Wednesday, December 31, 2008

RE:VERB: ELEVEN / WEEP
VAYIGASH


A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join us for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

December 31, 2008


I sit down on a wooden bench, looking at the large black canvas and suddenly tears fill my eyes. For several minutes I can’t stop crying, head in hands, letting it all out. Perhaps had this been in NYC or Jerusalem somebody would have offered me a tissue (and advise), but this was London – the Tate Modern, and hundreds of people, mostly tourists like me, crowded the Mark Rothko Retrospective, politely ignoring a grown man weeping on a bench. Perfectly fine– the last thing I needed was to try and explain what was going on. Why was I weeping? A few deep breaths later I dry my eyes and scribble quick thoughts in the margins of the catalogue, trying to identify my strong emotional reaction to Rothko’s ‘Black Form Untitled No. 11’: “gradually, life dies into death, slowly, and there are no real separations, no borders, no shades, no death, no fear. I feel like I’m inside a tomb.”

The painting, from the artists’ later years, is a large square dominating the canvas – but unlike his more colorful palettes this one is all black. There is something hypnotic about it, like a vortex, or a long corridor of open doors. What first looks like a singular black surface becomes, as soon as I pause to really see it, a meditation on darkness: deep and deeper black, blurred, bottomless boundaries. A quote by Rothko greets visitors as they enter the exhibit hall:” If people want sacred experiences they will find them here. If they want profane experiences they will have them too. I take no sides.” I was surprised by my own reaction to the power of the art – it did feel sacred. And it felt good to cry, release some of the sadness I’ve been walking with all day, and to push my own boundaries of what’s ok or not ok to do. (I cry easily, truth be told, but real loud sobs, alone, in the middle of this big crowded gallery?)

I’ve been thinking about boundaries and borders all day – traveling from NYC back to Jerusalem – with a 24 hour stopover in London to visit family and indulge in ‘speed culture’ -- ‘Babylon’ exhibit at the British Museum, Rothko at the Tate, Turandot at the Royal Opera House. In between, walking alone along the freezing, familiar streets of London, I am in total transit: traveling between different homes, loved ones, obligations, languages, currencies, cell phone numbers - boundaries blur in ways both comforting and utterly confusing. And, all along my walking - newspaper stands with updated bulletin boards - other borders violently dissolving: ‘Israel vows to fight to the bitter end’ is one headline, ‘Gaza Doom’ is another. When I weep, courtesy of Rothko, it’s all of that combined: A weeping that makes no sense but helps to release the tension, if only for a moment. But is it really helpful? What comes after weeping?

After I leave the Tate and walk along the Thames River I am reminded of another moment of weeping - happening in this week’s Torah Tale ‘VaYigash’. The aftermath of THAT cry is of historical proportions – dissolving geographical and emotional borders, and opening tangible new possibilities for redemption and hope.

Joseph weeps– and though he has cried a few times in these Genesis chapters that describe his re-encounter with his siblings, the really big weeping erupts when he ‘comes out’ to them, revealing his true identity: Joseph’s cry is mythic – instantly reverberating throughout the land: “And he wept aloud; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis, 45: 2)

After the weeping come the stunned silence, and then - the gradual reconciliation, awkward words, embraces, kisses. Then there’s the reunion between Jacob & Joseph, as the aged Patriarch and his entire household evacuate the famine stricken homeland, leaving starvation behind for the abundance of Egypt. Joseph’s weeping opens the doors to truth and forgiveness– and also to the pantry of human survival.

The borders between Israel, Gaza and Egypt are wide open again, bleeding like open wounds – and the famine is back, and is real, as is the despair and anger and great weeping. Rockets defy borders, rage denies agreements, this ongoing pain is blurring away the dream that brothers and sisters, Abraham’s children, can co exist in peace.
But if there’s anything to learn from Joseph’s surreal saga it is the reminder that everything changes, and that dreams do come true. The man who was betrayed by his own brothers will be the one to offer them life. The grief of a bereaved parent will become but a memory, and a family torn by torment once again reunited. Joseph weeps and the world is shattered, and is changed. How much weeping, and by whom – can change the reality in the Middle East of today?

In the Tate gift shop I find a postcard of ‘Untitled No. 11’ and also a pin that says ‘Peace begins with a smile’. I smile to the cashier, wish her a peaceful and happy new year and head out to the cold, and I go home.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008















Join us this week for the weekly RE:VERB and also a reminder to join Hadassah Gross tonight at the City Winery for MIDNIGHT MESS!

RE:VERB: TEN / SHAVE

MIKETZ
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join us for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

December 24, 2008

Shaving is on my mind this week. I’ve had a beard for a few years now, and though I trim it regularly, I have not exposed my chin to society in many months, since last Purim, in fact. But this week I will have to shave and bare it all. Tonight is the fourth night of Chanukah - also Christmas Eve, and I will perform as Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, my venerable alter-ego-maniac, whose chin is prominent, mouth is big, and full length fur coat has survived many a financial crisis and worse. Read About Hadassah

Hadassah only comes out once or twice a year nowadays, and tonight’s MIDNIGHT MESS show at Michael Dorf’ new venue City Winery is a nod to the need to laugh amid dark days and make meaning of life through dark humor and shameless piety. She’s good at that, and way funnier than I.

Transforming from Amichai into Hadassah is a lengthy and complex process, which is one of the reasons that Hadassah doesn’t emerge too often into the limelight. It clearly involves full facial shaving – usually twice– my least favorite part of the proceedings.

This time, before I submit to the razor and step into heels, I want to take a few steps in the shoes of another shaver – a man whose shave was so prominent that it had to be included in the Bible. The man is Joseph – the dreamer, turned dream interpreter, turned inmate in Egypt’s prison system, serving time for a crime he did not commit. In this week’s re-run he will also become the King’s Second in Command – a spectacular transformation of mythic proportions, and shaving is included. This week’s installment of Genesis is ‘Miketz’ – and it’s packed with the drama that would one day inspire Andrew Lloyd Weber and many other artists to recreate the Joseph Saga. At this point in the saga, Joseph has been in prison for many years, forgotten by most and mourned for as dead by his family. When the King of Egypt needs a dream interpreter to analyze his nightmares, a minister recently pardoned and released from prison recalls his fellow inmate – a Hebrew boy who was skilled at interpreting the subconscious. The King is desperate for meaning and Joseph, Freud’s ancestor, is rushed out of his cell to minister to the soul of the Great Pharaoh. But first – he has to clean up:

“Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon. And he shaved himself, and changed his dress, and came in unto Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14)

I want to be a fly on the wall of this shaving moment in which Joseph is losing his past and entering a bright new future. How long has it been? How wild is his beard? Does his hand tremble? Is he confident, terrified, confused, elated, all of the above? I can’t recall any other shaving moments in the Torah other than some priestly instructions way later in Leviticus, so this is a rare peek into a regular human act that suddenly becomes a grand, mythic gesture: the moment of transformation when the past is shed, hair by hair. For some of us this is a daily act – but when do we stop to think of its deeper ‘value’?

This is the season of gestures and rituals: candles are lit, presents carefully wrapped and hastily opened, oily foods fried and consumed and New Year’s resolutions planned. It is a season that promises transformation, the magic of miracles, a new page and a clean slate. How many of us will renew our gym memberships this coming January? How many of us will shave away layers of accumulated ‘stuff’ and trim and cut and make room for less and new and improved?

I will shave today, grey beard hairs (more of them!) making room, briefly, to foundation and powder and a temporary identity that celebrates light within darkness and levity as a way to embrace the sacred. Hadassah Gross, like Joseph, spent time in prison – hers was a concentration camp. She emerged to be a court jester, the one who can tell the truth to the king – to the people through parable and story, not unlike Joseph who will enter the King’s chamber to talk dreams as strategic solutions to an impending economic crisis. But first - the shave. Moving on means letting go of some of the past, painful or joyful or both. For me this week, part of the commitment to move on and celebrate what is involves a simple, intimate, hopefully painless process of shaving. Like Joseph, the rest of the transformation will include elaborate outfit changes, a name change and a sharp tongue.

