Ask Barbara Ann Paster to tell you about herself and she has two tales to tell. First, she is, as she describes it, "a Russian Jewish mother of three grown children and four grandsons. My husband Barrie and I have lived in Exeter for 28 years." But she's also Sarah Shapiro, a Ukrainian Jew who migrated with her family to the Puddle Dock neighborhood at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth in the early 1900s. That second self is the person she re-enacts at the Shapiro House at the Strawbery Banke Museum. The year is 1919 and this time of year she and her family are celebrating Hanukkah by playing the dreidel game (with gelt, gold-foil-covered chocolates that are given to children), making latkes and lighting the menorah. They attend Temple Israel on State Street along with others in the substantial Jewish community in Portsmouth. Shapiro/Paster's real-life husband says it can get confusing - he's never quite sure who he's talking with.Why, and when, did you become Sarah Shapiro? In 1997, as a member of the Jewish Storytelling Coalition, I answered an ad in their newsletter looking for someone to play Sarah Shapiro at the Strawbery Banke Museum and I have been Sarah Shapiro ever since. My husband tells me he never knows whether it's me or Sarah he's talking with and even says that I sometimes mutter Yiddish in my sleep.Has doing it changed your life in any way? Yes. People approach me in stores and at lectures recognizing me as Mrs. Shapiro. Being Mrs. Shapiro has taught me a lot about the Ukrainian Shapiro family and about the synagogue and the people that lived in this Puddle Dock neighborhood at Strawbery Banke in 1919.What is Sarah's favorite part of Hanukkah? Getting together with family and friends to share latkes (potato pancakes) and swee-touch-nee chai (Russian sweet flower tea). Also, singing the Hanukkah blessing with my daughter, Mollie.Is it true that Hanukkah is a minor religious holiday for Jews? Yes. It's actually celebrated to remember a real historic time period when the Syrian Greek army tried to take over the Jewish homeland in Judea. It also commemorates oil burning in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for eight days when there was only enough oil for one night's fire in the NerTalmid (eternal light).How would Sarah feel about some people calling Hanukkah "Jewish Christmas"? In 1919 Hanukkah was not called a "Jewish Christmas." That comes more in the 1950s when gift giving at Hanukkah goes beyond handmade items and parents are goaded into coming up with bicycles to match gift giving in the Christian neighborhood for Christmas.What do you want people to know about the Shapiros? The Shapiro brothers, Samuel and Avram, were on the negotiating committee that bought the Methodist Church on State Street in Portsmouth as a synagogue in 1912. Shapiro family members were very involved in city and state government as well as the arts and business. They were very proud to be Americans and loved their country.
This article appears in the December 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine