Gragger—Boston Workmen’s Circle’s annual, grown-up “evening of gender-bending, ancestral-healing, world-transforming Purim festivities”—is named for the clacker or rattle traditionally used to blot out the villain’s name in the ancient Jewish holiday tale.
“It’s traditional to blot out the name of evil when you hear it in the shpil,” Maddy Popkin, cultural worker and member organizer for the center for Jewish culture and social justice, tells the Gragger crowd at SEIU 32BJ Meeting Hall in Boston’s Downtown Crossing neighborhood Saturday night. “If I say Haman…” The crowd loudly boos.
Gragger celebrates the Jewish spring holiday of Purim with costumes, dance music by a DJ and the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, and a recounting of the old account. “The reason Purim is my favorite holiday—and certainly the best for queering and topsy-turvy exploration—is there’s a rabbinical edict to drink so much that you cannot tell the good guy from the bad guy,” Popkin told me.
“The origins of the actual story are murky, nobody knows,” Popkin said. It’s one of those (as the old joke goes) they-tried-to-kill-us-we-survived stories.
In the ancient tale, Haman, a top advisor to a Persian king, becomes upset when a man by the name of Mordecai fails to bow to him. So he hatches a plot to murder all the Jews in the empire. But the king’s new wife, Esther—Mordecai’s niece/cousin and a Jew herself—intercedes with the king, who allows the Jews to fight those that would kill them.
“We can’t show you the gore that happened next, but rest assured the Jewish people stood up to the test,” a narrator says in the Gragger performers’ quick rendition of the Purim story—as a radical, rhyming, queer burlesque. “There’s always an element of critiquing the powers that be,” Popkin had told me.
Then they do the shpil (play) again—reimagined in a pair of rival nightclubs in 1925 New York. One is a tearoom run by Eve Adams (Eva Kotchever), a Jewish immigrant from Poland, a “notorious lesbian” and author of “illicit short stories.” In this version, Haman is the manager of the other club, who reports Adams as a lesbian to the police, who raid the place. This Esther—played by a performer with breasts hidden by tape and hair painted down chest, working in “drag” as a woman at Haman’s club—gets the king/club owner to bribe the cops to let Adams go.
Adams was a real person. The Adams character tells the crowd that what actually occurred was “a beautiful woman walked into my nightclub. I flirted. She was an undercover police officer and I was arrested and deported from the U.S.” Adams landed in Paris, where she opened another club. “In 1943, along with many other bright and beautiful Jews, I was murdered at Auschwitz. That’s how it happened.”
“We really need people to be daring and to see and imagine worlds that feel impossible. We need to make a practice of that work,” Popkin tells the crowd. “In a time of both heightening white nationalism and a time of constricting the tent, we’re so in need of your support.”
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