Too Good to Be True: A Purim Shpil from Northern Italy

Translated and Edited by Curt Leviant

I found this mid- to late-nineteenth-century Italian rhymed Purim-shpil from northern Italy in the archives of a branch of a municipal library in Italy while I was doing research on a totally different topic. Although written in Italian, a brief note says that it had been translated from the Yiddish. This is not surprising, for in Venice there was a lively Yiddish-speaking community. In fact, one of the first great Yiddish writers, the sixteenth-century Elye Bokher, lived and published in Venice. I have not yet discovered the Yiddish original, but I will search the archives of the Bibliotecca Veneziana the next time I am in Venice.

The municipal library does not permit a manuscript to be photocopied or even copied by hand. Note-taking, however, is permitted, and I was given special permission to translate this charming Purim play, and to quote the lively Italian couplet at the end of the play, by Dottore Leporello di Figarontini, municipal archivist. This may indicate a possible bilingual presentation of this Purim-shpil, in Italian and in Yiddish. The fact that the anonymous Italian translator kept so many Yiddish and Hebrew words—such as Purim-shpil, megilla, goyim, l’chaim, and akhila—shows that he was confident his readers would understand them. Note too that, uniquely, in this version Haman’s wife, Zeresh, takes a more active anti-Semitic role. I’ve never seen this accented in any other Purim play.

There is no telling whether this Purim-shpil was chanted, as was the typical Purim-shpil in Eastern Europe. But if the chanted exchanges I once heard on the streets of Venice during Carnevale some years ago are any indication, I would assume that when this shpil was presented during Purim, the Jewish Carnivale, the parts may very well have been chanted, as were the recitatives in the Commedia del Arte.

The rhymes are in iambic tetrameter; most are in couplets. For variation, there is an occasional triplet, and, once in a while, the rhyme scheme, instead of a-b, a-b, is offered as a-b-b-a.

—Curt Leviant

The title page of, "Two Purim-shpils" a puppet show, published in Chicago in 1938


Ahasuerus                               I’m Ahasuerus, the mighty King,

                          (aside)           (and this Purim-shpil’s director,

                                                editor and set erector).

                                                When I speak—to attention spring!

                                                Our Jewish Commedia del Arte,

                                                a comic story, soon will start-e.

                                                Here are all the Purim-shpiller

                                                to play for you the great megilla,

                                                so please sit still, and even stiller.


(Ahasuerus points to Mordecai and Esther)

                                                For our heroes a hearty cheer!

(He points to Haman and Zeresh)

                                                And for these villains a growling jeer!


Zeresh (steps forward)          I am Zeresh, Haman’s wife.

                                                Do I like stress, do I love strife!

                                                But as for hate, it’s Mordecai,

                                                who with his clan is doomed to die.

                                                Soon will come that destined day,

                                                So let all Persians shout: Hurray!      

(She turns to Mordecai)

                                                You’ll see, when we claim victory,

                                                you’ll be swinging from a tree.           


Mordecai                                 Ladies first, that’s courtesy.

                                                Try it, then report to me.


(Enter Haman)

Haman                                                All the world knows Haman’s name.

                                                The Book of Esther made my fame.

                                                I am favored by the King,

                                                for to his coffers gold I bring.

                                                When Jews hear “Haman” they shout “boo’s.”

                                                What do you expect from no-good Jews?

                                                No good will come from those Hebrews.

                                                I just proposed; the King gave orders

                                                to kill the Jews within our borders.

                                                I’m not as bad as people say.

                                                I’m quite okay; the Jews say nay.

                                                My wife is worse. She’s thinks she’s Zeus,

                                                that self-indulgent, silly goose.

                                                It’s Zeresh who should get the noose.


Ahasuerus                              You heard my name is Ahasuerus.

                                                Pronounce it, please, as Ah-ha-swear-us.

                                                I declare it all the time:

                                                my name impossible to rhyme.


Chorus                                   One cannot rhyme a name so long,

                                               Not in poem, shpil or song.


Zeresh (steps forward)          And don’t forget my odd name too

                                                the poets try but none can do.


Chorus                                   Our loud and lengthy lusty hisses

                                                to that evil brazen missus.


Haman                                               What a gorgeous name have I;

                                                more elegant than Mordecai.

                                                For my name too we have no rhyme,

                                                a name so rare, a name sublime.

                                                Whenever I decide to choose,

                                                I’ll rid my Persia of the Jews.


Chorus                                    Haman lets out hue and cry:

                                                to rhyme my name don’t even try.


Mordecai                                Why waste our precious Shushan time,

                                                with childish thoughts like, can we rhyme?

                                                Because of evil Haman’s hate

                                                he decreed our people’s fate.

                                                Since I refused to bow, he said,

                                                Soon all your kinsmen will be dead.


Ahasuerus                               Look, here comes a delegation

                                                from the chosen Jewish nation.


Chorus             (of Jews)        Oh great king, oh Ahasuerus,

                                                your evil Haman’s out to snare us.


Chorus                                    Why claim we cannot rhyme his name?

                                                Those who do, they bask in fame.


