Imagine a Purim play starring Michael Jackson as King Ahasuerus, Harry Potter as Haman, and Lady Gaga as Queen Esther.
Don’t forget Miley Cyrus, Miranda Cosgrove, and SpongeBob SquarePants in assorted cameo roles.
The wild cast of characters and a highly improvised script were born in the fertile imaginations of four young members of the Teen Chavurah, a program cosponsored by the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest and The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, both agencies of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
They gathered on March 14 at the Maplewood acting studio of Emily Bauer, whose credits extend from television commercials to Pokemon cartoons to frequent appearances on MTV.
While the play may never be seen beyond the walls of the studio, its preparation gave the teens — there to work on their social skills — the confidence to face new challenges.
Teen Chavurah “is for kids who might be uncomfortable in a large social setting,” said Margo Adelsberg, the JFS social worker who oversees the group and played the part of SpongeBob. “They are kids who have social anxiety.” The group provides them with “a safe setting…to interact and try out new things. If it was in a school or a synagogue, some of the kids might not have participated as much.”
The activity was also rooted in the tradition of purimshpiels, humorous plays that often parody the holiday story.
But, said Adelsberg, the “number one purpose” of the activity was “the acting, giving the kids leadership, confidence, and public speaking and other skills associated with acting itself. With the aid of The Partnership, we wove into it Jewish education.”
Parents of the four young actors who have been meeting as a group since last October asked that their sons and daughters not be identified.
‘Made it more real’
In the storefront setting of a studio called “AWE” (for “Acting with Emily”), the two boys and two girls had no issues with interacting and self-expression.
The session began when Bauer asked how they might be planning to masquerade for Purim.
“Scooby-Doo,” said one boy.
“Scooby-Doo and Purim? Awesome,” said the acting coach.
The TV cartoon series was only the beginning of the kids’ reimagining of the sixth-century BCE survival story of the Persian Jews whose planned annihilation by the evil courtier Haman was thwarted by Esther, whose marriage to King Ahasuerus put her in a prime position to save her people.
“Where could we set the present-day story?” Bauer asked.
“Los Angeles,” said one teenager.
“Past or present, the day after the Oscars?” the teacher retorted.
Once they settled on Disney World as the location, the students recast the characters as modern-day pop stars whose identities kept changing rapidly.
At one student’s suggesting, Bauer herself was cast in the part of Vashti, the wife banished by Ahasuerus at the beginning of the story.
“What does Michael Jackson say to Vashti?” the teacher asked. The boy playing the late pop star yelled out her name in a screech that could rival Marlon Brando’s shouting “Stella” in A Streetcar Named Desire.
One girl assumed the role of Lady Gaga as Queen Esther, by saying, “I am so excited to be here.”
“I like what you’re wearing,” said the other.
“Thank you so much. My dad actually picked it out,” she replied.
“Should I call you Lady or Gaga?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, Gaga,” said the teacher. “Let’s go ride the Matterhorn.”
And so it went for nearly an hour, with any resemblance to the traditional Bible story strictly coincidental.
“As much as Emily used different people to represent the Purim characters, it magnified the story to the teens and hopefully made it more real on their terms,” Adelsberg told NJ Jewish News.
Other Teen Chavurah activities have ranged from a bowling night to a Shabbat dinner to mitzva projects at an animal shelter.
“Each month is different but each month has a designated activity with a Jewish theme in it,” she said.
Next month, the Teen Chavurah members will celebrate Passover with an organic chocolate seder.
“We will make it fun, put in social action themes, and help them develop special skills,” said Adelsberg.