Thursday, December 27, 2007


By Shawn Shafner

Storah On The Road

It’ll be a few months still before we’ll start scouring our houses for chametz and celebrating the feast of Passover. Come March we’ll be sitting around our seder tables, sharing the story of how we were freed from slavery in Egypt. In synagogues around the world, however, that story starts this weekend with Sh’mot.

When we last left the Hebrews, they were shepherding blissfully in the bountiful green land of Goshen, which Joseph, the now-famously named “Prince of Egypt,” set aside for them. Fast forward a few hundred years and things have changed. There’s been a few shifts of government, the new guy don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no Joseph, and the Hebrews have long since abandoned their flocks and taken up slavin’. There’s quite a lot of them, however, and that makes the Pharaoh nervous. The slaves could rebel and overpower them, or become a fifth pillar in a war! So he decides to nip the problem in the baby, er, bud, and calls in the two top midwives for Hebrews in town. They are instructed to help the mother through her labor and then determine the sex of the child. If it’s a girl, give her a spanking and a lolly and send her on her way. If it’s a boy, give the mom the spanking and kill the kid. (Talk about birth control…) The midwives refuse to disregard their Hippocratic oaths, however, and the Hebrews continue to thrive. Boy does that make Pharaoh angry. Grrrrr! He enlists the help of all the Egyptians to throw baby Hebrew boys to the hungry Nile gods, and then we start in on the birth of this Moses guy. I’m sure he’s got a bright future, but he’s not in the limelight today.

I want us to picture two midwives standing in Pharaoh’s office. Surely they’re nervous—how often does the Pharaoh, a God, invite the midwives over? The government doesn’t usually involve itself in women’s rights…what could this be about? Jonathan Kaplan tells us:
The King of Egypt spoke to the [chief] Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shifra and Puah. He said, 'When you deliver Hebrew women, you must look carefully at the birthstool. If [the infant] is a boy, kill it; but if it is a girl, let it live.' The midwives feared God, and did not do as the Egyptian king had ordered them. They allowed the infant boys to live.” (Exodus 1:15-17)

But who are these heroes, Shifra and Puah? And what ever happened to the term “birthstool?” It’s not exactly clear. Let’s look at a few different translations of 1:15.

Kaplan: The king of Egypt spoke to the chief Hebrew midwives…
JPS: And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives... Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives…
Everett Fox: Now the king of Egypt said to the midwives of the Hebrews…

Wait, wait, wait. Because that last one is a little bit different, right? You’d started to think to yourself, “Actually, Mr. Blogster man, it’s kind of obvious. They’re the head Hebrew honchos in the midwife world!” If that’s what you thought, then you were snared into my trap! What if the midwives are not Hebrews themselves, but “midwives of the Hebrews?”

To the other extreme, Rashi suggests that Shifra and Puah are in fact Yocheved and Miriam (respectively Moses’ mother and sister ), and that the names serve to describe their style of midwifery. From the chabad website again:
Shifrah. This was Jochebed, [called Shifrah] because she beautified [מְשַׁפֶּרֶת] the newborn infant. [From Sotah 11b] Puah. This was Miriam, [called Puah] because she cried (פּוֹעָה) and talked and cooed to the newborn infant in the manner of women who soothe a crying infant. פּוֹעָה is an expression of crying out, similar to “Like a travailing woman will I cry (אֶפְעֶה) " (Isa. 42:14).

That gosh darn Torah, you know? We can’t just read her straight. It’s more like a choose-your-own-adventure where you get to make choices amid myriad options and midrashim. In researching this parsha, however, I was taken aback at how few translations were willing to maintain the ambiguity of Shifra and Puah’s identity, thus making the decision for the reader. What do we gain by making the midwives Hebrew? More, what are we so afraid of losing by making them Egyptian?

Yes, the Egyptians have been our cruel masters, and yes, they’re about to get it big time from our God, but maybe they weren’t all so bad. Sitting at the seder, we’ll be reminded that God hardens the mind and heart of Pharaoh so that he refuses to let us go. Because of this, horrible plagues will fall upon Egypt, ruining the economy, terrorizing, and even killing the Egyptians. It’s Pharaoh’s decision, but the whole population will suffer—the taskmasters, yes, but also the teachers, the farmers, the children. (“Won’t somebody think of the children?!”) Surely we, in our democrat-ish society, can relate to the quiet suffering of a people who watched, powerless while their dim-witted but determined leader drove them into one debacle after another.

We may still choose to celebrate as we and our ancestors reach freedom’s shore this year. Even as the Egyptian army is lost to the sea, we can do a little victory dance. May we also have a moment for those strong Egyptians who stood up to The Man, quietly helping their fellow man to survive. As so many heroes of the holocaust have taught us, we have always depended on the kindness of strangers, and a few generous gentiles. Maybe Shifra and Puah among them.

Friday, December 21, 2007

"Face Off", Parashat Vayigash in Ohav Shalom in Albany

By Deanna Neil and Elana Architzel

Storah On The Road
Elana and I write this together traveling down a dark road from Albany. It is frigid. We are both wearing matching black and white jackets with Eskimo hoods. (Elana says: "We're like a cookie. So good you can taste it.") Somehow we have avoided the snowstorms and somehow Conservative Judaism devoured our black and white cookie. They loved us. They loved our Maven show "Face Off", a translation of Parashat Vayigash. And they loved the entire concept of Storahtelling and how it brought them to a visceral place after years of Jewish headiness.

On the way up, Elana was consumed with worry of how this show would pan out.

She is from the nearby town of Troy, New York, so she was familiar with the synagogue we were visiting in Albany. She even removed her lip ring and covered her tattoo. But by our intro on Friday night she could see they were game.

This was a different type of show than usual. First of all, we did the whole kriyah - that is a the full reading of the parsha. The congregation requested that we only translate one aliyah verse per verse. This was unusual for us, but it proved just enough of a taste to get them excited about what Torah could be. (Although it proved to Elana and I that verse per verse really is the way to go in terms of both dramatic appeal and engagement with the translation.)

My moment of nervousness was when we were rehearsing. One of the Rabbis insisted that we say "congregation" or "kahal" instead of audience. But after discussion and acceptance of the show, all apprehension was put at ease. People commented that as an "audience" they actually had a role, which made them feel endowed and involved. Further more, during our "stretch"-when we stepped out of the story in order to address the congregation with a difficult question or scenario-everyone jumped in eagerly. They had been worried too. They thought it would be a performance, but were happy to instead to have an interactive program in the familiar context of their service.

By the end of our workshop today, the Rabbi gave her own dramatic translations of the Shma with full kavana. Even more radical, the other Rabbi asked why we didn't explore God as a character. They pushed us on the topic. When we said, "playing God is often controversial," these Conservative Jews threw us a curve ball and said "Great! That's just what you want!" And with that-we knew it was a successful weekend.

We try to tell people what Storahtelling does or what it means, but we got to see this congregation experience it. Going to Reform shuls who've already been exposed to this stuff is one thing. But this was so exciting to both of us because we were able to fulfill our goal as Mavens by collaboratively integrating into a more traditional environment, while still conveying meaningful and radical ideas.

And now I'm going to turn the car light off so we don't hit any deer.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Parshat Veyechi “Jacob asks, Why? Jake asks, Why not?”

By Jake Goodman
Verse Per Verse

Cliff's Notes:

"The time drew near that Israel [the Hebrew formerly known as Jacob] must die," and he knew it. (He was 147 years old, after all.) After micromanaging his own funeral arrangements, Israel gathers his grandsons and sons around him to offer each a specific blessing: birthrights are switched left and right, some sons are richly praised, some are harshly judged. Jacob dies, Joseph cries (again and again), Jacob is buried in a homey cave and the brothers trick Joseph into forgiving them for past transgressions against him. Years pass. Suddenly Joseph is 110 years old and it is time for him to die. Like his father, he gathers his progeny, makes funeral arrangements and continues Israel's covenant by swearing that God will eventually remember them and take them back to the land of their ancestors. He dies, is embalmed and buried in Egypt. And there are four more books to go!

Jake's Notes:

I am fascinated by the whole concept of blessing. What does it mean to be blessed? To offer a blessing? What is the difference between a blessing and a curse? Can I bless anybody or anything, any time I want? Are there limits? Do I have to somehow purify myself first? Or put on a costume? Or climb a mountain? Should I outstretch my arms? Do I have to be a rabbi, a priest, an Imam, a witch doctor, a Master in Theology? Do I have to be on my deathbed? If I were childless—which I am—am I prohibited from blessing anybody?

I think people today are too proud give blessings and too humble to receive them. I wouldn’t even know how to go about doing it. And it is with this thought that I read Parshat Vayechi, the last chapter of the Book of Beginnings. Here are some instructions I have gleaned from the parsha:

· To be able to give a blessing, one must first believe in one's own self-worth. One must believe that one has something to give. (If I am not worthy of giving a blessing, how could I ever give a blessing?) In a different language, to bless someone else, one must first be blessed.