Hopefully, tonight will help many of us honor the IS, laugh away the nightmares and dream big – the lean years will be here, but so will the fat ones, stay tuned. Just like Joseph said, right after he shaved off the years of prison mentality.
To Light!

PS. THANK YOU – so many who kindly responded to last week’s SIT blog – offering kind words, great advice and generous support. Onwards!


Hadassah Gross invites you to a
Throw-Your-Shoes-at-Madoff-Competition
Lighting of the Fourth Chanukah Candle and other
Delightful Rituals at City Winery!

Christmas Eve is a busy night for NYC Jews. The mad dash between Chinese restaurants and movie theaters can be grueling. We offer Midnight Mess as an alternative. This pre-opening event is hosted by Rebetzin Hadassah Gross, the ageless widow of six Hasidic Rabbis and a personal soul trainer to the ultra-orthodox elite. She will be your guide to a night brimming with comedy, storytelling, music, and yes, you guessed it, wine. Laugh with Todd Barry and Jackie Hoffman. Stamp your feet to Leah Siegel, DJ Balagan and Anthony Coleman's Sephardic Tinge. Cap off the perfect night with Sephardic remixes, courtesy of Diwon.
Tickets Online at www.citywinery.com
December 24, 2009
Doors open at 8pm

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Maven & Becoming Israel in Delaware:
Gushing About The Power of Storahtelling

12/23/08
by Jake Goodman


This last weekend, Elana Bell, Michael Bradley Cohen, Emily Warshaw and I traveled down to Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, DE for a jam-packed weekend. I have been on many gigs, all of which feel special in their own way. This one was particularly meaningful. Below is an email I wrote after the gig...


Hello All,

I want to write a very heartfelt mazal tov to the ENTIRE Delaware team. This weekend, Emily, Elana, Michael and I traveled to Congregation Beth Shalom (CBS) in Wilmington, DE.

First, Emily and Elana performed their first ever Maven of Parshat Vayeshev called “To Know A Veil”. Both Tehilah Eisenstadt and Naomi Less, the chevruta partner and Maven mentor, respectively, went above and beyond their required duties to support these ladies in the creation of this script. It was a job exceptionally well done by all. I wish you could have been there to see it. People’s attention was rapt, they were laughing hysterically at times, 100% engaged. During the stretch and, later, during the talkback and in informal conversations, people were so involved that they brought up other perspectives that they wished were brought to this story. We heard so many comments about how meaningful this story was, how they will never ever forget this story of Tamar and Judah, how they will never think of it the same way again. Moreover, from the clergy down, everybody at CBS wants to continue Maven at their synagogue--it is likely that Rabbi Beals will join us for Maven training at HUC this January! Emily and Elana performed brilliantly: they totally took control of the space, engaged the congregation with skill and wit, and just shocked people. It was exhilarating to see so many people so surprised that they found a Torah service so meaningful. Truly, we changed their lives.

And then there was Becoming Israel, performed by Emily, Elana and Mike—performing BI for his first time. This is a stellar cast. (We have so many stellar casts!) The relationships they created together, the poise and nuance of their performances, and the power of this script overwhelmed the audience. One person—Richard, the Christian custodian—said that he had to work very hard to control himself during the performance, and afterward he went to a different room and had to pray to God. It was soooo meaningful to him to see these characters, to hear this story. One young woman, Hana, approached me after the performance and asked how she could bring Storahtelling to Brown, where she attends college. Later, her mom told me that she literally had to drag her daughter there because she is very involved in Israel politics and current events, and is not interested in hearing a simple love-Israel-or-else play, although she does love Israel. The mom said that she now has language to speak with her daughter, who loved the show.

I could go on and on. This weekend reconfirmed for me the power of Storahtelling, across our five programs. (I also spoke with many people about Raising the Bar, and expect to hear from them—and many others.) Elana, Emily and Mike each worked sooooooo hard, and with such heart. I thank them. And I thank all of us, for helping to support them. I cannot gush enough.

Xoxox,

Jake

Monday, December 22, 2008

Two Loves Within/My First Storahtelling

Oded Mazor
Storathelling at HUC Jerusalem /December 2008


I met Storahtelling the same day I met Amichai Lau-Lavie; Just over a year ago. When Amichai came to Kehilat Kol-HaNeshama in Jerusalem in December 2007, something happened in the sanctuary, and in my heart. When I was in high-school I took theater classes, but my Torah studying was done somewhere else; during my BA studies I joined a small theater group, but it was very much separated from my Jewish-Philosophy classes. Joining the Israeli rabbinic-program at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem I chose a different kind of stage to stand on, leading services, giving a sermon or teaching, but the acting passion was put aside. Storahtelling by Amichai at Kol-HaNeshama showed me a new path to combine these two loves of mine.

Together, we found and built the way to have a Storahtelling-seminar in Jerusalem this year, a joint project of Storahtelling and Kol-HaNeshama, with 23 participants. I'm privileged to study with these good women and men, with Amichai as our teacher.

I'm also very privileged that Amichai supported me in doing my first Storatelling myself – just two weeks ago. It was done on a Monday morning, when I was supposed to give the Dvar-Torah during the morning prayers at the HUC. The week's Torah-portion was "Toldot", and our chosen theme was God's answer to Rivka – "Two nations are with-in you" – the notion of duality. Except for last year's Kol-Nidrei's sermon, I have never spent so much time and effort on writing a Torah related ‘presentation’ before… What ‘hat’ am I wearing here? Which of the Biblical characters will be chosen as ‘speakers’? What did he/she have to say to us today? What did our sages try to tell us through this character and her/his story?

This became a great experience for me, and I'm glad to say that the reactions of my fellow rabbinic students and faculty were inspiring. Like I felt almost a year ago, my friends and teachers at the program saw and felt the difference in approach, the strength of the method. I learned a lot about what I need to learn and practice, but that was the point for me – I wanted to try the Storahtelling Maven method by myself, to know how it felt for me and what I need to do next.

The big questions remain un-answered: what is the meaning of translating from (biblical-) Hebrew to (modern-Israeli-) Hebrew? What is the right balance between the traditional act and the renewed method? How does one prepare and present a strong and successful Storahtelling program that fits the different crowds in ones’ congregation?

But one answer I did find – there is a way to have these two nations within me live in peace, not in constant struggle in-which one of them must lose. The two forces, attractions, within me – Torah and theater – have found at least one method of working together, giving both their right place – within the synagogue, on the Bimah.



Wednesday, December 17, 2008

RE:VERB: NINE / SIT

VAYESHEV
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join us for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

December 17, 2008


‘Are you sitting down’?

Actually, I was – sitting at my desk looking out the window at the morning rain finally feeding a parched Jerusalem, with a cup of tea in my left hand and the phone in the other. N., across the Atlantic, was the bearer of bad news, the kind one sits down for. Madoff’s scheme trickled down to our immediate reality –a few of Storahtelling’s important funders badly hit and will be unable to support us this year. Also, a major foundation with a significant investment in our programs slated for later this year – simply erased off the map. The implications are severe. I remained sitting for a long time after the phone call ended, cheeks wet like rain, throat parched like earth. Just sitting.

There are different kinds of ‘sitting’. There is the casual sit down at a café, with a newspaper or a book, or a rigid 9-5 at your computer or sewing machine or at the wheel. There is meditation, often done sitting down – (in Hebrew one doesn’t say ‘did you mediate today? But rather – ‘have you sat today?’) There’s the sitting down for Shiva – mourning for a loved one – a required ritualized act of sitting low for a week. There are seating charts for dinner parties, and the toilet seat that often follows, there’s finding your assigned seat in the theater or choosing one in the movies, there’s the nervous sitting at job interviews (‘please take your seat’), or hospital waiting rooms. Then there’s the race for a seat of an elected official, or the jumping out of one’s seat to cheer a sports event. We do a lot of sitting as means to a greater end. And yet, sometimes it is the act itself that matters, just pausing to bend the knees, and find as comfortable a place as possible to let the butt rest and the feet rest and all the rest, rest: ‘are you sitting down??’

