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Using Jewish Theater to Protest the Private Detention of Migrants

Instead of a traditional protest, Never Again Action presented a Purim Spiel, a centuries-old form of Jewish theater.

Never Again Action’s Purim Spiel, March 6, 2020 (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — On the morning of Friday, March 6, a group of about two dozen activists from Never Again Action gathered outside the Los Angeles offices of GEO Group, a private corrections company that manages seven immigrant detention facilities in California. Armed with pots and pans, signs, and a loudspeaker, they had come to this office park near the airport to make some noise. But instead of a traditional protest, they were about to present a Purim Spiel, a centuries-old form of Jewish theater.

A Purim Spiel is a comic retelling of the Book of Esther, which chronicles the story of Esther, wife of the Persian King Ahasuerus, who keeps her Jewish identity a secret. Haman, the king’s chief advisor, asks Esther’s cousin Mordecai to bow before him. When he refuses, Haman convinces Ahasuerus to order the massacre of all Jews throughout the kingdom. At a feast, Esther reveals her true identity, risking her own life, and implores the king to spare the lives of herself and her fellow Jews. The edict is reversed, and Haman is hanged on the gallows meant for Mordecai. The holiday of Purim (which begins tonight) celebrates this event, with revelers dressing in wild, campy costumes in a carnivalesque atmosphere.

Although the events described in the Book of Esther took place over 2,000 years ago, they hold a contemporary relevance for the members of Never Again Action, a Jewish political action organization that formed last summer with the intention of shutting down ICE and ending the camps for detained migrants. “We have seen this before. We won’t let it happen again. Never again is now,” their website reads.

“Today we’ve come to the offices of GEO Group, a shameful and deplorable private prison company, because we believe that our values as Jews and as Americans say that it’s unacceptable to have the private detention of immigrants in the 21st century,” Never Again Action member Matthew Hom told Hyperallergic. “We’re commemorating the holiday of Purim which celebrates freedom and resistance to tyranny and oppression. We’re saying that we need to take action. We need to sacrifice our privilege and comfort in order to build a world in which GEO Group cannot make a profit off of detaining immigrants. Our broad goal is to have a just immigration system in our country, but there are things on a smaller scale that are part of that. In this case, we want the building’s management to evict Geo Group and to get GEO Group out of CA.”

Pamphlets handed out by Never Again Action (photo by Emily Altschul)

Although they are headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, GEO Group has a Los Angeles office in a building that also houses Pepperdine University’s West Los Angeles Graduate Campus, whose name is emblazoned on the facade. Leaflets handed out at the event listed the phone numbers and email addresses of the property managers. GEO Group not only plays a large role in private detention, owning or managing 129 detention facilities worldwide (12 in California) with almost 100,000 beds, but also recently sued California over a bill banning for-profit prisons in the state.

Emily Altschul, who adapted the Story of Esther for the protest, described the correlations between the play’s four main characters and current events. The king could be seen as a Trumpian figure, clueless and willing to cede power to malevolent advisors, while the GEO group is the king’s advisor, Haman, “profiting from the pain of migrants.” Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, represents those “directly affected by immigration issue, sounding the alarm,” and Queen Esther is “all of us who could potentially hide behind our privilege but are indeed affected.” 

Around 11:30am, members of the group took their places in a small courtyard in front of the building. A guard made his way over, but after a few minutes of discussion with Hom, he went back to his post and the troupe was ready to perform. The activists had a right to be nervous. Last winter, they scheduled a Hanukkah protest outside the GEO Group building; however, when they arrived, the area in front of the building had been cordoned off and surrounded by security guards, tipped off presumably by social media event posts. Never Again Action’s protest there last summer shut down the building for five hours and led to seventeen arrests.

“We have decided to create a Jewish holiday action calendar to keep us accountable,” said Altschul. “To keep the pressure on the building managers, we are truly going to keep coming back.” 

Never Again Action’s Purim Spiel, March 6, 2020

After a brief introduction, the four players began their silent, pantomimed routine, with explication from a narrator in a lemur mask and signs held up by a participant in a dog suit. The role of Esther was played by Julie Weitz, a Los Angeles-based artist who often performs as her alter ego My Golem, a reinterpretation of the mythical Jewish creature Weitz conjured up to confront rising trends of fascism and anti-semitism. Her face was painted bright white, eyes and lips a bright blue, perfect for the dramatic physicality of the silent performance.

Mordecai and Esther (photo by Emily Altschul)

Burlesque performer and dancer Anna Shevitz sported a thick, black beard and eyebrows for her role as Haman. A sparkly gold cape trailed behind her as she crouched and leapt across the makeshift stage. In keeping with tradition, every time the narrator said the name GEO Group (a stand-in for Haman), onlooking protestors tried to drown the name out with noisemakers. It was all very over-the-top and exaggerated, totally campy and silly, a classic Purim Spiel.

Never Again Action’s Purim Spiel, March 6, 2020
Never Again Action’s Purim Spiel, March 6, 2020

Several security guards gathered around the edges of the performance, seemingly more curious than alarmed at the proceedings. The short play ended with the death of GEO Group, Shevitz sprawled out at the feet of the rejoicing king, Mordecai, and Esther, followed by the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, and the recitation of the names of individuals who died in ICE custody over the past year.

The action was co-sponsored with other immigrant rights organizations including Hias, If Not Now, CHIRLA, Bend The Arc, and Jews Against White Nationalism, and after the performance, representatives from those groups addressed the audience, leading them in chants of “People Over Profit” and “El Pueblo Unido.”

From our standpoint, everyone is affected by injustice. When a community suffers, we all suffer,” said Altschul. “Esther is a Jew but it’s unknown that she is. She could continue to live a life of ease, but she speaks up and puts her own body on the line. For those of us sitting on the fence, this is our call to action.”

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