· To give anything worthy of the name "blessing," this parsha seems to take for granted that one must believe that it is in harmony with—or comes from/is ordained by/is the will of—some higher power. Inherent to believing in a higher power is the knowledge that there is something greater than the "I" that is at the core of Me. Otherwise a blessing might more properly be labeled a promise, a compliment or a desire.

· To be able to give a blessing, one must also believe in the worth of the person or thing being blessed. Anything otherwise would be flattery.

o This could explain Israel's brutal assessment of some of his sons. If he did feel any affection for the sons he castigated, he could not let that get in the way of the integrity of the blessing. Priorities.

· SO, as I understand this story, to give a blessing requires the belief that I am not the highest power in the universe, and that the person or thing I want to bless is worthy of being blessed. It takes a lot of nerve. (Good thing I think I believe in my own self-worth.)

· Also, to be able to receive a blessing, one must first believe in the blesser's own worth. (How could I possibly receive a blessing you are not worthy of giving?)

o Possibly this is why Joseph feels no choice but to let his father switch the birthright from Menasseh to his younger brother, Ephraim.

But still, after this, I am still left wondering why? I reflect back upon the blessings that Jacob has alternatively craved, stolen and fought for during his earlier life, and I wonder what meaning blessings hold for him. It's more than something a son wants from his dying father, or that father is obligated to pass on to his most deserving (or eldest) son. It must be. After all, why does Jacob demand a blessing from the strange man he wrestled by the River Jabbok, when he earned his name change from "heel grabber" to "god struggler"? If his opponent really was an angel or even God, as I've heard some say, he could have asked for anything. Why a blessing?

And as I ask why for Jacob, I also ask why not for Jake. How would blessings play out in modern life? What is holding me back from giving and receiving blessings? Because there are times when I feel so grateful, I would be willing to say that yes, I do feel blessed. I have received blessings. But am I willing to ask anybody for a blessing? Would I be open to stopping somebody and asking, "Hey, I'm Jake, would you bless me?" …probably not. But why not?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Weeping in Jerusalem

By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Storah On The Road

Saturday Morning, Dec. 15, at Kehilat Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem – a Reform congregation led by Rabbi Levi Kelman – he has been a mentor and friend of mine for many years now. Back when I was living in Jerusalem this was the first non orthodox synagogue I would often come to, especially on Friday nights, in secret, then go home to our orthodox Shabbat meal and lie about where I've been.. Many years have gone by since then… and Today I was invited to demonstrate Storahtelling here – ALL IN HEBREW! I chose three of the seven aliyot (amazingly – and this is the only Reform Congregation I know does this – KH reads the entire torah portion!) and focused on the moment when Joseph comes out to his brothers and reunites. What it does it take to open a heart? To effect change? To transform a difficult situation into one of hope and possibility? How about a tear, a song, and a story? These three gates served as today's recipe as I narrated the story through they eyes of Benjamin, Joseph, and Serach – the young daughter of Asher, who was famous for the song she sang to Jacob, her grandfather, and saved his life through giving him hope that his son Joseph was still alive. The power of tears – shed often in this story – was one of the focus points and for the second aliya I called up all those proud of their ability to shed tears – especially men – many of whom came up – not a small fete for Israeli society…

Kol Haneshama is a very welcoming community and over the years it has been the spiritual home of a local home for mentally retarded adults, who joyously attend almost every service and are much loved by the congregants. Today they were there in full force – loudly commentating, answering my questions when prompted (or not) loudly debating Joseph's actions, crying, and clapping whenever. At one poignant point when I narrated Joseph's famous question – Is my father still alive? One woman jumped up and yelled – YES! And I also have a father! I love my father! It was very moving and real – the point of the story as I positioned it was to see this moment as an eternal opening of reconciliation – between people of all walks of life, brothers and sisters in this land who have forgotten their one common ancestor and the ways of peace. On a very personal level of reconciliation – my own mother sat there also – her first time seeing my presenting a full Storahtelling and her first time in a reform congregation! She was proud and affirming and I am so proud and grateful to her for stepping across the threshold and affirming me and my life and work.

After the service, outside in the warm winter sun during Kiddush, several people told me that the folks from the home, Maagan, I think it's called, were more engaged and focused than they've ever seen them. At a short talkback later several members of the community were eagerly asking me about the possibility of training them to do Storahtelling more often in their community – just what I was hoping for! Two more workshops are planned in the next two weeks – for educators and parents of several schools and liberal congregations and I think the prospects of a local cohort being trained to Storah-tell in Jerusalem is a big possibility!

Two notes on the difference between 'translating' from Hebrew into English and 'translating' from Hebrew (biblical) into Hebrew (modern) – one – it is possible that unlike our usual storah –custom, it would be better here if we wouldn't translate after each verse but take a few verses at a time. Second – it is clearly way more midrash than translation, and works best as a character from the story who really livens up the text. I chose to use the voice of Benjamin for two of the aliyot and the voice of a narrator for one of them- and I think character works best.

And, finally, an excerpt from an email I received on Saturday night, from a woman who attended the program, focusing on tears and their role in this morning's Torah story:

'I wanted to thank you again for a most memorable experience this morning in shul …your Storahtelling enriched the reading, our understanding, and synthesizing of the many issues, relationships and lessons to be learned. Especially for me was most significant your bringing out the role of tears/ crying in light of family reunification.

The night before last I spent an evening with survivors through "amcha" - an organization devoted to the physical and mental wellbeing of Holocaust survivors and their children, and an Arab colleague of mine who teaches about the Holocaust in his classroom in Kalanswa…and we were both hearing from several of the survivors how difficult it is to cry. One amazing woman described how for over 50 years she has not been able to shed a tear.

She finally cried her first tears…a few years ago when she received in the mail a packet from the second generation of the Polish family who had hid her during the war.

Her biological son in Israel watched her open this envelope and weep.

So today in shul, it was very moving for me as you connected us with our living text, the parsha, through the journey of our people…from Egypt to Jerusalem….with tears shed as families unite, across history, geography, and trauma. '

Those who sow in tears – will reap with joy…

Jerusalem Storah-diary to be continued…

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Parashat Vayigash - Moving On

By Jessica Kerner
Verse Per Verse

Forgiveness. The word forgiveness has always been a difficult word for me to truly understand. While I understand the concept of it, the act of actually forgiving someone is tough for me to do. Now, I'm not talking about someone bumping into me on the street, saying sorry and then I forgive them. What I am talking about are the kind of acts that people commit although they know their actions will greatly hurt someone. Those are the kinds of behaviors that I find very tricky to forgive. Perhaps it's the fact that I am a stubborn Taurus, but maybe it's just natural. If you take a dive into history you will see that forgiveness has always been a complicated task.

Parshat Vayigash, the story of Joseph revealing himself to Judah and his brothers, finally seeing his father Israel again, and bringing them all to Egypt to live, is usually associated with forgiveness. After all, Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and now he tells them not to be pained because of what they did. Joseph says to his brethren, "It was not you that sent me here but God." After Joseph reveals himself to his brothers they do not speak. In fact it is not until after Joseph weeps on his brother's necks and they weep on his neck that the brothers even speak to Joseph. Joseph's father, Israel (formerly known as Jacob), speaks right away when he learns that Joseph is alive and upon seeing him. What does the silence of the brothers mean? Are they so sorry that they cannot even speak? Or are they so scared of being caught that they do not want to criminalize themselves by opening their mouths? Who knows why they did not speak? But my biggest issue with the Parshat Vayigash is that although many people assume that the brothers all forgave each other, there is no mention of the word forgiveness in any of the English translations that I read. The word "apology" does not even appear once in this text. So why do people take a theme of forgiveness out of this story?

I guess the answer is because people see what they want to see. They want Joseph and his brothers to forgive each other so, guess what, they do! Look, you may call me a cynical, stubborn, a “B-word,” but I am not sure if it's really possible to truly forgive someone for selling you into slavery. Nor do I get out of the story that Joseph's brothers were truly sorry for what they had done. The portion says they wept on each other's necks. While this is a highlight of Parshat Vayigash, it does not necessarily mean what most people would assume.

In my opinion the brothers are crying for all different reasons. Perhaps Judah is crying because he knew they shouldn't have sold him into slavery. Perhaps another brother is crying because he is jealous of Joseph's high position. Maybe one brother is weeping because he thinks Joseph is tricking him and will get him into trouble. Finally, why don't we know if any of the brothers ever say the words "I am sorry Joseph, I am sorry." How nice would it be for Joseph to hear that? I know if I were Joseph in that moment I would be saying to myself that hearing a little apology from my siblings might make me feel a little better. After all, Joseph just pardoned them for committing a great sin against him. The least he deserves is an "I'm sorry." By the way, Joseph never says "I forgive you" nor does he say "it is okay." He tells them to not be upset because it was God who sent him there and not them, which doesn't necessarily mean that he forgives them. Just because you accept that something was God's will does not mean that you have forgiveness in your heart. Perhaps Joseph merely accepted what happened and moved on.