Jacob sits down this week, and the Torah portion ‘VaYeshev’ is named for this much awaited rest;. ‘Jacob sat in the land of his father's dwelling, in the land of Canaan’ (Genesis 36:1). Jacob hopes to settle down – physically and emotionally - recovering from the recent ‘Dina Disaster’, and more recently – the death of his beloved wife Rachel. He is hoping to find a peaceful place among his neighbors, to prosper, to take a deep breath. But the peace is temporary… The commentaries sigh ‘he wanted to sit quietly and then came the saga of Joseph....’

But not yet.

At this point in the story, this weekly re-run, he is just ‘sitting’. Yes, his has been a difficult life, full of challenges and hardships, but now he is home, and to ‘sit’ in Hebrew also means to ‘dwell’. He is re-grounding himself in reality. Sitting down, Jacob shows us, has to do with re-charging one’s batteries, with tapping into a greater resource of inspiration and hope – especially at times of heartbreak and crisis and fear. It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word ‘Yeshiva’ comes from the same root of “Shev’ – sitting down. The Jewish art of study is done at yeshivas – the places where we sit down to connect to our roots and stretch our minds and hearts like branches, further out into the world. Sitting matters. It is also no coincidence that the word ‘Shabbat’ comes from the same root as ‘sit’ or ‘stop’ – Shabbat is the wise weekly invitation to breath deep, sit down, ground one’s self as the storms rage. “Are you sitting down?”

Jacob’s been hit hard, and more is to come, but at this point in the story, he, the protagonist, doesn’t know it yet – and neither do we, the ‘readers’. Yes, terrible news will shatter his life, but years later, great consolation will mend his heart and family. For now, he, and we, are just quietly sitting, taking it in, sitting with it, looking outside the window at the rain quenching the thirst of this parched land.

21F: My seat on a flight from Tel Aviv to New York City, as I write this blog entry, on my way to a series of important meetings and vital decisions to be made. I cherish this quiet in between time zones, no emails, no phones. Outside my window the pitch black of somewhere and nowhere at all and in the horizon the pale strip of light – dawn over North America. I sit there, seatbelt and on - I try not to worry about everything, be here and now - breathe deeply, and simply sit down, gathering hope and strength for the rising of the dawn and for what comes next.

PS. In his commentary on Jacob’s dwelling in Canaan, Rashi, the French Torah Commentator quotes an odd parable, eerily appropriate of current events: ‘A merchant of flax enters the market with a caravan of camels, all laden with flax. ‘Where will all this flax be stored’? a local metal-smith asked. ‘Just one spark from your furnace and there will be no flax left…’ answered another merchant. Is this parable painfully obvious enough for right now? One man’s action has caused millions of damaged lives worldwide. Conversely – one person’s love can help heal this painful crisis – and that person can be you. Can you help me help Storathelling enter Chanukah with our lights turned on? Each and every gift matters a lot at this time and is much appreciated. You can do it online and make a huge difference – even just as a vote of confidence. GIFT TO STORAHTELLING

Thank you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

RE:VERB: EIGHT/SPEECHLESS

VAYISHLACH
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join us for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

December 11, 2008


I started coughing, suddenly, on Thursday night and by Friday morning, raising a white flag made of crumpled tissues, I surrendered to the onslaught of a nasty cold. The problem was that I was supposed to present a Storahtelling version of the weekly Torah portion at a big conference in a hotel in Ashkelon on Saturday morning – and by Friday afternoon my voice was down to a whisper. The conference organizers were very nice about it - a regime of tea with honey and assorted medicines was prescribed as well as a ban on speech. I spent Friday evening and night under solitary confinement in my hotel room. It worked. Saturday morning went fine – somehow I managed to raise my voice (there were about 300 people and there was no sound system, out of respect to the Orthodox among the group) beyond a whisper and took the audience on a hero’s journey in the footsteps of Jacob. They loved it. Later on that day, just after I finished teaching a class on the art of Storahtelling and its application to Israel – a siren was heard. It wasn’t a drill – actual missiles were fired on Ashkelon from nearby Gaza. Everyone huddled in the lobby, more annoyed than scared, and within minutes we were told to disperse. The missiles hit a few miles away, at an empty construction site. Business went back to usual, but when I tried to say something to someone, I realized that this time my voice had really gone: the day’s efforts had taken their toll. I was completely speechless.

I decided to make the best of it. Got home, turned off my cell phone, informed my parents and close friends via email and text messages that I am out of commission, canceled my meetings for Sunday and Monday and got into bed – determined to observe a strict silence until recovery. Had it not been for the coughing and headache I would almost have considered this a vacation.

And there, flipping through Genesis to find this week’s verb I found Jacob, speechless as well, but for very different reasons – and reading about it made me think about the different hues of silences in our lives.

Chapter 34 in Genesis starts innocently enough. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, goes out to visit the local Canaanite girls, her neighbors. But violence follows: she is raped by a local prince who then claims her as a wife. Dina’s opinion on this is not mentioned – possibly silenced – as is so often the case with victims of violence, domestic abuse or rape. And, loudly, her father is, at first, also silent: “Now Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter; and his sons were with his cattle in the field; and Jacob held his peace until they came.” (Genesis 34:5)

“Held his peace” is the King James Bible’s translation of ‘Ve’hechrish Yaakov.’ Other translations include ‘kept silent’ or ‘was quiet’ (very poetic translation – ‘held his peace’ – kept it inside, held it together…).

I listen, in silence, to his deep silence at this moment in his life and I know that it is the silence of speechless pain. And maybe it is also the silence of the quiet hunter, waiting for the right moment to react, and, also the tense silence of fear.

But I wish he’d say something. One can argue that Jacob waited till his sons came home to deal with the situation, and that his silence is wise strategy. Maybe, but maybe not. If he would have spoken early on in protest or rage he may have been able to prevent the terrible massacre that his sons unleash on their neighbors in the following verses. And couldn’t he have said something to Dinah – a word of comfort? Is ‘speechless’ the best that Jacob can do at this moment? Guess so. I think of all the times outrage happens: so many of us are speechless when it comes to protest or condemnation or comfort. We may be ‘holding our peace’ – but by doing so – are we withholding peace from the world?

There are times to shout and times to hush, and I pray that I and all of us will know how to speak up when the need is real and the hurt needs comforting and the protest is required. Even if our throat hurts – or when the words are uncomfortable yet have to be said… I sit here as I write this, still semi-silent, though feeling a little better and hoping to learn something from my own particular hue of silence– maybe how to listen more carefully to what is or isn’t being said, written or shouted about, quietly. And, then, when it’s time – really speak up.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

RE:VERB: SEVEN/DREAM
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join us for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

December 3, 2008


I woke up chuckling this morning, with a single image snatched from a dream: one of my aunts, a formidable rabbi’s wife, dancing – wearing an Israeli soldier’s uniform. Huh? I’ve been dreaming a lot since coming to Jerusalem. Some of the dreams, and most often just fragments, enter my morning journal. I don’t really spend much time trying to decipher them - in various ways they affect my moods, my thoughts – and sometimes inform my decisions and actions. I’ve wanted to do more with dreams – close friends and mentors have generously shared their dream-work techniques. Somehow, it hasn’t been a priority – maybe because there’s more than enough data for reflection generated, pressing, during waking hours… But this week, reading Genesis to find a weekly verb that resonates with my here & now - I was drawn to ‘dreaming’ - an action that seems to define this week’s tale and its super-hero – Jacob – the one who listens to his dreams and, more importantly, actively manifests their interpretations into reality.

In this digital fast pace time, writing about dreams feels a little like frivolous ‘psycho-babble.’ This ‘age of reason’ has almost succeeded in downplaying all that is primitive, sacred and lacking in proven credibility. But for so many of us dreams do matter, especially when reality is harsh and life demands great creativity and resourcefulness. When Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a dream,” he didn’t mean the kind of dream that comes in the night – and not a daydream, either. His dream was a vision of a possible reality, a reality demanded by conscience, no matter how much social convention opposed it. He dared to dream – inspiring real change. In our sacred stories, we meet ancestors who also dared to imagine and to manifest their wildest dreams into an even wilder reality.

