Joan Wolf has done it all. At least when it comes to Purim shpiels.
Wolf, 58, has been directing and organizing the Purim shpiels at Bethesda Jewish Congregation for the past 18 years. Now, she’s ready to hang up her grogger and hat, to end on a “chai note,” as she put it.
“It’s been a labor of love for me, but it’s also been a stressful situation,” she said, laughing a little.
A Purim shpiel is a comic dramatization of the Book of Esther. Often it usually contains references to pop culture, caricatures of political figures and can lean towards a more adult audience.
The shpiels Wolf picks tend to be Purim-themed parodies of popular musicals like “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Grease” and “Les Miserables,” or shows incorporating the music of a particular band like the Beach Boys or the Beatles, all while still telling the story of Esther.
The theme this year is “Chicago: All That Megillah Jazz,” which is a parody of the musical “Chicago.” Wolf said it will feature a very interesting interpretation of Haman, but wouldn’t reveal much else. Her final performance will take place on Saturday, March 16.
Until then, her entire focus will be on the show. Organizing the shpiels is a time-consuming and all-encompassing process that begins around September.
“From the end of Yom Kippur until Purim, this occupies a large space in my brain,” she said.
While she does work with the rabbi on certain aspects, like ensuring all the script references are up to date, most of the work is on her — with help from her kids.
She has to decide which theme or show to do, order the script, edit the script to make sure it’s up to date, collect props and costumes, and of course, assemble the cast, which usually consists of about 30 people of the synagogue’s 300 members.
There’s no audition process. The person only needs to pass the mirror test. If you put a mirror in front of them and you can see their breath, they’re in the cast, she explained.
And then come the rehearsals.
“We probably have a grand total of about 2.39 rehearsals and that is it,” Wolf, ever the humorist, said. “So the cast members are allowed to hold their scripts. That makes it fun for them and entertaining for the audience.”
Wolf, of course, is also a member of the cast. As is Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer. This year they’ll be playing Vashti and King Achashverosh respectively. Wolf admits that she hasn’t had a lot of time to look at the script yet.
The shows are filled with inanity, including musical numbers and costumes that don’t necessarily fit the setting or are improvised. One year, they were unable to get a duck costume, for a joke
involving the Aflac mascot, and used a turkey costume instead; one year they had somebody dress as a flamingo. They’ve had people dress in drag and there’s always lots and lots of alcohol for both the audience and the cast.
During Purim, according to the Talmud, one is supposed to achieve a measure of levity at which he does not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” And the shpiel accomplishes this by having alcohol backstage for the cast and unlimited alcohol for the audience. One repeat cast member always brings slivovitz, a kind of brandy made from plums that originates from Central Europe. Of course, other options are available.
But the main draw remains the show itself and the community that is bought together by these shpiels.
The shpiels started when Schnitzer started at the synagogue, around the same time Wolf joined. The synagogue didn’t have a regular Purim shpiel prior to that.
“Bethesda Jewish Congregation is a very musical congregation. When I joined, I was looking for as much musical enrichment as I possibly could and somehow found myself agreeing to do our Purim spiel,” Wolf said. “Eighteen years ago it was just a very low key situation. It has evolved into dinner theater and a
She grew up in Chicago and attended American University, where she majored in music and international business.
Afterwards, she moved around the area before settling down in Bethesda with her family in 1994.
In her professional life, she works in real estate.
In her home life, Wolf has her 26-year-old daughter Leah, 19-year-old son Harrison, a dog named Sheila, a cat named Oscar and a horse named Joker.
In her synagogue life, she’s been on the board, been president of the congregation, and participates in and coordinates events for the synagogue’s choir besides organizing the shpiels.
“Around here, Joan has earned the moniker, more than once, of ‘Ms. BJC.’ I think [the Purim shpiel] is the crown jewel in her crown,” Schnitzer said.
And the synagogue has given back to Wolf in many ways. When her husband died, she said, between family, friends and the synagogue, the mourners received meals “for eight solid months.” Most of that came from the congregation.
And while she’ll continue participating in other areas of the synagogue, she’s ready to pass on the shpiel baton to someone else. Still, she’s not going out without a bang.
Wolf has made a few changes to the script to reflect the fact that it’s her “swan song.” Among the adjustments, her daughter Leah will be playing Esther. And Esther will be ousted from her position in favor of Jezebel.
That way it represents both mother and daughter leaving their roles.
“I felt that was a really fitting way for me to take off into the sunset,” Wolf said.
Nobody is really sure what’s going to happen next, and who will take over.
“[Joan] brings a lot of happiness to a lot of people,” said Schnitzer. “I’ve rarely met people with a bigger heart. I’ve never met somebody so dedicated to their personal groacwth. She is truly