It is too bad that we never will know for sure what the exact words were that Joseph and his brothers spoke after weeping on each other's necks. Either way, whether they apologized or not, and whether or not Joseph told them he forgave their actions, they moved on. And to me this is the point of the story; that they are family and they moved on and came together. My mother used to tell me that people can forgive but will never forget. In my opinion, Joseph never forgot what his brothers did to him, and maybe it is possible that he never really forgave them either. But he did know in his heart that things happen for a reason and that this was part of God's plan. Joseph brought his father and all seventy members of his family to live amongst the richest land in Egypt and moved on from there.

I think it is important to note the moving on of the family. In modern times, families have similar issues. Parents divorce, commit adultery, and walk out on each other. Children abandon their parent's ideals, neglect to stay in touch and sometimes say hurtful things. However, although one may never really forgive each other for these actions, it is important to move on. In many cases I think it is important to remember that when dealing with family, even if you cannot find it in your heart to forgive, you must find the strength to move on. After all, life is short and holding grudges will only make it hard. Moving on, never forgetting, and being careful is, in my opinion, the first step on the path to forgiveness.

If you want to see an example of a modern day Joseph go to:
Never is a boy who was sold into slavery for $20 dollars by his own father. Yes, today, in this day and age, people are sold into slavery. Never is from Ghana . After being rescued from abusive captivity and forced labor, he said he believes that his father did not truly know the difficulty that he would go through as a slave. Since being reunited with his family, Never has now learned to speak English and is continuing his education so that he can one day be a great leader. He has since helped to rescue other children from slavery in the same region. Never is moving on.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Back to School

By Franny Silverman

Storah On The Road

"Shhhh....bring peace downstairs."

"Knock Knock. Who's There? One."

"Listen, Wrestlers, the Divine Watchmaker is Infinite. Is One."

Sound vaguely familiar? The above are three interpretations of the Sh'ma by Hillel students at SUNY Binghamton. I spent last Shabbat with 300 of SUNY Binghamton Hillel's brightest for their annual Shabbat of Unity. The pluralist Kabbalat Shabbat featured the trendy "Tri-cheetza," (a congregation divided into three sections: men, mixed seating and women), and then we moved to dinner. After schnitzel and before brownies, I led the group through several exercises aimed at giving everyone an opportunity to discover and share his/her individual voice by exploring a familiar (and unifying) Jewish text - the Sh'ma.

The students offered translations and interpretations as a preacher, as Oprah Winfrey, a 3rd grade teacher and even the Geiko geko. But the highlight of my weekend in SUNY Binghamton was reconnecting with our CLIP intern from last summer and her suitemates. After the event, back at their dorm room, one of her roommates told me a secret:

When she was a little girl in Sunday school, she remembers hearing about "Adonai" and thinking that everyone was saying "I dunno". As in:
"Sh'ma Yisrael I dunno Eloheynu I dunno Echad"
She remembered this when, in the large group, we brainstormed how one translates "Adonai," which literally means "my Masters" (note the plural) and is itself already a translation for YHVH.
Lord? G-d? God? Master? Rock and Redeemer? Father? King? But really, what is YHVH? How do you explain it to a child? To yourself? How does the agnostic translate it? The humanist? The Star Wars fanatic?

To a little girl in Sunday school who grew up to be a wise university student, it made perfect sense that "Adonai" might just be "I dunno".

Training Teva Educators

By Julie Seltzer

Storah On The Road

This past week, I got to wear a different hat – my Storahteller hat.

I have lived at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center since last February, and people here know me as the baker. But the Teva environmental educators, who have been living here all fall, participated in a Storahtelling workshop that I led as part of their training.

We focused on two elements of Storahtelling’s work: breathing life into biblical characters, and the art of translation.

One of the highlights was an exercise called “Biblical Characters,” where the participants develop a particular biblical character (or in some cases of extreme creativity, inanimate objects!) through body work and creative writing. When their characters met one another in the improvisation, some of the synchronicities were superb: Avraham confronted Avimelech; Moshe addressed Moshe’s shoes.

Something else at the very end of the session really struck me. One of the participants, well versed in Torah text, expressed his befuddlement with one of the “Rules of Maven” texts we studied. The text was: “Rabbi Judah said, One who translates a verse literally is a liar; one who adds anything is a blasphemer and accused of libel” (Kiddushin 49b). A group of troubled parties continued the conversation through afternoon break and even into dinner, as we tried to get our heads around the seeming paradox.

I think the text intrigued them in part because of the Thesaurus phone game we played earlier in the workshop, a game that demonstrates the trials and tribulations of translation. You begin with a simple word, whisper it to the first person in line, who thinks of a synonym to that word and whispers it to the next person, and so on down the line. Somehow, we got from “desire” to “striving.” Somehow, we got from “hunger” to “gawking.” No wonder Rabbi Judah’s statement rang true!

"Customer Relations, StorahStyle."

Jake Goodman and Elyse Levine-Less: Business Meeting

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

“Not My Brother’s Keeper” at USJC Conference

Orlando, Florida

By Jonathan Adam Ross

Storah On The Road

S-T-O…..R-A-H….T-E-L-L-ing! Why? Because they loved it! Amichai Lau-Lavie and I spent this past Shabbat at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Biennial Convention in sunny Orlando, Florida. And the enthusiasm for what Storahtelling does was electric before we translated a single pasuk. I arrived on Thursday to spend a little time with my good friends Mickey and Minnie Mouse and their dog Pluto at their home in the Magic Kingdom. But all day Friday and Friday night, Amichai and I were deluged with people coming up to us who had seen us perform either in their own congregations or at other Jewish community events and conventions. And people seemed thrilled that United Synagogue invited us to share what we do with at the Biennial.

Friday night we had a really nice Shabbos dinner at the convention with my parents, David and Rose Ross who came in from Memphis. And every three minutes, someone new would come over to our table to welcome us and say hi. And though the room we Storah-ed in on Shabbat morning was ample – 150 seats – it was standing room only, as more than two dozen people stood outside the doors just to listen from outside. The response to the Storahtelling Maven performance was really heartening as Jews from around North American expressed a desire to bring what we do into their home shuls. And the workshop in the afternoon was also really great. Company member Shira Epstein’s parents were there and her mom came to the workshop too!

The best moment was hearing esteemed Rabbi Joel Roth, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, tell Amichai that what we were doing was really important, and that we should keep on doing it. I also enjoyed Splash Mountain on Thursday. 3 times was enough, but I had a great time!

THE “F” WORD – Parshat Miketz

By Sarah Sokolic

Verse Per Verse

As you sit down to read this post, I invite you to grab a latke or two, dollop heavily with your favorite topping (I’m in the minority sour cream camp) and shamelessly indulge…

As I sat down to read this parsha in preparation for writing this blog, I did the same, though admittedly more meagerly. I grabbed a few carrot sticks – no dips or toppings – while shamefully longing for the chocolate bars I had purchased in support of my little brother’s basketball team which were calling out to me from the depths of the kitchen pantry cabinet. Expecting a long evening of skimming the pshat in search of the focus of this week’s Storah, and only halfway into crunching my first baby carrot, something immediately popped out to me, much to my simultaneous delight and dismay.

Genesis Chapter 41 introduces us to the first of the dreams that plague Pharaoh throughout this portion and, which we later learn, symbolize seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine in Egypt. Each of these seven years is represented by two types of cows. The text reads that the seven years of abundance are depicted by cows that are

“yafot mar-eh u’vriot basar”

Even though I had barely made it halfway through the second verse, I had to stop there and delve further. I picked out a remnant of carrot from between my top left molar and incisor, grabbed a few different translations and compared. Going back to my early Orthodox roots, I began with the Art-Scroll, one of my early favorite publishers of Judaic text and liturgy. Here, this phrase is translated as:

“of beautiful appearance and robust flesh”

That made sense to me as it seemed relatively straight forward, but I had issue with the word “robust” – too much ambiguity. I needed to look further. I reached for “old faithful” – the JPS translation of my mostly Conservative upbringing. Theirs:

“handsome and sturdy”

Two things really got me here. First was the use of typically masculine adjectives to describe a feminine animal. Second was that the word “sturdy” was similar to Art Scroll’s “robust” – both still seemingly a bit too vague. With my taste buds growing bored and my jaw beginning to ache, I set aside the bowl of what was left of the carrots and opened Richard Friedman’s translation hoping for something more definitive. It read:

“beautiful-looking and fat-fleshed”

And there it was. The “F” word. Right out there in the open, plain and clear. Thank you, Dick, for calling ‘em as you see ‘em. These cows were fat. There I said it. FAT, FAT, FAT….FAT. Oh yeah, and look, they were beautiful too. “Fat” and “beautiful” all in the same sentence. What a concept!

As the chocolate bars continued to beckon, I became more and more disturbed (mostly by these varying translations). Why was it that only one out of three translators used the word “fat”? One thought I had was that God or Moses or whoever wrote the Torah did not actually use the modern Hebrew word for fat which is shamen (interestingly, also the word for “oil”, shemen, and one of the connections to why on Chanukah we light eight – shemona – candles) But then, why would Richard Friedman go to that translation?