Rebecca and Isaac’s youngest son has two big dreams in this week’s epic Torah episode ‘Vayetze’ – ‘He Exits.’ Both dreams are fantastic – and the Biblical author/s spared no detail in describing them, to the delight of every psychoanalyst, poet and entrepreneur among us. Jacob’s first dream is on his first night away from home, alone on a hill, a young runaway boy exiting onto his hero’s journey. He dreams of a ladder, and angels, and God, and the promise that he will one day return to his ancestral homeland - and own it. The second dream comes many years later and it involves copulating sheep, a great recipe for great wealth, and the command to finally return home. (More about the sheep later.)

The first dream is famous – interpreted, analyzed and understood in numerous ways, for over two thousand years, by scholars, mystics, artists and therapists. The practical bottom line of that dream is real estate – God promised his ownership over the land of Canaan. (This is a dream that was interpreted literally and is responsible for plenty of historical and contemporary political problems – including the situation on the ground right now in Hebron – where hundreds of extremist Jewish settlers are gathered today to resist the IDF’s evacuation of ‘the House of Conflict’ – a contested Jewish stronghold in the midst of the Palestinian city.)

When Jacob woke up on that hill with that dream he was filled with awe –built an altar, and then sat down to business: making a deal with God. “If you protect me,” he says to the Almighty, “and if you bring me back home safe and sound – I’ll worship you, upgrade this altar into a full size temple, and give You 10% of my earnings” (Gen.28:21-22). Inspired by the powerful dream, Jacob thinks strategically - he aims high, sets tangible goals for his next challenges, and makes the deal. He uses dream language to make meaning of his life, connect to the greater reality, and chart the next part of his journey. Where I am in life now – and where many of us are now – with the economic crisis re-shaping many of our lives and choices – this level of vision, clarity and strategy is inspiring. What can we learn here about aiming high, dreaming big and working wisely and strategically, like Jacob, to benchmark our goals and success?

His second dream, two chapters later is another great role model of “dream into action”: 20 years later, already married with four wives and many children and sheep, Jacob wants to return home to Canaan. He’s been working for his father in law this whole time – it’s not working out. Jacob invites Leah and Rachel into the field, persuading them to leave their father’s house and join him on the journey to his homeland. Halfway through the speech, for emphasis, he reveals the secret of their recent riches – instructed in a dream: “Once, at the mating time of the flocks, I had a dream in which I saw that the he-goats mating with the sheep were streaked, speckled, and mottled...” (Gen. 30:9).

In the previous chapter, Jacob came up with a ‘genetic manipulation patent’ – a genius system to breed a specific and sizable flock – with distinct colorations and patterns. Did he really receive that information in a dream, or was he just using it to convince his wives? Either way, the story tells us that dreams matter and are helpful to our daily lives and important choices. (Even really weird dreams in which sheep copulate –you GOTTA hand it to Jacob’s vivid imagination and to the biblical author/s for this image from our patriarch’s unconscious. It’s hilarious.)

Like ancient texts, dreams require imaginative interpretation in order for us to receive what they disclose. And big dreams – Genesis suggests – can yield big results - if we pause to listen and translate them into inspired action.

I have a hunch that my dream of a dancing aunt in IDF uniform has something to do with my spending much more time recently with family – including three of my nephews who are now serving in the army. It’s astounding to see them grown up and in uniform. It may also be the fault of the drag show I saw a few nights ago in a Jerusalem Night Club – a benefit to the Jerusalem Open House’s free AIDS clinic. Dancing aunts aside, I hope to make room for and invite other dreams that will inspire and guide and open a portal into great imagining clarity – and action.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cleveland Connections!

by Naomi Less
November 26, 2008

This weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of being surrounded by Storahtelling family in Cleveland. Judy Schiller (StorahLab Cohort 1) who is the director of the Retreat Institute of Cleveland, galvanized her community to bring Storahtelling to perform BECOMING ISRAEL, Storahtelling's touring show about what's in a name, identity and the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah from 3 different time and space perspectives!

Judy is an incredible example of linking silos in communities - enabling different populations to interact and interface with Storahtelling in different ways. The entire high school community was invited to come to the performance. She put together primer and follow up activities to deepen the learnings around the performance. She invited me to run a 3 hour educators' workshop utilizing the text and different Storah-techniques.

Judy has also been Maven-trained as a Mobile Maven. She and her local Maven partner Jesse Freedman did their first maven show for a 5th grade retreat.

And now, she and Laurel Barr (Cohort 1) and I are discussing what it would take to engage more people in the local community to equip themselves with tools around the Cool Tool, Maven and Raising the Bar (our three core programs).

We'll keep you posted - but we are definitely excited to help communities to fish for themselves!

Onwards...

Naomi

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

RE:VERB: SIX/SHOUT
Toldot
weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join us for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

November 25, 2008


Somebody shouted in the middle of the night: ‘DIE!’

It woke me up - a woman’s voice, in my building or very nearby: shrill, young, and angry. And then - silence, the Jerusalem night resumes, I am deep inside the covers, 3am, cold outside. I haven’t lived here long enough to know the particulars of who and what lives here and what constitutes ‘unusual.’ Back in NYC, downtown in the East Village, I know my neighborhood noises intimately: the screamers in the middle of the night, the loud love-makers, the door slammer two floors up - the urban secrets nobody talks about. But this is new territory and I can’t even figure out if she shouted in English for someone or something to stop living, or in Hebrew in which ‘Die’ means ‘Enough already’ (as in, Dayenu)…

Shouts in the middle of the night are the stuff of nightmares and, like bad dreams and heartaches, we mostly tuck them away when it’s daytime. I imagine that this repression, this act of forgetting the inconvenient, is a very healthy survival trait that the human race picked up on the evolution trail. Gotta focus, and move on with one’s day. But what happens when the shouts or the memories of the shouting persist into the daytime, into the midst of our wide-awake lives, refusing to be ignored, refusing to be forgotten? What then is our responsibility?

I sit up in bed: The echo of the shouting lingers, but what is there for me to do? I turn on the bedside lamp and pick up a book – Meir Shalev’s novel ‘Esau’ (In Hebrew, an Israeli ‘classic’ from the 80’s), and there too I find the nighttime shouting and the sleepless rage. Shalev’s modern-Zionist fiction references the original conflict between the Biblical brothers Jacob and Esau - and soon I flip through the pages of Genesis and find them in the chapters that are part of this coming week’s Torah portion, Toldot. And that’s when I hear it again: Esau’s shout, the terrible shout of the one who had been terribly wronged, finding out he had been tricked by his brother and deprived of his father’s final blessing:

“When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with a great cry and very bitter outcry and he said to his father, “Bless me, too, Father!” (Genesis 27:34, Robert Alter’s translation)

What leads up to this moment is an elaborate and successful hoax. Jacob enters his dying father’s bedroom, dressed up in Esau’s furry hunter gear, fools his blind father, and steals the firstborn blessing: he, and he alone, will be heir to all the riches, the real-estate of Canaan, the Divine blessing. By the time Esau returns – it is too late. His shout is followed by a terrible question to his father – ‘Is there but one blessing?’ Does it have to be either/or? Can’t both brothers be blessed to share the abundance of Isaac’s legacy? Isaac is also terrified but can only offer a consolation prize –not the privileges conferred upon Jacob. So Esau hates, and Jacob runs away, and Esau has since been shouting: we’ve been busy running and trying not to hear the shouts.

Esau, more than anyone else in Jewish Mythology is our eternal brother turned ‘Other.’ He is the hairy enemy, identified as the nation of Edom, Amalek, the Roman Empire, and later - the Vatican. Some contemporary voices regard the Palestinians as Esau’s descendents. But in chapter 34 of Genesis, Esau is not yet a mortal enemy - just a wronged brother, hurt and angry, and shouting: why does it have to be like this? Why can’t we both be blessed? Both live here? Co-exist, together, on our inherited lands, in prosperity and peace?

The Zohar teaches that the fate of Jewish history and exile is a result of Esau’s shout – and that not until it is heard by us, and amended, and healed - will our internal exile from our true selves end, and we will all be back ‘home’ – in the place of true peace and reconciliation with the ‘other’ in our lives.

