Jordan Margolis continues the centuries-old tradition of the Purim shpiel

Published in 2007 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2007

In the waiting room of Jordan Margolis’ office suite in downtown Chicago, theater posters and colorful fixtures contribute to an unusually jovial ambience that extends all the way into his own corner office, where he leans back in his chair and chats about his personal injury practice. At the moment he’s handling a mass tort case on behalf of firefighters in 17 states who have suffered permanent hearing loss from the sirens on their vehicles. “A sound used to warn the public should be located with a siren that’s focused forward so that the firefighters behind the siren shouldn’t be blasted,” he explains. “Unfortunately, it’s an omnidirectional sound—narrow band, high frequency—and that tone does damage.”

Margolis’ extroverted, broadly expressive manner reminds one that trying cases before a jury has much in common with acting on a stage. Indeed, since 1996, Margolis, a 51-year-old Chicago native, has also pursued a theatrical avocation: He raises money for his Evanston synagogue by writing, producing and acting in large-scale musical theater productions that fuse Broadway aesthetics with the centuries-old tradition of Purim shpiels—skits and plays recounting the biblical origins of the Jewish festival of Purim.

“In the Book of Esther you have a king who marries Esther, who doesn’t know she’s Jewish,” says Margolis with an impish smile. “And you have a bad guy who’s an adviser to the king, named Haman, who feels affronted because this Jew named Mordecai wouldn’t bow down to him. And he’s going to kill all the Jews. So it’s a story of attempted genocide. Esther finds out, Mordecai finds out about it, and Esther pleads for the survival of the Jews to the king. Fortunately they’re saved, and Haman is hanged by the gallows that he built for Mordecai. It’s a story that’s told at the holiday of Purim, which means ‘lots,’ because Haman cast lots for what day he was going to have a pogrom and kill all the Jews.”

The story engendered a tradition of springtime Purim carnivals. “In the Middle Ages they used to just let their hair down and make fun of the rabbi and make fun of the congregation, and they were bawdy and over-the-top,” says Margolis. “The Purim shpiels that I do are full-length musical comedies. The concept is to take a real Broadway show, and the characters and basic plot and basic period of that show, and mix it with the Book of Esther.”

Margolis has produced seven shows for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, including a spoof of Miss Saigon called Miss Shushan. “I was coronated as the first Jewish drag queen. I was Esther but I was really Ezra, and the king fell in love with me. I was dressed in drag, and for the rest of the show there were two secrets: one was that I was Jewish and the other was that I was a guy.”

Another show was a take-off on Little Shop of Horrors called Little Schnapps for Schnorrers: “I was a man-eating plant from outer space, and I developed a taste for the Jewish people after eating a Jewish dentist.” Other works include a Camelot parody called Camelplotz and a Guys and Dolls variation titled Goys and Kaballah.

“The trick is, tell the audience the same story every year and keep them interested,” says Margolis. “We used to do them once a year, but we’re now doing them every other year because they got so big.”

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