Perhaps it is that this, the most modern translation of the three, puts the “fat” right out there and challenges us to think about the screwed up norms of today’s society. It is not often we see “fat” and “beautiful” used in the same sentence unless it’s part of a self-affirming Oprah segment or alluded to in a Dove shampoo commercial. Friedman’s translation reminds us that it wasn’t that long ago – even as late as the early/mid 20th century – that “fat” symbolized beauty, abundance and strength. What got lost in translation over the decades? As times of social, political and environmental awareness seem to be evolving, our perspectives on body issues have gone in the opposite direction.

As I unwrapped the first of what became the unconscious devouring of two milk chocolate wafer crisp bars, I metaphorically pat myself on the back for being the left-leaning, non-judgmental and socially sensitive person I think I am. I don’t think that way, I thought. But I quickly realized that I, too, have fallen victim to the US-Weekly and TMZ-ing of our society, unconsciously adopting the “thin is in and fat is wack” mentality.

It was time to call for help. Commentators of this portion are quick to point out that the text specifically indicates that in Pharaoh’s dream the seven lean cows stood side by side with the seven fat cows on the bank of the river. In other words, all fourteen cows existed simultaneously, unlike what later played out in reality, which was that the seven years of famine came after the seven years of plenty were over. Joseph – the master dream interpreter – proved his genius to Pharaoh when he explained that Pharaoh’s dreams not only foretold events to come, but also instructed how to deal with them - that they were telling Pharaoh to make the seven years of plenty coexist with the seven years of famine by storing the surplus from the plentiful years to last through the years of famine.

Much like the dreams of fat and thin plagued Pharaoh thousands of years ago, issues of body image plague millions of people today. So maybe it’s kinder to call someone “big-boned” or even “sturdy” or “robust”, but wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t even have to do that – that, in truth, a person could be like those cows back in Genesis – all at the same time healthy and beautiful, and, yes…fat.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"Field of Dreams"
Temple DeHirsch Sinai, Bellevue/Seattle, WA

By Chloe Ramras

Storah On The Road

My first Storahtelling show on tour in my own home town--the great Seattle, Washington--sounds as exciting and super-bonus as it turned out to be. There was an overwhelming sense of welcome and gratefulness from the Temple DeHirsh Sinai community (the feeling was mutual). And the Shabbos dinner hosted by my very own mother could not have been topped.

Performing for the first time as a Storahteller turned out to be a pretty holy gig. The show went swimmingly. Working with Jake Goodman, Ayelet Gottlieb and Brian Gelfand is a dream (literally). I could not have asked to be initiated with a better cast. They have taught me so much and for that I am very grateful. On stage, in the moment, I found so much more meaning in the performance of translation. I found a deeper purpose for my actions with G-d and everyone watching. And yes, I really do think we changed some people's lives this weekend, including my family's. They were incredibly impressed with the show, in both content and execution. It was a wonderful way to bring on the spirit of Channukah. BRING ON THE LIGHT and CELEBRATION!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Grand Ole Storahtelling

By Naomi Less

Storah On The Road

On November 11th, I made the trek out of the safety of culturally and Jewishly hip New York city, down to Nashville, TN. Program Director Jake Goodman and I proudly represented Storahtelling at this year's UJC General Assembly in OPRYLAND! Through our incredible supporters - Bikkurim and the Lipman-Kanfer Foundation - Storahtelling was able to create a great presence promoting both the upcoming Becoming Israel performance, a new play marking Israel's 60th Anniversary, as well as our training programs and Maven Torah performances. Jake and I heard endless cries of excitement when GA folks saw our big orange banner and realized Storahtelling was at this major Jewish event. Many cities were excited about the possibility of building Israel programming in their communities centered around one major event – a performance of "Becoming Israel". They were eager to explore how different groups and age cohorts (teens, young adults and adults) could all come together for one community cultural event and then have follow up workshops to deepen the experience.

It was no surprise to me, as a founding company member, that there is such positive brand recognition across the North American Jewish community at the GA. Jake and I were proud to also attend the prestigious Covenant Awards ceremony held at the GA. As Covenant Grant awardees, we had an incredible time networking and connecting with other cutting edge Jewish educational institutions and programs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Father Knows Best: Parshat Vayshev

By Annie Levy

Verse Per Verse

To paraphrase the famous Phil Larkin quote,
"They mess you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you."

Jacob's life was shaped through parental favoritism. He was his mother's favored son, just as his own father, Isaac, was ultimately preferred over Abraham's other son, Ishmael. So maybe we can't be too hard on Jacob for his part in Joseph's seemingly inflated sense of self; for Jacob, favoring one child above the other is learned behavior, bordering on hereditary. But now the stakes are higher; this is a big family and there are many additional bigger, stronger siblings noting the imbalance of paternal affection.

We have arrived at Vayeshev, the story of Joseph, he of the notorious colorful coat, where being your father's favorite leads to a complicated journey to identity. Although the parsha begins with Jacob being settled in the "land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan," this story will unsettle us, literally, and lead us down into Egypt where we will remain until our hard earned exodus.

But before Joseph gets sold into slavery, before being put in charge of the house of Potiphar, before he ends up in prison an accused rapist and before he becomes dream interpreter to his fellow incarcerated, before the story we know so well where we all end up in Egypt, there is small moment, a brief interchange that serves as the point of no return for Joseph.

When Jacob sends Joseph out to join his bothers, after Joseph has raised familial tension levels to their boiling point by recounting his dreams, Joseph reaches Shechem, the place where Simon and Levi enacted their form of justice for the rape of Dinah, as commanded by his father. But his brothers are nowhere to be found. There is a great moment of disorientation and listlessness on Joseph's part when he arrives in Shechem and his brothers are not there. Indeed, he is described in the Torah as "wandering" or "blundering" or "straying" in a field. There are not many moments in Torah when a person loses his way, even temporarily, so this is a moment begging to marked.

And when we look, what do we see? It is an important moment for the young Joseph– life as he knows it is about to end completely, forcing him to embark on a strange new journey unlike anything he has dreamed about. But he has inherited such a moment as this from his father, whether he knows it or not. Jacob has had two such life altering moments so far in his life, moments prior to great change. The first was the night Jacob ran away from home after fooling his father into giving him his brother Esau's blessing and birthright. The second was the night before Jacob is reunited with his brother for the first time after stealing the birthright. On both occasions and in both prolonged moments, Jacob is visited by the divine: Once through a vision where heaven and earth connect and once through a wrestling match where Jacob and heaven connect and Jacob is renamed Y'srael.

Now, nothing seemingly as dramatic happens to Joseph in this, his crossroad moment, just a brief encounter with a man who has seen the missing brothers and thinks he overheard them say that they were pushing on to a different location, Dothan. The name `Dothan' can come from the word `dath' meaning justice or law (Moshe Reiss). Is Joseph being summoned to his brother's justice? Or perhaps this just proves we often do not know the significant role we play in each other's lives. Joseph presses on after his brothers and whatever will be, will be.

So who is this man who alters the course of one man's life? Maimonides suggests that this man is an angel, sent to make sure that Joseph completes the journey his father sent him on and thus begins the journey he is destined to take. This is interesting to note, considering that God never does speak to Joseph directly, in stark comparison to his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Perhaps this is why Robert Alter argues that trying to see the man as "a messenger of fate" has "little textual warrant," but the point is Joseph is being "directed… to a disastrous encounter." (This makes the man a prime example of what Free to Be, You and Me will later describe as offering "the kind of help we all can do without.") But, Rambam points out that, no matter who this man is, angel, messenger, bystander, his words have larger significance than his intentions in speaking them. For this journey that his words will force Joseph to take will fulfill the prophecy made to Abraham, his great grandfather, many years before. Thus leading us right back to the Larkin quote, "They may not mean to, but they do…"

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Parashat Vayishlach: Thanksgiving is Family

By Melissa Shaw

Verse Per Verse

My mom just called me from the market to inform me that my grandmother is not to know that she is not using Miracle Whip in the chopped liver and what else did you say you needed from the produce aisle?

It’s Thanksgiving and my mother is wrestling with Tomatoes that cost $1.99 a pound, gravy, and my vegetarianism.

Thanksgiving, whether we like it or not, is about family, family that we choose not to go home to see or family that insists that you try the canned Jellied Cranberry sauce instead.

Angry, stuffed, happy, or disappointed family is family. You don’t pick yours, they don’t pick you. You get thrown into a big mess that you weren’t ever anticipating. Divorce, car payments, children- no one ever played house thinking about therapy bills. This time of year gives us the opportunity to get together with people we thought we might not be able to talk with again. It is an opportunity to heal old wounds, come out of the closet, and eat.

In this Parsha, Jacob is reuniting with his Brother Esau. No one is quite sure how this family reunion is going to go. Are you still mad about that little thing that happened when we were young where I stole your Birthright and changed your life forever? No, ok, than please pass the mashed potatoes. Maybe.

When we meet Jacob, after he has wrestled with the Eesh, the angel, and perhaps even his demons, we see a man with new injuries, new understandings, and a new name. He goes into his meeting with Esau as that man. A man now called Israel; one who wrestles with God.