But do we hear the shouts? Do we listen? Here in Jerusalem, thousands of years and dozens of wars and countless, daily shouts of refugees and victims are marked on the doorposts. Israel, busy surviving, is trying hard to avoid the shout of Esau - Headphones in our ears, cell phones ringing, it is mostly successful. But, sometimes, in the middle of the night, you can hear someone screaming - Enough Already! Dayenu!

Listen: Esau’s shout raises a fist at the very notion of hierarchy, political divides, the realities of this human system that is built on rich and poor, winner and loser, either/or. Can’t there be another way? It’s a call one hears more and more today as the world is trying to make sense of the global economic mess and offer solutions to spread the wealth and provide all of us with the human birthright of dignity. Maybe it’s the shout of so many of us who are afraid of what lies ahead – afraid of the real or imagined hunger ahead - that needs to be heard around Thanksgiving tables this year. What would it be like to bring Esau’s question to the celebratory tables of harvest and gratitude? Is that the first step in our responsibility towards hearing – and healing?

And, maybe, sometimes, one has to get up in the middle of the night and shout, and howl, and do what I was taught to do by ‘Tears for Fears’ – my favorite band back in High School: ‘Shout, Shout-- let it all out: these are the things I can do without…C’mon – I’m talking to you… Come on...’

News from Tribeca Hebrew

Raising the Bar at Tribeca Hebrew
Pictured at right are members of our 6th grade "Raising the Bar" class, which focuses on the art of dramatic storytelling as a way to connect with Torah.

Last week the class studied creation stories. They read a version of the scientific article "Volcanoes May Be The Original Womb of Life" and then performed the creation stories they heard: both Jewish ones, scientific ones and combinations of the two.

They also studied metaphors in poetry and Torah tales and shared what changes they are looking forward to in the coming year. Below are some of their expectations and metaphors.

"Awaiting a happier city, a more successful wall street and a healed world."

"Having our prides demolished by a soldier's pain. They will come home again."

"By the time of my birthday I will have shot up like a rocket and be as tall as a tree (hopefully)."

"I am looking forward to Obama; he will lead us to the beautiful skies and healthy growing greens."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

RE:VERB FIVE/FALLING (in love) - weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join me for a year long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

November 20, 2008


What’s love got to do with it? I am sitting with Dorit Bat Shalom, an old friend of mine, at a Café in the German Colony and we’re talking about our elderly parents and about our children (and her grandchildren) and about love. We’re both single – so it’s a hot topic. “You know, it’s funny, “she says, as she doodles with crayons, transforming the photo of the newly elected Jerusalem Mayor, smiling on the front page of the daily paper into an oversized clown - “but when it comes to our parents – I don’t think that ‘love’ is the right word.” We’re talking in Hebrew and using the word “Ahava” – roughly translated as ‘love’ and as equally inconvenient as its English counterpart. We use the same word to describe what we feel about a tasty dish, a great song, our mother, cat or lover. It’s not the same action or emotion, so why is it the same word? “The Torah doesn’t command us to love our parents”, Dorit says, “only to honor them. And God knows I try…”

Beyond the fact that I am thrilled to be learning Torah from Dorit, who grew up secular and not really into ‘religious stuff’, but found her way into deep spiritual, mythical and Jewish learning – I am also amazed to pause and think about this difference between ‘love’ and ‘honor’ – as action items in my life. How am I different when in dialogue with ‘other’ – be they my parents or the people I am trying (no luck so far!) to date, or the few friends who truly merit th auspicious title – ‘friend’. That other auspicious word ‘Love’ has become so trite and overused in our language (like ‘like’ or ‘God’) that it actually takes an effort to pause and ponder, seriously - when, on a daily basis – am I really experiencing ‘love’ and how is it different, if at all, from affection or plain fondness, and – the big one here – what does the absence of a lover in my life tell me about my ability to ‘truly’ love another human being? And what can I do about it??

And there it is, smirking at me – in this week’s Torah Re-run – the first mention of the word ‘love’ in the biblical cannon and I’m looking closely for clues and inspiration, and words of advice from the ancestors.

Chapter 24 of Genesis concludes the Torah portion called ‘Chayei Sarah’ - and we got a happy end: Isaac meets Rebecca, out in the fields, and brings her home. The text is rich – it’s sunset, she arrives on a caravan of camel and swoons off of one into his arms, and Isaac “brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and took Rebecca as his wife, and loved her, and was consoled after his mother’s death’. (Genesis 24:67)

There is an obvious link between Isaac’s grief over his (recently) dead mother and his need and ability to find consolation in the arms of another woman – the next matriarch. Perhaps this is also the place between ‘honor’ and ‘love’ – he was only able to express the emotion known as love when he was ready to honor his mother’s memory and let go of his mourning – his attachment to the past. Isaac was 40 at the time of his marriage (Rebecca, say the sages, was either 14 or 3.. lets stick with 14, and anyway, I’m really focusing on him this time) so he had plenty of time to yearn for a suitable partner – and his love – so softly described – is perhaps a testament to the hope that such love and comfort are indeed possible. Was it love at first sight? Did she love him also? We don’t’ know – but the text leaves us with the notion that Isaac, emotionally ready, ‘fell in love’. I think that People fall in love when they are ready to change, or to start a new life, and Isaac, as this story shows – was ready to make room for the future – and to move on, beyond the past.

Maybe that’s the lesson here - love requires enough empty space on your hard-drive, and what’s blocking us – and perhaps blocking me, from making room for the dramatic reality of a loving relationship is a lot of ‘honoring’ of the past and not enough ‘loving’ of the present? Maybe that’s why it’s called ‘falling in love’ – it just kinda happens – when we’re really ready and not looking for it – not clutching, just being. Just before this scene, the Torah tells us, Isaac went strolling in the fields – conversing, meditating, and some say praying – taking time out to just BE. And then – from the corner of his eye – there was the caravan of camels..

Avram Infeld, sipping his tea, hates the expression -‘falling in love.’ “It is a problematic Christian concept – derived from the view that sex – and mortal love - is sinful and the Fall from Eden is the Original Sin. We don’t have that expression in Hebrew - you don’t fall in love in Hebrew – you become more loving – and it’s a mutual act.” We are sitting in the same café as the one I sat at with Dorit the previous day, talking Torah. Avram has been my mentor and friend for over 20 years – the man responsible for my career in Jewish Education. We have a deep love for each other – and I am honored to have earned his respect and trust. We say goodbye, hug and walk away, it’s sunset, and I’m smiling – it was a good conversation, a tasty sandwich, and I got good music on my brand new IPOD and I’m loving this present moment. It’s not capital L love – but I, like all of us, I guess, in one way or another, am always working on ‘it’. (And keeping just one eye on the lookout for camels…)

Friday, November 14, 2008

FIRST MAVEN GIG: THE BEST TIME TO BE HAD (THAT IS NOT AT THE PHILLIE’S BALLPARK)
Parshat Noach at Ohev Shalom in Bucks County, PA

By Megan Sass
Storah On The Road


I’ll be honest. I was nervous. It was my first Maven, and it was the epic of Noah . . . there were three sections to translate and one to summarize. My nervousness didn’t subside until probably ten minutes into our show, when I began to look around, and see that something was happening. There I was, translating Torah verses, my partner, Deanna Neil playing devil’s advocate, and the people in the congregation were . . . get this . . . awake, listening, and interested. I know this is nothing new to the experienced Storahtelling actor or to anyone who has seen a Storahtelling show, but this was my first. People were attentive, anxiously awaiting to hear the next part of a story they must have heard so many times before. (It is Noah and the Ark, after all.) Standing on the bimah in Bucks County, PA, I learned something very important about Storahtelling: What we set out to do, we accomplish.

Congregants approached Deanna and I post show, expressing their excitement, gratitude, and curiosity. I actually heard the words “You really brought it to life!” and I heard them more than once. Talk about a ringing endorsement. People wanted to know all about the who, where, and when; “Do you guys go all over the country doing this?” “How often do you do these shows?” “How many of you do this kind of thing?” And then there were the questions about the parsha itself. And what started as questions led to discussions; individuals discussing and debating with us and with each other the content and moral context of a story about a guy, his wife, his kids, a bunch of animals and a big wooden boat. Once again, I’m sure this is all a very typical congregational response, but for me it was wonderful to watch. These people were going to remember the story this time, and they were going to continue to process it and discuss it after we left.

