CARVER, Massachusetts — Even in the absence of Jewish knights and princesses for inspiration, some Americans bring distinctly Jewish flavors to staging Renaissance festivals across the country.
With dozens of seasonal productions to choose from, Jews are drawn to every facet of recreating medieval kingdoms. Each festival depicts a historical setting — usually 16th century England — around which attractions revolve. In addition to jousting, bawdy side-shows and roaming performers, some kingdoms boast small zoos, rides for children, or elaborate Highland games.
For three decades, King Richard’s Faire (KRF) has wrought the kingdom of “Carvershire” in the woods of sleepy Carver, south of Boston. The production is owned and operated by the Shapiro family, led by matriarch Bonnie Shapiro. Since the death of co-founder Richard Shapiro, the family has carried on his legacy with Bonnie as lead producer alongside daughter Aimée Shapiro Sedley, the festival’s general manager.
Visiting leafy Carvershire on a Saturday in September, The Times of Israel joined several thousand visitors in the make-believe kingdom. Positioned beneath the castle-façade entrance, festival matron Bonnie Shapiro was ready for business, making sure entrants purchased tickets and were not sneaking goodies into her dominion.
Although the Jewish mother and daughter behind Carvershire said there is nothing particularly “Jewish” about their festival, a slew of the kingdom’s Jewish inhabitants expressed other opinions. From millennials to elders, these men and women spoke about links between participating in Renaissance festivals and their Jewish faith.
This Saturday, 27-year old Joshua Gannon-Salomon is known as Giles, the Bard of Carvershire. As the kingdom’s chief story-teller, the exuberant Giles transports listeners to Constantinople, Ireland, and Ukraine with thought-provoking tales.
“My character is Anglican in name with humanistic learning,” said Gannon-Salomon, who — in real life — has “Jewish heritage on my father’s side,” said the singer and song-writer.
In one of his tales for the guests of Carvershire, Giles recalls a group of witches that besieged a shtetl in Europe, said Gannon-Salomon. Pointing out that Jews were barred from the professions during that era, the performer said inspiration to create Giles came from Jews who became roaming entertainers during those restrictive times.
In addition to Gannon-Salomon, the actor playing King Richard X, 58-year-old Tom Epstein, is Jewish, and has performed with the cast for 16 years — first as a cook, and then as noble King Richard. Epstein is highly visible to visitors during three royal viewings and one parade through the kingdom each day.
Joshua Rudy, the realm’s pun-cracking master-of-arms, also spoke about being Jewish and his draw to Renaissance festivals. An actor and fight choreographer by trade, Rudy presides over jousts with witty banter and nimble handling of the action.
“There were no Jewish knights back then, you know,” Rudy told The Times of Israel after the joust. “Jews usually got murdered and blamed for everything,” he said, referencing the character Shylock.
Despite the lack of Jewish heroes in Renaissance-era legends, “Jews are over-represented in the arts community,” said Rudy, “This is also an alternative kind of scene, where you can be anything you want,” said the performer, who is also a blacksmith and rock drummer.
British with a pinch of Yiddish
According to King Richard’s Faire’s PR manager, Julie Dennehy, the medieval reenactment movement began in San Francisco and was tied to progressive causes. Since the first large-scale festivals were launched in the early 1970s, the undertaking has grown to several dozen annually occurring productions across North America.
At53 acres, Carvershire is modestly portioned compared to other realms, some of which include camping grounds for the public. With 1,000 employees and apprentices, however, KRF can stake a claim to being one of the country’s largest operations.
During The Times of Israel’s visit, at least five main-stage performers used Yiddish expressions, joked about circumcision, or referenced performing at bar mitzvahs. The stucco Tudor buildings dotting the woods are meant to evoke things British, but there were also echoes of Yiddish.
For example, the daring Michael Rosman is known as the Squire of the Wire. Wearing a kilt, the knife-wielding Rosman performed feats on a wire while cracking one-liners such as, “Careful, I am not a rabbi!” Having performed for David Letterman and Bruce Springsteen, Rosman is big on the corporate event circuit.
Across the realm from Rosman’s wire was the “Mouth of Hell” stage, where a burly man was doing tricks with fire.
“They had no idea what they were getting into at that bar mitzvah,” joked Ses Carny, who performs “The Torture Show” in Carvershire. During his act, the showman inspires the audience with the motto, “nothing is impossible.”
“There is a strong message to do what you love,” said PR manager Dennehy of the stunt-filled performance. Although Carny is not one of the dominion’s Jewish residents, the vaudeville flavor of his act and others at KRF is evocative of that era’s Jewish performers, said Dennehy.
In one corner of the fenced-off kingdom, Jewish performer Larry Rabin hosted the “Hopeless Romantic” show as Guido Libido, an “Italian rapscallion” who puts saucy spins on famous love stories. As he toured the country performing in Renaissance festivals, Rabin met his future wife, another performer.
Speaking of romance, KRF added a marriage ceremony option to existing vow renewal ceremonies in Carvershire. Inside a large white tent, general manager Aimée Shapiro Sedley was seen tapping beer in preparation for the arrival of the newlyweds and guests clad in “Game of Thrones” garb. Like her mother checking tickets at the entrance, the heiress to the realm was laser-focused on the task at hand.
Absent from the family realm was Shapiro’s sister, actress Samantha Harris, known for having co-hosted “Dancing with the Stars.” The California-based Harris has posted to social media about her daughter’s bat mitzvah and observing Jewish holidays, and was spotted at the festival with her daughters on opening day.
Whether of Jewish heritage or not, quite a few Renaissance festival enthusiasts will mention family and tradition when asked why participating in these reenactments is meaningful to them.
“My parents were from a shtetl in Czechoslovakia, and everyone made something,” said Devorah Susman, a Bronx-born designer of silver tiaras, cloak clamps and other adornments. Here in the backwoods of southeastern Massachusetts, Susman sells her line of fantasy jewelry inspired by spiritual symbols and nature.
“I grew up working with my hands and making beautiful things has always been in my blood,” said the tiara-clad artist, one of several Jews to mention the shtetl that day in Carvershire.
King Richard’s Faire is open on weekends through October 23 in Carver, Massachusetts.
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