Jacob, prepared with offerings, comes face to face with family he has not seen in years. A brother who could have easily killed him as welcomed him. But Esau, wouldn’t you know it, accepts his brother, tells him there is no need for reparations, and to go with God.

But Jacob responds:

No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.

Jacob would know. Jacob had just seen it.

So can we make the leap that family is the face of God? Maybe we can.

Who are these people we come into the world with? These people who help us and make us crazy. These people who know us in ways that no one else can? They could very well be as much God as the flowers, trees, Scriptures, and angels. They certainly know how to get us in and out of trouble.

In Chapter 34 we hear that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter with Leah, is caught and defiled by Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country. Jacob hears the news and remains calm until his sons return. Her brothers return, hear, and are less than calm.

When Hamor comes to them and asks for Dinah’s hand for his son, no one is thrilled with the prospect. However, Jacob says, thinking his request a deal breaker, that their families will only be allowed to intermarry if Hamor, his son, and their whole family, become like them and go through circumcision.

Hamor makes an announcement to the people of his community, all in ear shot agree to the terms and are circumcised. You know, to blend.

Now here’s where we learn something more about Jacob’s family. While everyone is recovering from the loss of their foreskins, undoubtedly packed with the biblical-desert equivalent of an ice pack, Levi and Simeon slip into the village and slaughter everyone.

I think they were trying to let everyone know that they hand changed their minds. Jacob was not happy with the deeds of his sons and chided them. Levi and Simeon did not mince words. They said to their father, “should our sister be treated like a whore?”

What happened in the land of the Hitvites was the ultimate big brother show down and perhaps a reminder that blood is thicker than water and is certainly thicker than forced circumcisions.

So family matters. Whether it is long lost brothers who surprisingly welcome you after decades or who take revenge for rape.

So, is family the face of God? Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But at the very least, they have your back and if you are lucky, accept that you are not going to eat the turkey on the second to last Thursday of November.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Becoming Israel at Temple Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA

By Franny Silverman

Storah On The Road
And Jacob was left alone, And a man (EESH) wrestled with him until the rising of the dawn.
(Gen 32:25)
"What is your name?"
"Your name will not be said: Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with the Divine and with people and were able."
(Gen. 32:28-29)

This weekend, four Storahtellers and over 500 congregants of Temple Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA consciously became Israel once again.
Since 2002, Storahtelling company members and affiliated artists have been wrestling with the Torah text of Jacob wrestling. In 2005 we realized this text demanded a greater show, not for only one shabbat out of the year, but for every day, because every day we, as Storahtellers, found ourselves wrestling with what it means to be "God-Wrestlers".

We have in this time:
- Created countless Bibliodramas, writings and performance compositions inspired by this text.
- Created and performed over 6 different translations and interpretations of this text
- Choreographed and performed the famed wrestling sequence more than 3 different times
- Written at least 3 separate pieces of music to illustrate this event
- "Drashed" through performance the idea of the EESH being Esau, Jacob's subconscious, Jacob's past, the Divine, Jacob's inner demons.
- Challenged congregational audiences in South Florida, Upstate New York, Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City with what it means to BECOME Yisrael, to BE "The Children of Israel"

This weekend marked the premiere of the culmination of our work. On Friday night, after the silent meditation and before the kaddish, the congregants of Temple Beth Or found themselves with the Matriarch, Leah, on the banks of the Jabbok River witnessing the iconic biblical events of the text above. They were with Rachel and the thousand other Holocaust survivors aboard La Negev sailing towards a new life in Palestine and wrestling with the ghosts of the past. And they were with the ambivalent college student, Jake, on his first trip to Israel, when he met the American who urges him to make Aliyah and the Arab man who shares a piece of history that his tour guide is not teaching him, and then competed with him in an ultimate game of backgammon/shesh-besh against an Israeli soldier who (sort of) shares his name.

Havdalah attendance tripled after Friday's performance and so on Saturday night, twenty-four hours later, in a converted farmhouse in the homiest of barn mansions that I have ever seen, we did a lovely Havdalah bringing back the characters from Becoming Israel and old faves like "Ain't No Sunshine" and Debbie Friedman. We ended with a rousing round of "This Little Light of Mine". Avi Fox-Rosen and Shawn Shafner led with the support of Melissa Shaw, Annie Levy and myself and it was awesome. We segued into a talkback about the show where congregants had the opportunity to share their thoughts and to ask questions about the piece:
"That was me. I might be older than Jake, but I just went to Israel for the first time last year, and I had that same experience."
"I was crying the whole way through..."
"My Grandmother left Europe on a boat just before the war..."
"Jake is our son!"

We finished off the weekend with workshops on Sunday for the Hebrew school. The kids were wonderful. Picture two rows of 10 year olds facing each other. One row is of "Jacobs" and one row is of "Angels".
One of us called out 5 specific moments in the show and the kids accompanied the storytelling with full-body gestures representing the actions. In chorus, they showed us:
1. Wrestling
2. Being Injured/Injuring Jacob
3. The sun coming up

And then in dialogue, one after another, with accompanying words, they showed us:
4a. Angels: "I need to leave"
4b. Jacobs: "Give me a Blessing"
5a: Angels: "Your are no longer Jacob. Your new name is Israel."
5b. Jacobs: "My name is Israel

Looking forward to many more opportunities to wrestle with Becoming Israel!

First Kiss, End of Days: Parsha Vayetze

By Jeremiah Lockwood

Verse Per Verse
At times the degree of intimacy the Torah affords us in its glimpse into the lives of our ancestors is almost too much to bear with composure. When Jacob, our father, first set eyes on his destined bride, Rachel, we are told, "Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept." (Genesis 29:21) This image of a strong young man over awed by his emotions is moving both by merit of its tenderness and by the melancholy sense that in the beginning, in the sweet embrace of first love, is a subtle flavor of the end and of the pain love yields for the lover. Indeed, Rashi teaches that at the moment of his first kiss with Rachel, Jacob received the power of prophecy and he saw that his life with her would be strewn with trials and that they would not merit to die together and end this life in peace, side by side.

At the beginning of this week's parsha, Vayetze, we are offered another glimpse of Jacob's visionary power and of the overlap between the qualities of emotional wisdom and prophetic gifts. We first see Jacob in this parsha obeying his parents' command to flee confrontation with his brother Esau and go to their ancestral home of Haran to seek a bride among their kin people. His journey brings him ineluctably to what is called in the pshat "the place," but B'reishis Rabah identifies as Mount Moriah, the site where Abraham offered up Isaac as a sacrifice and where later the Temple would be built. This place, this moment in our collective history, time and again acts as a fulcrum of emotional activity. It is this place of spiritual crisis, where Jacob's grandfather nearly slew his father and the entire concept of faith rooted in a personal dialogue with G-d was put to the test, that Jacob is drawn to revisit in his own time of crisis and transition.

Jacob lays down to sleep. The Midrash teaches that it is noteworthy to state that Jacob slept because it was his usual habit to stay up all night studying Torah. If one overlooks the anachronism in this statement, the image emerges of a night distinct from the usual. All habits and routines are broken, even the habit of religious thinking and ritual custom which can distract from real spiritual openness.

Jacob is alone with himself. In his dream that night the angels, ascending and descending a ladder, recount to him all of human history. They show him the story of his grandfather and of his father, and of the lives and travails of his sons yet to be born, and of all the generations of his progeny. At the end of the story he sees the Temple and the nightmare of its destruction. Jacob says, "How terrible is this place. This is none other than the House of G-d, wherein is the gate of prayer through which prayer ascends." On this night of fear and self-probing, Jacob initiates the Maariv prayer, the night service. The prayers of night spring forth from the dark of the soul. They are fueled by mourning for the loss of the Temple, that primordial location of the uncorrupted passageway between G-d and man. The Midrash teaches that this night Jacob spent on Mount Moriah was the eve of Tisha B'Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. Even in the time of our mythic ancestors, before the Temple had been built or destroyed, the seed of estrangement between the divine and the human was already sewn.

When Jacob awakens, he says, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not." (Genesis 28:16) While on the one hand this statement expresses the familiar feeling of having overlooked the presence of beauty and meaning in our daily lives, I imagine that Jacob is also referring to the presence of holiness even in the place of desolation and destruction. For even as we can taste the pain of parting and the melancholy of estrangement in a first passionate kiss, we sense in the place of destruction the promise of rebirth and joy. The angelic hand that stopped Abraham's knife in mid-air may also be capable of restoring to us, Jacob's off-spring, the immediate and physical knowledge of G-d that was known to our ancestors. May it be speedily and in our days.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Fixing Broken Glass

By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Storah On The Road

Dear friends,

Today, the 9th of November, is the commemoration of KristalNacht – the night of broken glass. Today In 1938 the vandalized and broken windows of homes, shops, synagogues and schools throughout Germany became a terrible symbol of the great shattering that was to become the Holocaust of European Jewry. I woke up this morning with this image in my mind: a street strewn with heaps of broken shards of glass, empty except for one woman walking slowly, looking at the broken pieces as they reflect a bright blue sky. She is pregnant.