Again, being my first Maven show, I have to say I was moved. I can’t remember having ever seen people this engaged in Torah study or Torah translation. It occurs to me that the section of the parsha that occurs before the text of our show, the beginning of the tale of Noah, was actually the one that I read for my Bat Mitzvah exactly ten years earlier. I myself have probably never been this excited about sharing this kind of text with other people. When I was thirteen, my speech about the man who was Noah and his mission from G-D was something I tried to make sounds exciting, but the format was rigid, and really I understood very little about the Hebrew I was reading or the story I was recounting. But this time, given the task of translation and interpretation, the Torah service was not an empty segment of the Shabbat morning service and much more than something to simply get through on the way to the end. In a way, I feel I have redeemed my own translation of ten years ago. This was most certainly not something I expected to feel when I joined Storahtelling, but it is certainly a wonderful surprise.

After our show at Bucks County what I thought I felt about our organization during Maven training in July and suspected I would feel more as I begun doing gigs has, in fact, been confirmed. I believe in the work that Storahtelling does and I am glad to be a part of it. We set out to enliven old text through the reinvigoration of the old tradition of the Maven, and to engage individuals with the modern and relatable interpretation of the ancient Hebrew text of the Torah. In doing so, it seems to me that we hope to reach people with our shared sacred text by teaching, inspiring, and yes, entertaining! I am so pleased to find that one of those people we can reach is myself.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


RE:VERB/weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join me for a year long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

November 11, 2008
FOUR/VaYera/RUBBERNECKING


My father and I are walking in the park outside his home. It's a sunny Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, children are playing, and birds fly about. And from nearby East Jerusalem the call of the Muezzin is heard, calling the worshippers to the mosque. Soon it will be sundown and the Sabbath-Siren will pierce the same sky. A flock of ravens lands on the lawn next to us. My father looks at them and his mouth tightens. “I hate ravens,” he says, “afraid of them.” I sort of knew that – its part of the family lore of random facts having to do with my father's Holocaust experience. “But why exactly?” I ask him. We've been talking about specific memories of his on this walk, and I've been taking hasty notes on my left palm as we're circling the park. I'm trying to talk to him about his faith – not to re-probe the painful memories – to get beyond the facts. “They ate bodies. This was in Auschwitz – they would swoop down on us in flocks of 20 or 30 birds and use their beaks to grab the body parts of the corpses that were just lying there. They used their beaks to puncture the eyes. I don't know why, maybe it was more juicy.”

Father and son walking in circles, burdened by a past that keeps binding us both to ancient wounds, and both of us, for different reasons, don't or won't let go. This weekend marked his father's Yahrtzeit – the date on which it is estimated that my grandfather, leading his community as the last rabbi of their town, reached the gas chambers in Treblinka. The Hebrew date this year falls on November 9th – also the commemoration of Kristalnacht. Israeli TV channels are broadcasting special programs in commemoration and in our living room two memorial candles were lit tonight – one for my grandfather and one for his son, my father's younger brother Shmuel, who most likely perished with his father on the same day. “Your father had never lit a candle for his brother before tonight, for all those years,” my mother confides in the kitchen. “I'm not sure why.”

Vayera, this week's Torah installment, contains the birth of Isaac and then his Binding, as well as the exile of his brother Yishamel, not to mention the demolition of Sodom. Genesis packs 'em in: so many verbs, so little time.

The Binding is the big story here...father and son walk together, not far from where I sit right now, active participants in a terrible act of blind faith, bound by destiny. But I choose to focus on another difficult moment in these chapters – one glance and its fatal consequences.

Chapter 19 in Genesis tells of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Nothing in the plain text describes rampant homosexuality, by the way – the crimes of Sodom are greed and selfishness). Lot and his family get the VIP treatment and are rescued, warned not to look back on the loss of their home and loved ones – to just move on. Lot and his two daughters march on and survive, but Lot's wife – known in the oral legends as Edith – famously looks back into the pain, and is frozen on the spot.

"But his wife looked back, behind him, and she became a pillar of salt" (Gen. 19:26).

When does the act of looking at one's history become destructive? When does turning back to look at what used to be become not reflective but obsessive, dangerous, fatal? When is it time to let the past be and only focus on the future? Having spent a month here, so close to my father again and to his Holocaust narratives, am I becoming, like him, like Lot's wife, immersed in this saga of horrific memories? Can I walk away? Can he?? Is it time to persuade my father to stop dwelling, remembering, discussing what was? Do I have the right?

We took another walk today and I asked him about Lot's wife and the wisdom of her choice. “The problem,” he says, “is that most people don't want to know what lies ahead and prefer to dwell on what already happened, even if it's terrible.”

”And maybe,” he adds after a long pause, “it's a blessing for her… not to continue with the memories.”

This 'looking back' reminds me of 'rubbernecking' on the highway, peering at wrecked cars: this human tendency of ours to probe, like ravens, into the dark and the dead. Looking back at our pain, like 'rubbernecking,' may lead to clogged roads within. Inspired by this story and by this reading of Mrs. Lot's choice, I challenge myself today to glance in the rearview mirror - but not turn and look back while driving. Somehow, I need to learn how to honor the past, keep recording the tales – but not stay there – move on to a deeper understanding and a possible healing, reconciliation with the past. Isn't that the real role of stories and storytelling, just like salt: making everything last longer and taste better....

I wonder: When you look in the rearview mirror of your life - what do you see?

Friday, November 07, 2008



Review of “13”, the Broadway Musical

By Tehilah Eisenstadt

Storah On The Road



As the Program Director for Raising The Bar I get to do lots of fun things. As someone who works with Bar and Bat Mitzvah age tweens and their families, people often think of me when anything Bar or Bat Mitzvah related comes up. Thankfully, last week this situation scored me free tickets to see “13” the new musical on Broadway. It’s always nice to give back, so in order to repay the cosmos I am posting a free review! I am also excited to announce that Tribeca Hebrew—the location of our Raising The Bar, the institutional version (2.0?)—will be bringing their families to see “13”, and Raising The Bar will be offering a contextualizing Storah-intro to see them on their way! Now…back to our irregularly scheduled “13” review:

I did not have high expectations for "13". A friend and fellow educator had a ticket and so I thought I would give it a try even after reading reviews like this one:

... "13" treats Evan's pursuit of Popularity (and when you're 13, the word carries a capital P) in broad generic terms spiced with topical references, as if enacting an ages-old ritual dressed up in Abercrombie & Fitch and accessorized with cellphones. The characters are as eternal as types in commedia dell'arte, and the plot as set as that of a Passion play by way of young adult fiction.

-"Stranger in Strange Land: The Acne Years," NEW YORK TIMES, OCTOBER 2008

While the review was not such a positive one, after seeing the show, I agree with it - except that I think these elements are part of what makes "13" so good. While the characters are archetypes the emotions they evoke are genuine and give space for audience members of all ages to reminisce on the teens in their lives (currently or in our childhood pasts) that these individuals evoke. The music and singing were pretty outstanding. I agree with the NY Post reviewer who said:

I can't remember the last Broadway musical with a big Torah number... With a raw, rousing score by Jason Robert Brown sung by a cast of 13- to 17-year-olds, it's Sondheim for MySpacers…

- "Musical Mazal Tov for Heartland Teens," NEW YORK POST, OCTOBER 2008

Believe it or not I even agree with the "Sondheim for MySpacers" assessment (the songs are really catchy!). I think "13" relates to becoming Bar Mitzvah in a pretty realistic way for the majority of kids heading towards their Bar/Bat Mitzvah year. Evan's Bar Mitzvah Torah chanting takes one brief, but beautiful moment (on the Broadway stage!). However, Evan's growth process, through peer learning and life experiences lead him to become a better human, and in my mind, if contextualized – a better Jew. As a show "13" is great, the music, the humor and the passion of the teen actors and musicians are all wonderful. As a learning tool, 13 isn't "there" on its own, nor does it need to be. Hopefully the show itself will open up meaningful conversations between tweens, teens and their peers. As a show with no character or positive role-model older than 13 I believe it comes to the rest of us to make ample room for meaning in discussions that can proceed or follow. It will also be interesting to follow how this particular theater piece reaches an unusual Broadway audience of tweens and teens by using new media like facebook, broadwayspace, myspace and twitter.

