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!