In some ways this image is linked to the historical date, to this week's Torah portion - and to what's happening right now in the lives of the people who are part of this community called Storahtelling – so I wanted to share with you a brief thought that elucidates this haunting image and hopefully will be meaningful to all of you who are, in so many ways, part of my family.

The pregnant woman is Rebecca, and as this week's portion, Toldot – Origins, begins, she is pregnant with twins. These are the first twins in history, and they are kicking in different directions, and Rebecca is confused and troubled – what is happening inside of her? She asks the first existential question in the Torah – 'if this is so – who am I?' And she is the first person in Jewish history to seek an answer, to investigate life's challenges – she goes to find God. The answer she receives is a complex blessing: she will become the mother of two boys, and they will become the fathers of two nations at war, two opposites who will fight for supremacy.

Jacob and Esau are born in struggle. The younger baby will grab the heel of the older one, already trying to grab the birthright, and so he is named 'the heel grabber' or Jacob. The older one, Esau, as told from the eyes of Jacob's descendents, is marked, from birth, for being the hairy hunter that defies the gentle pastoral life of the Semitic household, he is 'other'.

Fast forward to what Jacob and Esau will become in generations to come. In Judaic mythology, Jacob becomes Israel, and Esau becomes Edom and then Amalek– later on identified as the Roman Empire, Christianity, and even Nazi Germany. Rebecca is walking down a street strewn with the fragments of war between her children, then and now. What a haunting and hopeless image.

So what of the fixing? How do we not stay stuck in this grim prophecy? Where is the hope of healing and repair?

Perhaps the hope for repair, like this story of despair, is inside each one of us. I am reminded to read this saga the way we at Storahtelling have read so many other biblical tales – as a mythic allegory that is meant to give us an insight into our own inner struggles and enables us to contemplate the difficult but basic truths
of own lives. We are each of us Rebecca, carrying conflict and twin desires that sometimes clash, hurt others and are hurt ourselves. And we are each Jacob, and Esau, and the sum of their struggle. If we take this realization on, read this passage as an invitation for personal growth, not for historical and political justification of struggle, we can perhaps not only heal the historical pain by the noble act of remembering and honoring the past, but, more importantly, we can commit to reducing the hatred between others that is still impacting the future.

Nazi and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian, Democrat and Republican, militant Muslim or fundamentalist Christian – and so many others who are set up against each other in the fight for survival and supremacy: can the story be told differently? Can we start by telling this inherited story differently to as many people as we can? Can I start by identifying this story inside of me? Who is my Jacob, grabbing the heel of my inner Esau, where is my disquiet, what is the seed of my struggle to survive – and where does that stop me from being at peace with self and other?

So, yes, this is beginning to sound like a D'var Torah… a contemplation that ends with a call to action, a charge. Writing this to you – friends and family members of my Storahtelling tribe - I am reminded to remind us that this is precisely the core of this sacred work: Our goal is not to simply clarify and dramatize obscure biblical images but to actually address the burning issues of the day, to 'translate' the deeper meaning of this, or any other biblical story, into the inner life of each of one of us.

This weekend I will be presenting Maven at a synagogue in Boulder, Colorado, telling this tale of Jacob and Esau's birth (and I think I just got my opening story..), and tonight Brian Gelfand, Naomi Less, Jake Goodman and Emily Warshaw will lead a Ritualab for the Tribeca Hebrew community in downtown NYC– focusing on this story of Rebecca's search for meaning, while a team of Storatellers will travel to
Philadelphia to premiere the newest version of our newest show 'Becoming Israel' - Jacob's wrestling to become Israel, the one who struggles with life. This show, marking Israel's 60th year of independence is asking some hard questions – how does this legacy of wrestling effect our modern identity and affiliation with Israel?Under Annie Levy's directorial hand, Franny Silverman, Shawn Shafner, Melissa Shaw and Katie Down will become Israel this weekend – and I hope you will all see this show as we begin touring it soon. And as soon as Shabbat ends, Naomi Less and Jake Goodman are heading down to Nashville to represent Storahtelling at the UJC General Assembly – a whole other kind of struggle… what a packed weekend- one of many – where we get to share this new vision of the power of story with a world thirsty for new visions.

So, on this very personal note – with gratitude to all of you for joining me on the journey of fixing the broken glass of our heritage, thanks for being part of the fix-team. I hope we all get to walk down the streets of our remembered brokenness, and see the reflected vision, in each shard, of a bright future, where Jacob and Esau, hand in hand, are walking down the same street, and behind them, a smiling
Mother of All – 'the mother of the sons is happy' as it is written in the Psalms.

A Sabbath of Peace

Monday, November 05, 2007

Oy To The World

By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Storah On The Road
I didn’t know it at the TIME, but when the cabaret show about the mystery of the longest night of the year and the elusiveness of time was schduled for November 3rd – it was to be the night on which the clock changes, an hour is gained, and time, again manipulated. Amazingly, this show took place at Lannie’s Cabaret – in the basement of Denver’s famous clocktower…

Lannie’s cabaret looks like a Victorian Brothel, and feels like a cozy red velvet sitting room, where about 150 people doesn’t feel too croweded, as it indeed did not last night – full house!

OY TO THE WORLD started as Storahtelling’s Christmas Eve show and has since evolved and enjoyed several incarnaions, with last year’s version starring Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross. This year I was lucky and priveleged to have EVE ILSEN - a REAL Rebetzin and a fantastic vocal artist. EVE belted out tunes by George Harrison, Cole Porter, and even a homage to Bette Middler, accompanied by two very talented musicians – Ben Cohen on piano and Dirk Dickson on an upright bass. Me – I was telling stories – about light and dark, the journey from Christmas to Chanuka to Solstice, via Rome, Babylon, Jerusalem, a Yeshiva in NYC and a basement in Denver. All rivers go to the same sea, and all ancient stories and ritual celebrate the same miracle – light, sun, seasons changing like clockwork, year in and year out. Was it Einstein who called God ‘the great clockmaker’?

The longest night of the year is, techicnly, on the 21st of December, but I hope that last night’s show (repeated again next week on Nov. 10 in Boulder) gave the audience a taste for making the winter holidays – no matter what religion if at all –a chance to pause, take TIME OUT and find new ways of unwrapping the reason for the season.

RituaLab, Maven and Workshops in Tarrytown, NY

October 27-28, 2007

By Elana Architzel

Storah On The Road

Last weekend the incredible Naomi, Shawn, Brian, Amichai and I ( Elana A. ) ventured a little ways north of the city to visit our friend in Tarrytown. We had the pleasure of not only doing a Maven-type show but a RituaLab and two workshops as well. This was the first time I have had the experience of participating in a RituaLab that was not Storahtelling family exclusive and I have to say... I think it was a big success. So many times when we go to shul, especially those of us who grew up and go to a more traditional service know most of the service, when to get up , sit down, bow, do the whole dance if you will but never really connect with what is going on. For me, RituaLab has always been a unique way to blend the gourmet taste of Storahtelling with traditional service. As soon as those Tarrytowners enter the room with the beat of the drum... Brian on keys... and Naomi and Shawn serenading them to the sweet sounds of Mizmor Shir L’yom Hashabbat... they were hooked. The day continued in this fashion, and once we got to the Halleluah, people were fully moved by the atmosphere and of course spontaneous dance ensued. This brought us to the Torah service and a moving monologue written by Shawn delving into the Abraham, Sara, Hagar, Ishamael, and Isaac story. It forced not only us but the community to really dissect this part of our Jewish history and explore the rift between the two peoples. This led to amazing discussions and contemplations for the rest of the weekend.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend was the second workshop I got to participate in led by the one and only Mr. Shawn Shafner. It was an adult education group who truly allowed themselves to trust Shawn and be thrown full heartedly into the activities. The different perspectives and character free-writes this group did affirmed not only the importance this work and Storahtelling, but where this work can lead people in discovery. It is truly a blessing to witness and be apart of this process when someone engulfs themselves in the story and characters and allows their own translation to marinate and simmer. As we were packing up the car to leave it really felt like here is a community that loves this work so much and will continue to make sure it hold a place in their community.

Parashat Toldot Ain't Nothin but a Family Thing

By Jonathan Adam Ross

Verse Per Verse
The Torah may be our communal journal, our ancestors’ diary. And if so, what an exhilarating invasion of privacy have we committed; for we break open the book each week to read of their adventures and secrets, and we’ve made quite a few copies as well to share around with each other. But it is exciting as well to read the Torah as a piece of literature. And as in any good storybook, one can find such literary devices as foreshadowing, repetition, and reappearing marginal characters. We have a great example of all three this week in Parshat Toldot. In Toldot, God instructs Isaac to spend time in the land of Gerar in order to survive a famine. Isaac, fearing that the Phillistines of Gerar will think his wife Rebecca is hot and might kill him to get her for themselves, informs Abimelech, King of the Phillistines that Rebecca is his sister. (Breishit 26:7) וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲחֹתִי הִוא" " Sound familiar? That’s because just a few weeks ago in shul, we read: (Bereishit 20:2)

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, אֲחֹתִי הִוא; וַיִּשְׁלַח, אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ גְּרָר, וַיִּקַּח, אֶת-שָׂרָה.