Oh, and since Broadway has no rating system that I know of, I have rated the show myself: PG-13 (please refer to image above).

NOAH COMES OUT IN JERUSALEM

Storahtelling Show at Kol HaNeshama
strong

By Amichai Lau Lavie

Storah On The Road


Saturday, November 3rd was a full Storah Weekend at Kehillat Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem. 25 trainees in the Israel Maven Training course met for a full day of study with Amichai on Friday, and then joined him for a Saturday Morning Maven show in the main sanctuary – packed with hundreds of people who came, especially to see Storah translate Torah from Biblical Hebrew to Modern Israeli.

I had two accomplices for the retelling of AFTER THE FLOOD – the Noah story - two of the Maven trainees. Varda Ben Hur, a local actress, and Michael Klein-Katz, a member of Kol Haneshama. Michael played Noah –a pessimistic alcoholic who refused to leave the ark and has trouble believing that the world is worth a second chance after the terrible destruction of the flood. Varda played Naama – Noah's wife – optimistic and eager for life to resume – including making more babies with her reluctant husband…

We Maven'ed three of the seven aliyot, engaged the audience in a great discussion about post traumatic hope, and spent the afternoon debriefing with the Maven training team. Even my Orthodox nephews and nieces came – and had to get over the shock of being inside a Reform synagogue for the first time! They gave us great feedback and really liked the concept. Why, they wondered, was it not more cynical??? We got into a great conversation about earnestness and irony in religious settings – interesting differences between Orthodox and Liberal – Israel and America! This Noah telling was a great precursor to the celebrations that followed on Nov. 5. – YES – this is a world worth saving….

Next Storah at Kol Haneshama in JM – February 7th.

See below – a letter sent from one of congregants in reaction to the Noah Maven:

Dear Amichai,

In addition to saying thank-you, I want to let you know that I think your approach to Torah-reading is deeply important, right and inspiring. Not only did I laugh, but I also thought about elements in the parasha in a way that got me excited. I'd like to share some of my thoughts with you.

I once read that teva (ark) also means 'word'. If Noah and all of us leave the WORD, language, verbal communication, what do we have to hold onto?

A rainbow is an apt response. A rainbow expresses the individual's longing to reach up to Heaven. We imagine we can cling to this miraculous, beautiful ladder and it will take us up to God, just as it seems to be a gift from God every time it appears in the sky. But alas, this is an allusion. Just as we ascend and reach the top, so we must descend. We come down a changed person -- sadder and wiser.

The place of man is on earth, not in the heavens. We all want to fly with the dove, but we are grounded.

When we leave the teva (ark), we are traumatized. Only by talking about life in the ark, and remembering all its details (how each animal ate a different food, etc etc, the sleeping arrangements, the sound of the rain outside etc etc) and sharing these stories with others from generation to generation, only with the word (teva), can we overcome the trauma.

The teva (word) is the tikun for the teva (ark), just as the fig is the tikun for eating the forbidden fruit, the fig. Story is how we overcome trauma.

Another thought: God's sense of smell saved the human race. The sense of smell is considered the most spiritual of the senses. It is said when the Ten Commandments were given, the whole earth filled with a lovely fragrance. The etrog is the chosen fruit for the four species because of its smell. Smell is our most primitive sense, according to some pediatric researchers. Smells from our childhood stay with us all our lives, so that when sight and hearing and taste and touch have deteriorated, a smell can still conjure an entire childhood and take us to far-away places, even on our death beds.

This Torah is so rich. Thank you for sharing its riches this morning.

Judy


Thursday, November 06, 2008


RE:VERB/weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join me for a year long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let’s make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


November 5, 2008
THREE/Lech Lech/LOOK UP


When was the last time I laughed like this? Belly deep, open mouth, a great relief, cheering wildly, clapping, very very happy? When was the last time I cried like this, in public, not caring that I’m surrounded by strangers, so deeply moved…? It felt like reaching a mountain top, after a long climb, looking up and out to all directions –and seeing a vast horizon of hopes.
Nov. 5, 6am at a Café in Jerusalem’s German Colony, with a giant screen projecting scenes from Washington DC, Chicago, the Streets of America – and here in Jerusalem – Israelis, Americans, foreigners from different countries – many journalists and media folks with video cameras and recording devices - congratulations, raucous clapping when President Elect Obama and his family fill the screen, plates of cakes, fresh coffee, smiles, tears.
8am, at the King David Hotel, the American ambassador held an “election breakfast” – I got myself invited. Red, white and blue balloons filled the room, TV monitors reported the victory’s details, and posters for both delegates still hung in the room as heated conversations spilled over to the sidewalk and elegant terrace.
Now what? Is this good for the Jews? Is he good for Israel?? ‘If he’s good for America - he’ll be great for Israel’ I told a local reporter, dour and not at all pleased. ‘You have to look at the big picture – this change is a vote of confidence in democracy – the rest is almost irrelevant.’
Taking a deep breath and looking at the big picture is going to be the next step for many – the winners, the losers, the rest of us. Taking the time to climb to the summit and carefully scan the horizon for clues and inspiration is the order of the day – and it is echoed in this week’s Torah text – introducing Abraham, the first among many world leaders to emerge in the Bible.
Chapter 13 in Genesis describes the parting of ways between Abram – a leader in the making, and Lot – his nephew and co-travelelr. They divide the territory and agree to honor each other’s separate path. When that is done, Abram (his name will change later) is invited up for a Birdseye view of his future life: ‘God said to Abram, after Lot parted from him: 'Look up now, lift your eyes, and see, from where you are now, to the north, to the south, to the east and to the west.’ (Genesis 13:14)
Look up, Abram is told. Transcend the divisions and the harsh reality of separations to see the 360 degree view of what lies ahead. He is shown a vision of potential and promised a great future – his children will be a blessing unto all families of the earth.

I met Ibrahim – one of Abraham’s descendents, two days ago – a Palestinian from Ramallah who was trying to harvest his olives, under Israeli military guard and under the watchful eye of near by Jewish settlers who accused him of stealing their rightful land. That same night I attended the wedding of my cousin Sarah – in a settlement only 30 minutes away from Ibrahim’s village. Both the bitter harvest of olives and the joyous wedding took place on November 4th – the anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination thirteen years ago. Somehow, all of us, children of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Yishamel -all over the world, so rarely get to climb the mountain to see the full view, each other’s story, and how our stories mesh and compliment each other – and how we can become each others’ blessing and gift – as our ancestor Abram was promised.
I pray today that we look up, and that our leaders, including the newly elected, help us climb up the mountain, one step at a time, and transcend the divisions that prevent us from the peace, change and hope we all yearn for. Was it the nuns who advise Maria in ‘The Sound of Music’ –‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow, 'til you find your dream!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

“Family Firsts”: Maven Goes to Church!

By Jess Lenza

Storah On The Road



This weekend was a first for all of us! My first time mavening and Annie Levy’s first time being Lead Maven. It was Isaac Everett’s first time accompanying a Maven performance and Jenny Aisenberg’s first time recording the whole experience. Most importantly, this was the first time a Maven performance has ever been brought to a church. It was only fitting that our show was entitled, "Family Firsts" and honored the many firsts that occur in Parashat B'reishit, specifically in the story of Cain and Abel. Annie and I explored this complex story from the perspective of Eve and Cain's wife. In addition to examining the Torah text and creating dynamic characters, Annie, Isaac, and I had to think about how we could restructure the Maven model to speak to a Christian community.

