Passover Parodies is the first book that I was actually sent, by the author, in order to review for this website (big milestone!) and it couldn’t have been a more perfect selection. Rabbi Hantman's creation is a collection of short plays that adapts the Haggadah to the style of various Western cultural landmarks, including Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and the Marx Brothers. Each chapter is written out like a play, with a list of characters at the beginning, stage directions, and lively dialogue. But it’s a little strange – Rabbi Hantman and I have never met, so how could she have known that at the age of ten, I happened to have memorized entire Marx Brothers movies and the librettos of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and then became an English major in college, thus making this book so wonderfully suited for me?
I used to think that I was, perhaps, a little odd as a child, for those first two feats. Apparently, though, I am not the only one who found such delight in those exemplars of wit, as Rabbi Hantman’s love for their works shines throughout the collection. I guess those hours I spent listening to the movies and cassette tapes over and over might have just come in handy. How else would I have been able to remember, for example, this exact reference from Matza Ball Soup, one of the chapters in Passover Parodies?
Groucho: That’s right, what about the afikomen? You don’t think you’re getting away with that, do you? Taking dry crackers from your family’s mouths! Chico, go find that afikomen!
Chico: Eh, you want I should a-steal?
Zeppo: Oh no, no! It’s not stealing.
Chico: Well, then, I couldn’t do it.
Zeppo: But we have to find it!
Chico: Harpo, he can-a find it….
Sam: Harpo, get your hand out of my pocket!
Minnie: Very good son, you’ve found the afikomen.
I happen to know that these lines are lifted almost exactly from a scene in Animal Crackers, when Zeppo’s love interest is asking Chico’s character to steal a piece of valuable artwork. I couldn’t find the exact clip of this from any movie websites online, but I thoroughly enjoyed all the time I wasted while trying.
But in these parodies, Rabbi Hantman doesn’t just quote the movie lines themselves. She (brilliantly, in my opinion) makes up her own that perfectly mimic the tone of each Marx brothers. Matza Ball Soup is set up with the four Marx brothers each taking a “role” in the Passover story, with some extra standard Marx movie characters (Marguerite Dumont, for example), included, although they also find themselves perfectly suited to play each of the seder’s Four Sons. Though it’s tempting to just quote the entire chapter, I’ll restrain myself to provide just one more:
Sam: Suddenly, in the distance, Moses saw some strange figures.
Groucho: Exxon-Mobil, 289, Apple 645, Alcoa 231…
Chico [playing Pharaoh]: You just wait till I catch up with you, I’m-a make you sorry you were ever born!
Groucho: It’s the Pharaoh and his army! They’re headed straight for us. This whole thing sphinx.
After all, there are plenty more examples to give from her other parodies, such as her re-writing of Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics in “Trial by Jewry”:
[to the tune of ‘When I was a Lad’]
When I was a lad, I scrubbed and swept
All the chambers of the palace of Amenhotept
I fed the peacocks and I cleaned the mess
And I polished up the sandals of the High Priestess….
I polished up her sandals so carefullee
That now I am the Pharaoh of the dynasty!
With brazen flummery and prudent bribes
I used to apprentice to the royal scribes
While useless at the tasks that they perform
I could copy all the letters in cuneiform…
I copied all those letters so officiously
That now I am the Pharaoh of the dynasty!
Some of the chapters, such as the “Trial by Jewry,” do not closely follow the actual seder and instead are sort of re-tellings of the Passover story itself – though, Rabbi Hantman warns, it is a loose re-telling: “Like the plots of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, this plot won’t stand up to very close scrutiny. If you want storytelling that’s faithful to the original – well, if that’s what you want, I have no idea why you’re reading this book.” It doesn’t matter – the highlight is the song lyrics anyway, such as the rendition of “He Is an Israelite” to the tune of “He is an Englishman,”
The song lyrics are equally as impressive in her ode to Italian opera, “La Forza del Dayenu.” As she does in most of the other chapters, Hantman draws upon a number of particular works with one theme to create a composite parody. In this one, she creates a vague adaptation of La Boheme, but uses songs from various other operas, including Il Trovatore and Rigoletto for her lyric rewrites – resulting in such gems as this (to the tune of “La Donna e mobile”):
Chew on a matza sheet
Tastes just like concrete
Pass the salt-water bowl
Gefilte-fish on the plates
Give me a matza-ball
It’s so Levitical
I don’t know whether such love of the verbal dexterity in Marx Bros and Gilbert&Sullivan creates a further appreciation for English and reading, or whether the two simply tend to coincide (chicken or egg question?). Regardless, some sort of correlation seems to be on display, as Rabbi Hantman also proves her mettle in an adaptation of Shakespeare (“Much Ado About Bupkes”) that includes almost groan-worthy (fantastically so, I have to add) lines as this:
Moses: By which route should we travel?
Aaron: Well, there’s the long route, by land. Or the shorter route, by sea, direct to Israel.
Moses: By sea, or not by sea? That is the question.
Aaron: Though the seas threaten, they are merciful…Will you just look at that! The sea is parting.
Moses: I have mixed feelings about that…Parting is such sweet sorrow.
Pharaoh: What dreadful noise of water in mine ears!...
Aaron: Full fathom five the Pharaoh lies.
The parodies are hilarious on their own, but an equal part of the delight is in being able to “get the joke.” Without knowledge of the reference, or the ability to hum along to the tune as you read, it’s hard to imagine that all of this would be as amusing. I have to admit, I probably didn’t “get” most of “The Hithchiker’s Guide to the Exodus,” “Give My Regards to Pharaoh,” or “Play it Again, Moses,” since I either haven’t read or seen any of those originals. Skits, as all the plays in Passover Parodies are, are so wonderful for kids, and yet I wondered for a bit how much of all this would be lost on most kids today, who are probably even more distant from the Marx Brothers and Casablanca than my generation. But then again, what a great opportunity: the older generation at the Seder, seeing the jokes go right over the kids’ heads, take it upon themselves to show those kids what they’ve been missing. And now there’s a great excuse to have a family night watching those old films or reading old plays together.
I did actually try one of the skits out with real live kids. Well, okay, teenagers. In a class that I teach at the JCC, we had the opportunity to read through “Harry Potter and the Deathly Horseradish,” one that I thought they would definitely appreciate. There were a lot of ill-suppressed giggles and smirks, bemused eye-rolls, and exaggerated disbelief: “Where did you find this?” and “What is this?” They thought it was awesome.
The seder, as everyone loves to complain, is already way too long, so I don’t imagine that Passover Parodies would be used in addition to the actual first night seder. But it would be perfect for: religious schools, second night seder, reading snippets together during seder preparations, Hillel seders, and I’m sure much, much more. What a remarkable gift to get this from Rabbi Hartman. And since I'm off to bake hamantaschen with my Hebrew High school class, I can only think - she must write one stellar Purimspiel, too.