Here we have Abraham (Isaac’s father) telling the same Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. Abimelech, in this first instance, takes Sarah for himself until God plants a dream in his head that reveals Abraham and Sarah’s true relationship and Abimelech releases Sarah back to her rightful husband. But Abimelech tells Abraham there is no need to lie to him or his people. Yet Isaac makes the same choice years later, and lies to the same king! This time, Abimelech is not so forgiving. Whereas for Abraham, Abimelech asked for forgiveness from Abraham. In Isaac’s case, Abimelech and his people drove Isaac and Rebecca from their land with repeated sabotage to their wells, flocks, and property. It seems that just as Isaac has not learned from his father’s mistakes, Abimelech has not learned from his own. Eventually, Abimelech redeems himself and his people and makes amends and apology to Isaac and Rebekah. But Isaac’s decision to deceive the Phillistines of his true relationship with Rebekah seems to presage the deceit near the end of Toldot, when blind Isaac is fooled by Jacob pretending to be his brother Esau, in an example of what I like to call Torah Karma. Sibling rivalry is not a new theme for the Torah (see: Cain and Abel) nor is this the last we see of it (see: Leah and Rachel). But what is amazing is the choice of language used in this story. When Isaac calls Esau to him, Esau says “הִנֵּנִי.” And when Jacob reports to Isaac as Esau he calls to his father, who answers “הִנֵּנִי.” And in Bereishit 37:13, when Jacob calls to his son Joseph, he is answered with the same word.

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, הֲלוֹא אַחֶיךָ רֹעִים בִּשְׁכֶם--לְכָה, וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֲלֵיהֶם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנֵּנִי.

The language repetition is no mistake. Just as וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲחֹתִי הִוא repeated from Abraham to Isaac, so is הִנֵּנִי repeated from Isaac to Jacob. From generation to generation all the way down to us. So the next time you catch yourself introducing your spouse as your sibling, or answering to your identity with the word הִנֵּנִי you can chuckle with the self-satisfaction of knowing: it ain’t nothing but a family thing.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Parashat Chayei Sarah

Synchronicity, ESP, and Finding a Wife

By Julie Seltzer

Verse Per Verse
One afternoon, you start thinking about an old friend that you haven’t seen in ages. Minutes later, the phone rings. On one level the synchronicity astonishes you, but on another level you’re not surprised in the least – you saw it coming.

The Talmud makes reference to this kind of seeing. In what way, asks the Talmud, is the light that was created on Day One different from the light of the sun, moon and stars, which were created on Day Four?

“Rebbi El’azar said: With the light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day, one could see from one end of the world to the other.” (Chagigah 12a)

What does it mean to be able to see from one end of the world to the other? If distance – ie, space – is collapsed, then so is time. Without speed-of-light constraints, our perception was not limited by laws of sequential time or causality. As clearly as we could see the present, we were able to see everything that was and everything that will be. This light, this intuitive sight, was soon hidden. But hidden means that it’s still there, just harder to access.

In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, Avraham’s servant experiences such a moment of seeing. He is charged with going to find a wife for Avraham’s son Yitzchak. But how is he to find the right one? How is he to know? He envisions a scenario:

"If I say to a girl, 'Tip over your jug and let me have a drink,' and she replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' she will be the one whom You have designated for Your servant Isaac'….." (Kaplan translation)

Barely has Eliezer (as he is later named) finished envisioning the course of events, that sure enough, reality begins to play out exactly as it played out in his mind:

“He had not yet finished speaking, when Rebecca appeared. […] She quickly lowered her jug to her hand and gave him a drink. When he had finished drinking, she said, ‘Let me draw water for your camels, so they can (also) drink their fill.’” (24:15; 24:18-19 Kaplan translation)

Talk about déjà vu! The text follows with:

“וְהָאִיש מִשְׁתָּאֵה, לָהּ; מַחֲרִישׁלָדַעַת הַהִצְלִיחַ יְהוָה דַּרְכּוֹ, אִם-לֹא”

Everett Fox translates this line as “The man kept staring at her, (waiting) silently to find out whether YHWH had granted success to his journey or not.”

My focus is on the word משתאה “mishta’eh,” translated here as “staring…(waiting)” The word is unusual, not found anywhere else in Torah, and the commentators can’t even agree what the root is. Rashi says that it stems from שאה meaning empty wasteland or desolation. He and others connect the word to being astonished or dumbstruck – hence the “staring.” Rabbi Sadia Gaon says that mishta’eh comes from שתה, to drink, and that Eliezer is simply drinking the water that Rebecca gave him. Onkelos connects it to the root “שהה”, meaning “waiting” or “staying.” The Targum reads: “But the man waited, and was silent…” The New American Standard Bible translation also incorporates this notion of time lapse: “Meanwhile, the man was gazing at her in silence...”

My understanding also combines emptiness with a drawn-out moment in time: mishta’eh is about creating space for what normally eludes the naked eye. In this moment of vacated time-space, Eliezer becomes acutely aware of everything that is happening. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, addresses Eliezer’s perception: “He understood that God brought him what he asked for.” (Rashbam’s comment is in direct opposition to the simple translation of the text, which is that Eliezer was waiting to see whether God had brought him what he asked for, for he did not yet know if Rebecca was from the right lineage.)

With clarity of vision, Eliezer perceives what is about to happen and perhaps even helps reality along by thinking it. In this moment of (col)lapsed time, he also gazes at the infinite permutations for what might have been – each and every alternate version of the story. Like a photon that traverses every possible path before it is located in a particular point in space, lingering in the present moment permits the hidden primordial light to shine from one end of the world to the other. Not only could Eliezer intuit what would unfold, he could also see the various permutations for what could have unfolded – or perhaps, in other terms, what did unfold in an alternate dimension.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Storahtelling @ Queer Shabbaton

October 20, 2007

By Rabbi Jill Hammer

Storah On The Road

Storahtelling at Nehirim's Queer Shabbaton New York decided to tackle the story of how Abram/Abraham, while traveling to Egypt because there is a famine in Canaan, asks his wife Sarai/Sarah to say that she is his sister. The Storahtellers (Jake Goodman, Shira Kline, Shawn Shafner, Shoshana Jedwab and Rabbi Jill Hammer) felt this story had a lot of resonance for us and for other GLBT Jews. We called our production "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Parashat Lech Lecha”. We decided to base our Torah reading on two midrashim, one from Genesis Rabbah and one from the Zohar. In the Genesis Rabbah midrash, Abram is so afraid that the Egyptians will take Sarai that he hides her in a box. When he reaches the border with Egypt, he offers to pay anything rather than open the box, but the border crossing official makes him open it anyway, and this is how the Egyptians find out how beautiful Sarai is. We made the theme of our service "journeys," and between sections of the service, Jake and Shawn delivered monologues: a nosy neighbor watching Abram and Sarai's household leave their native land behind, and a (hilarious!) Egyptian customs official warning of security concerns now that famine had driven so many foreigners to seek food in Egypt.

Our Torah service began as Shira narrated a story from her own life related to hiding. We called up journeyers, people who felt that they had been placed in boxces, and people who had gotten out of boxes. We narrated Abram's request to Sarai: "Say that you are my sister.." Shoshana/Sarai climbed into the cardboard box as Jill/Abram explained her concerns about Sarai being taken away. A funny dialogue between Avram and the customs officer led to the box being opened and Sarai being discovered. In the second aliyah stretch, Shoshana/Sarai introduced herself to the "harem," the whole audience, (noticing that Pharaoh had both men and women in his harem), and invited other harem members to talk about their boxes. Sarai then narrated the third aliyah, where Sarai's true relationship to Avram comes out, and Pharaoh sends Avram and Sarai away from Egypt. At the end of the Torah service, Jill reflected on the themes of journeying, trying unfamiliar things, making mistakes on the journey, and continuing to move forward. The service ended with Kaddish and Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.

There was a lot about this Storahtelling that I liked. The music was well-chosen, people got into their roles, and the audience shared beautifully. As someone who hates to fly, it was very cathartic for me to play someone at a security checkpoint who throws a fit and doesn't want to open the suitcases! But the thing that really touched me was the overall sense of freedom in the room: we could play with the story of Avram and Sarai as a queer story, with queer characters, in a safe, fun, and (relatively) reverent way. Both Shira's story and Shoshana's Sarai monologue gave me a sense that a Jewish queer story was being told in a compelling way, to an appreciative audience, and that was the best part of the day for me.

Parashat Vayera

By Deanna Neil

Verse Per Verse
When looking for your new housing in New York City or wherever you may be, make sure that your neighbors aren't sadistic and make sure that they fear/ awe God.
We're still in Genesis. Abraham just hacked off his foreskin at the end of the last chapter as a sign of covenant. So, we've got a lot to learn in terms of morality and how to operate as a family and as a people. It's just the beginning.