Ahasuerus                               An Italian proverb: rice is

                                                eaten in a crisis.


Mordecai                                What link has that to the megilla,

                                                when we fear the Persian Titus?



Ahasuerus       (shrugs)          It’s just a catchy, rhyming filler.

                                                Injustice, yes, a moral stain.

                                                But a Purim-shpil must entertain.


     (The King sees Esther entering)

                                                Here comes my lovely lady royal,

                                                my Queen, devoted, wise and loyal.

                                                I love to have you, Esther, near.

                                                What glad tidings bring you here?


Esther                                     No glad tidings, my dear sire,

                                                but wail and woe, grief and ire.

                                                My folk in danger, Ahasuerus!

                                                The Jews, my kin, you’ll have to spare us.


Chorus                                   One cannot rhyme his longish name,

                                               no poet wild, no poet tame.



Zeresh (points to Esther, improvises)

                                                Why’d they choose her for a queen?

                                                She’s as skinny as a bean,

                                                And looks just like a piece of wood.

                                                I should’ve been the queen, I should.


Esther     (improvises)            You’re not, Zeresh, even Jewish.

                                                 You’re mean, you’re jealous, sly and shrewish.

                                                 Your soul is made of wood, not love,

                                                 and Zeresh fits you like a glove!      


                        (applause from the audience)



Ahasuerus     (improvises)    Now, now, now, let’s stick to script.

                                                The Purim tale we must depict

                                                in honest fashion, nice and strict.


Mordecai  (to Ahasuerus)      Recall, I overheard a plot

                                                where plans were made to have you shot,

                                                but my good deed you soon forgot.


Ahasuerus                              I’m so sorry, Mordecai!

                                                A foolishness that makes me sigh.

                                                Not giving thanks to my minister

                                                for saving me from men sinister.

                                                I for this lapse apologize.

                                                Here, try my signet ring for size.

                                                Although I’m called a demagogue,

                                                All of Shushan will be agog

                                                When I will build a synagogue

                                                In honor of my Mordecai

                                                Who saved my life, who gave me chai.


Mordecai         (inclines his head in gratitude)

                                                Worse is Haman, Ahasuerus.

                                                With your kind help he will not scare us.


Chorus                                    The king has constantly opined,

                                                no rhyme for him can we find.


Ahasuerus                               What’s your wish, my chosen bride?

                                                 To half my kingdom, long and wide.



Esther                                    To save my people, gracious King!

                                               That’s the only prayer I bring.


Chorus            (Jews)             Mighty ruler, Ahasuerus!

                                               Give us life! Free, declare us!


Ahasuerus                              Who’s the cause of this great sin?

                                                Point him out. I’ll do him in.


Chorus   (pointing to Haman and Zeresh, who point to each other)


Esther                                     Haman’s plan to kill us Jews,

                                                that’s his nasty, wicked ruse.


    (Haman and Zeresh cringe, retreat.)


                                                Haman, Haman is the killer,

                                                as we read in the megilla.


Haman                                                No, no, not me, it’s all my wife,

                                                who has compassion like a knife.

                                                One thing, Jews, I must make clear,

                                                that your demise, that’s her idea.


Zeresh           (to Haman)      Then why’d you sign this damned decree?

                                                Hang him alone on this high tree.

                                                And while you’re at it, Mordecai.

                                                It’s time to bid him fond goodbye.



Ahasuerus                              No, not in Shushan, this fine town.

                                                So Haman, Zeresh, fret and frown,

                                                your schemes they’re now turned upside down.

                                                Evil Zeresh, cunning Haman,

                                                you wagon-draggin nasty drayman.


Chorus                                   Who says we can’t rhyme Haman’s name?

                                               Monarch does it all the same.


Ahasuerus                               Prepare the rope, for two not one;

                                                the shpil is over, justice done.

                                                Hang them on the nearest tree.

                                                Let Haman swing with missus Z.


Chorus                                   King even found a rhyme for her;

                                                You did it, Ahasuerus, sir!


Zeresh   (improvises)            You’re a bunch of anti-goyim,

                                                Jew-bilating on your Purim.

                                                Anti-goyness is a crime

                                                of which you’re guilty all the time.

                                                Don’t like the way I’m being treated.

                                                Once this so-called shpil’s completed

                                                I’ll get even, count on me

                                                and members of my family.


(Chorus takes both Haman and Zeresh away to back of stage.)


Ahasuerus                              With hopes that no one’s been offended,

                                                our comedy is now upended.

                                                Finished now with our megilla,

                                                we turn to drinking and akhilla,*

                                                pasta, olives and tequila.

                                                Yes, all agree that for the Jews

                                                on Purim day it’s fun and booze.

                                                So now we’ll all drink a l’chaim,

                                                For Jews like wine, they don’t drink mayim.


 (Now everyone joins hands; Zeresh reluctantly)  


 All say:                                   We wish to every Jew and goy,

                                                old and grown-up, girl and boy,

                                                a happy Purim, full of joy.

 (And in Italiano:)                  Buon felice festival, (happy holiday)

                                                Gioiosa Carnevale (joyous Carnival)