothers fan, and negotiated his way out of the commitment.”
Doug arrived early with his wife Ellen at the comedy legend’s home set in the hills. “It was beautiful and elegant, but not in a showy way.Yet you knew immediately whose house you were in because it was decorated with memorabilia from Groucho’s TV shows and movies, so there were ducks everywhere, some hanging, others on pillows.”
Among the other 60 or so guests was “M*A*S*H*” star Sally Kellerman, vaudeville comic Georgie Jessel and actor Ed Begley Jr. Groucho’s grandchildren were also there dining on gefilte fish and matzo ball soup before tearing the house apart to find the afikomen.
“It was a legit seder service,” explains Doug who sat beside Groucho. “He didn’t have deep a connection with Judaism but he listened and participated. Then half way through there was a break and a family variety show took place.” Groucho who was then 85 sang and his grandson Andy played the piano and then the service resumed. This all went by in a haze for the student rabbi who continued the seder until 11pm, though Groucho excused himself ten minutes before the end. “Before leaving I tiptoed into Groucho’s bedroom to say goodnight and there he was propped up in bed, \ wearing his trademark stocking cap and watching reruns of “You Bet Your Life.” “He explained to me that he did this religiously, every night, from the moment it started,”recalls Doug.“Groucho thanked me for coming and made a comment about me being pretty good — for a rabbi.”
Groucho also signed Doug’s Israel Haggadah,along with Sally Kellerman and George Jessel, but the real thrill came some days later when a note written on Marx’s personal stationery arrived. It said:
“Dear Rabbi and Mr. Rabbi [sic]
I want to thank you for making my Annual Seder such a smashing success. Everyone had a wonderful time this year, and I hope you will be available to conduct my next Seder as well as you did this one. Give my regards to your pretty wife.
All good wishes, Groucho Marx.”
Relocating to San Francisco meant Doug was not available to lead the next seder and Groucho never enjoyed another as he died on August 19 1977. The letter still hangs in a frame in Doug’s office as a reminder of the night which was truly different from all other nights.