The JPS translation calls this section "Community Development", which is interesting. My first instinct was to call it "Lessons in Incest: How to make your daughter your lover and your sister your wife", but sexual mores are only one of the many issues addressed in this section. The actual Hebrew title of this section is called "VaYera" which means, "and he appeared."
Similar in root, the chapter ends with Abraham naming the location of Isaac's non-slaughter "Adonai Yir'eh" which means "God will see." "On God's Mountain, he will be seen." The word Vayera is also close in root to Vayar, which means fear/awe. So, what exactly are we supposed to see? What exactly are we supposed to fear? And how does this help our community to develop?

The most interesting element of this section of the Torah is why it is all placed together. Why tell the story of Abraham and Sarah with the strange interjection of Sodom and Gomorrah right in the middle? It is because even as far back as Genesis, Jews had to figure out how to operate as outsiders within a community. Even if you don't say "Jews", moral individuals had to figure out how to work within the greater community.

Here we have two parallels-- Lot living in the world of Sodom and Abraham living in the world of Abimelech and the Philistines. Lot was saved, but he could not live in the Sadistic world Sodom. Why? No matter how much you try to separate yourself you are still influenced by your community. For example, Lot's wife was killed because she absorbed a touch of sadism--she wanted to watch the city being destroyed. A lesson to all of us who want to watch public hangings or to join in gang rapes where we are voyeurs of sadistic behavior. How many times do we turn and look at destruction instead of turning away? (I could even potentially argue that Lot's daughters adopted some of this sadistic behavior by seducing their own father, but God didn't seem to punish them for this. Furthermore, Lot had offered their virgin bodies to a violent mob of horny sadists back in Sodom. It seems only fair that they end up raping him.)

Tangent on gay sex: And as far as the argument against homosexuality goes, it's not so bad that the Sodomites were trying to rape men, they were trying to rape angels! How much more sacrilegious and less God-fearing can you get?
And I don't buy the Sodomites being burned to death for their lack of hospitality either. My argument is that it is the sadism that led to their destruction--their lust for raping strangers, whether they were men or women.

Let's move on from this point, though, and return to Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham figures out how to live with Abimelech and the Philistines, who turned out to be moral. Abraham migrated to the land of Gerar. Abimelech was king of Gerar. Abraham lied when traveling and told people that Sarah was his sister, and not his wife. Abraham said this because he felt the one thing that was missing in Gerar was a fear of God. (Again, note the spelling of the Hebrew word, "Yirat" from the similar root to vayerah again, harking back to the chapter title.) Abraham thought he would be killed because of his wife. (Why, remains unclear. Is she so beautiful that men would kill for her? But I thought she was old and infertile? This is confusing; if you have
an answer, please let me know).

Here we see that the other main difference between the Sodomites and the Philistines is that the Sodomites did not fear God. The two Sodomite men to whom Lot's daughters were betrothed thought that Lot's warnings were a joke.
They burned. Now, Sarah also laughed at the angel who told her that she would have a child. But when called out on it, she lied out of fear (ki yareyah--that same root again) and said she did not laugh. She was smiled upon. Lot's wife, on the other hand, did not fear enough, and she turned into a pillar of salt.
As it turned out, Abraham was wrong. Abimelech and the philistines did fear God. Abimelech had a dream where God told him that Sarah was married and he would die if he did not heed the dream. Abimelech woke up in the morning (Vayashkem--the same word used for when Abraham awoke to sacrifice Isaac and for when he banished Hagar and Ishmael), and he whispered to his servants about his terrible dream. They were afraid (Vayireu--the same root of fear again). They did fear God and they respected Abraham. Abimelech even established a pact with Abraham around Beer-Sheba, and Abraham stayed in the land peacefully for a long while. This is a better environment to live in over Sodom.

So, in sum, your neighbors can influence you. Chose wisely where you live-make sure your community is not full of sadists or full of people who have no awe, no fear of God (Whether I agree with this or not is another thing, but this is what I think the Bible is saying). There is, of course, a bunch of interfamilial complexities that occur in this section as well, with the banishment of Hagar and family hierarchy. I'll let you explore that on your own.

One more important note that comes out of this chapter-just because you fear God doesn't mean that you can't argue with him or his angels. This is the "seeing" part of Vayerah-seeing from God's mountain. Moral arguments with God are good ones. If Abraham hadn't bartered with God, then Lot wouldn't have been saved at all. Lot argued with an angel, saying that he couldn't make it all the way to the hills without succumbing to his evil, so the angel let him go to a nearby town. And of course, the biggest community defying moral move of all, Abraham doesn't sacrifice his first born son.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

RituaLab & Maven at Queer Shabbaton NYC

October 19-21, 2007

By Jake Goodman

Storah On The Road

This weekend was the much-anticipated Queer Shabbaton at the JCC Manhattan, which was sponsored by Nehirim. I could go on talking about how amazing and truly awesome it was to be surrounded by so many queer Jews, and how inspiring the programming that I was able to attend was. But this blog will be long enough…

Shoshana Jedwab, Jill Hammer, Shawn Shafner, Shira Kline and I led a Saturday morning RituaLab and Maven. The parsha was Lech L'cha (the story that begins with Avram leaving his homeland and includes Avram trying to "pass" his wife Sarai off as his sister), and our theme was Journeys and boxes ( be explained soon below).

The RituaLab was so special. Shira took the lead and eased everybody into and through prayer in a way that positively and visibly surprised people and allowed them access to a depth of prayer that many later commented to me they can not usually achieve; Jill helped to guide and connect the RituaLab with meaningful, creative and simply gorgeous commentary; Shosh helped drive the RituaLab with her sexy drums (you've all seen how her rhythms affect people), interjections and Ashrei; and Shawny and I interjected 2 monologues in character (Shawn was a hilarious customs officer and I was a nosy neighbor) that helped set the context for the upcoming Maven Torah translation.

The Maven Torah Translation Ritual was very interesting. We decided to focus on the part of Lech L'cha in which Avram begs his wife Sarai to pass herself as his sister, so that when the Egyptians see how beautiful she is, they will not think she is his (Avram's) wife, and kill him and let her live. We related this to the times in our lives when we feel the need to pass, or others would like us to hide our relationships with our partners or (major) parts of our identities so that we can pass as something we are not, so that things "might go well by" other people. Using a Midrash from Genesis Rabbah 42a in which God places Sarai in a protective box while she was in Pharaoh’s harem, the big idea of the Torah service was: The Boxes We Put Ourselves In/Others Try To Put Us In. You can imagine, I'm sure, how resonant this was for a queer Jewish audience.

Afterwards, so many people came up to all of us, telling us how meaningful it was for them. I know of one young woman who said that if ALL services were like this, she would attend shul. There is one lovely gay couple who is getting married in Florida and are very excited about the possibility of Storahtelling coming down to do a Torah service during their special weekend! (I am sooooo excited about that.) There's so much more to say!

I think we would all agree that the Queer Shabbaton is a very special event to be part of. Mazal tov to Storahtelling! Mazal tov to all the participants! L'chayim!

Friday, October 19, 2007


Three day master class at Denver University with Amichai Lau-Lavie.
I just traveled from Goshen to NYC, via Rome, Baghdad and Berlin, spanning 2,500 years in just three afternoons – and all inside a Denver University classroom! The Making Maven Matter workshop was intended for DU students as well as open to the community, and the mix of people – about 25-30 was indeed that – all ages, religions, and backgrounds. Using a PowerPoint presentation, lively discussion and various interactive exercise, we covered the history of the Maven tradition – the live translation of Bible into contemporary conversation and lively presentation. For most people present – including rabbis, professors, and various lay leaders, this was new and very exciting information and several reflected on how this technique and its radical ramifications for their ability to re think their relationship to biblical literacy and religious thought. Over and over people expressed the surprised joy at having fun while examining biblical passages, and at the sense of relief to be allowed to ‘play’ and find personal meaning in these ancient and so often constricting texts. For our final exercise, the participants split into small groups and created their translation of the Burning Bush story – choosing language and character to convey this timeless tale of listening to the personal call for action. People chose Maya Angelou, Smokey the Bear, a little child, God’s voice of compassion, the fire, and – George Burns. It was a great way to end a great workshop – see the attached picture of one fantastic interpretation of the Moses and the Bush story, analyzing the feminine/masculine archetype of this tale. For me this was a fantastic opportunity to share the Maven history with a new type of audience – beyond the Jewish community and reaching the wider population – where I am hoping Storahtelling will be of help and impact in future. One response came in via email this morning – very much speaking to this effect, and warming my heart..

Dear Amichai,

thank you for a fantastic experience. We Christians tend to forget that our roots are in Judaism, we share with you the beginning of our story.

When I told my daughter Victoria about "Making the Maven Matter", and asked her to come with me, first she did out of curiosity; on Tuesday she left early to go to Rugby practice, today she said to me "I am skipping practice, I really want to stay for the whole thing." Tonight after we left you we sat for coffee to talk about what we've learned, actually, she did most of the talking, she said she wishes she could have taken this workshop at least a couple of years ago, before having to translate Virgil's Aeneid from Latin last year, and having to take four years of Theology in high school. So, I now see the Bible's teachings with a completely different set of mind and with renewed interest, thank you again.