We were thrilled to be at the First Congregational Church of New Canaan. It is such a warm and welcoming community. Even though we asked them to step out of their comfort zone at times, they embarked on this first with open minds and open hearts. We received many flattering compliments and appreciative remarks following the service. It was particularly meaningful when Reverend Dr. Ivy J. Beckwith said to us, "I think that is the way we should always tell Bible stories." The truth is that it is our stories that can bring Christian and Jewish communities together. Our common history and the desire to retell it in a way that is relevant in this modern world is what will make this first Maven performance in a church the first of many.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


RE:VERB/weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join for a year long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let’s make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


October 30,2008
TWO/NOAH/GET OUT


All around Jerusalem the olive trees are full of ripe fruit these days - harvest season is well underway, but this is not a year of bounty. Last year's scarce rains have provided for a leaner harvest throughout the region (water sanctions were announced today), and for Palestinians in the West Bank trouble is double – the more radical among the Jewish settlers continually disrupt the harvest, harassing the farmers, and fighting with Israeli soldiers who stand guard and with peace activists - Israeli and foreign - who come out daily to support the Palestinians. Get out of here! They scream at each other – both sides claiming the land as theirs, as the olives scatter. It's not even a media worthy story anymore. old news.

GET OUT OF HERE!! One year after entering the floating bunker known as 'The Ark', Noah is instructed to open the door, get out, and rejoin the world. The flood has destroyed the planet, and the sole survivors amble out into a new environmental reality, somewhere over the rainbow, while a dove, with an olive branch in her beak, circles above them. Something about this grand Biblical myth, coming this week to a synagogue near you, is a timeless reminder of the perils and possibilities of survival in times of crisis. The ark, for me, represents this year not necessarily a safe haven away from the storm, but an insular reality – a psychological choice of shutting out the misery of the world and focusing on self survival alone. We all do this sometimes– in one way or another – we often must. But then comes a moment when a voice commands from within: 'Exit the ark' (Genesis 8:16) the Hebrew verb TZE is elsewhere translated as 'Leave', 'Go Forth', or, my favorite – 'Come out of the ark'.

As a super important election process looms over the US and now over Israel as well, I choose to read the order to get out as a call to awareness, and a call to action. The Divine command seems to say – 'Don't just sit there inside your cocoon or cozy situation – get out and rebuild the world'. Some of my friends have heard this call - they are now in Ohio, walking door to door, or on the phone or online, fighting for change, or at checkposts between Israel and the territories, monitoring the daily routines of occupation.
Here in Jerusalem, in my cozy new apartment, on this side of the Separation Barrier, now that my jetlag is starting to fade and another rhythm falls into place, I gotta get out. I picked up the newspaper yesterday and saw an ad: 'Volunteers needed to help with the olive harvest in the West Bank.' I called the number and after a brief interview was signed up for a shift next Thursday. It's not much, but I got to start doing something – get out – not ignore the flood of hatred and fear.

According to legends, the dove brought the olive branch from the Garden of Eden, flying her way into becoming the immortal symbol of peace, waiting for us to open the door, squint, and get out. Are we there yet?

How, this week, will you get out of the ark?

Thursday, October 23, 2008


A Weekly Torah Takeaway
October 22 2008
By Amichai Lau Lavie


ONE: Genesis/Bereshit


Beginnings: As many of you know, I have just arrived in Israel to begin a year-long Sabbatical. It will be, I hope, a year of reconnection, introspection and focused writing. I intend to document this journey, and invite you to join me on this road trip as I chart this year on a weekly basis, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. I hope you will join me with questions,answers and comments and make this a conversation. (this weekly blog is still in BETA phases - so your feedback as to content, form, delivery - most useful. Special thanks to Peter Pitzele for backstage mentoring and edits.)

It starts here, in the beginning:



Hope like Water

Flight 86 lands at Tel Aviv just two hours before the last of the High Holidays, Simchat Torah, begins, and by the time we drive into Jerusalem the streets are full of men and boys in festive dress heading to the synagogues. My mother, already in silk and pearls but still wearing an apron, throws open the door: Welcome Home! It's so good to be back, but I can't help thinking – IS this home? Can one really have more than gravity center – more than one home? I've spent the past decade in New York City- and now I'm back with my parents, in this familiar house - home away from home? How do I balance NYC and Jerusalem -my two homes - and keep focused and grounded? The following day, as the Torah scrolls roll open and start again at the very beginning I find a wink, a response, in the ancient script of my ancestors, and I take counsel from the Waters of Genesis, whose first mythic action on the planet is to focus, gather, and define the meaning of 'place'.

Genesis Chapter 1, verse 9, describes the creation of the Third Day; "God spoke: 'the waters under the heaven will be gathered to one place, and dry land shall be seen: And so it was."

The Hebrew word for GATHERED is YIKAVU – translated most often as 'gathered, collected, come together'. The image is of a vast body of primordial water covering the planet as it is being drained into a single container and enabling the earth to emerge - solid reality manifesting from the fluids of chaos. The next verse introduces the word MIKVEH – the gathering place of water – the original biblical name for the sea. Nowadays the term Mikveh is recognized as the Jewish location for ritual immersion in water for the purpose of purification and self renewal – a place to gather one's self and emerge anew. In order to become who you are, the Torah tells us, you have to contract yourself and then contain yourself – the water that is in excess, all over the place become one contained place. This focusing and gathering enables the creation of creativity and the birth of life – on the third day, vegetation happens. But how does one move from the chaos of all over the place to the fulcrum of focus? Step by step, Genesis guides us, and with a strong sense of direction and aspiration, spiraling from contraction to expansion, again and again.

The Hebrew word YIKAVU does not just mean 'gathered' it also means 'hope' or 'aspiration'. Ever sang the Israeli Anthem – 'HaTikvah' – The Hope? It's from the same root. To hope, says Hebrew, is also to gather one's resources and energy in one clear direction. Every time we challenge ourselves to focus and ground ourselves we are re-creating the act of Creation – actively re-activating our human hope in the possibility of change, progress, and transformation.
So maybe I am lucky to have more than one real home, but my task this week- this year – is to focus on one place inside of me which is the real place of focus, dry land. My first task this week, as the first verses of Genesis are chanted in the streets of Jerusalem and New York, is to gather the water and make sure I fully land here. Today I went shopping for a desk, and tomorrow I will place it in my new apartment, in just the right angle, harness my energy, and hope for inspiration. Let chaos be gathered, and the solid reality of creativity emerge. I sit down inside this new home, still empty of furniture, and suddenly recall an 80's hit song line from my teen years – 'wherever I hang my hat – that's my home…'

So, friends, where in your lives do "gathering" and "hope" reverberate? How will you separate excess from focus? What will you need to do in order to plunge into the Mikveh of your soul, ground your self in this brave New Year and hang your hat?

Lets talk the walk...

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Friday, October 17, 2008

‘VIEW FROM THE TOP’ – Images from Yom Kippur at 7 World Trade Center

Pictures By Marielle Solan

Storah On The Road







Monday, October 06, 2008


Live from Oregon: the NorthWest Storah Troupe Rosh Hashanna Report

By Rosana Berdichveski

Storah On The Road


This was our big break! After 5 years of occasional Storahtelling presentations, finally we were permitted to stage a Ritual Performance during Rosh Hashana! We performed at the slightly less formal "downstairs" service, with about 400 people in attendance. At last we had the support of our new young Rabbi, who also helped us fine-tune the script and staging. Still, you never really know how people will react to something new and different, especially when your Rosh Hashana Torah Service suddenly features a 12-year-old boy wearing a Kafiyah!

Well, the response was great!! Our Ritual Performance was called "WILL POWER," and it focused on Abraham's conflict at Sarah's demand that he cast out Hagar and I! shmael. We used the device of Abraham meeting with an attorney to draft his Will. The lawyer, named Levy, was played by a congregant who is actually a family lawyer named Levy!

From the moment Esther opened with the song "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind", to Gershon and Rosana (as Abraham and Sarah) consulting with the Family Lawyer, to Ricardo's stunning off-stage voice of God's Angel, to the appearance of young Ishmael, the congregation was intrigued and amused. They laughed at some of the lines, but they really "got it."

Some of the Aliyot were performed Pasuk-Pasuk, and some weren't. It was "interesting" trying to coordinate the script with all of the Torah readers. Not everything went perfectly, but the Targum was heard, and appreciated. We took turns being the M'turgeman.

Perhaps the most rewarding moment was when Ishmael concluded with "What if I had been able to stay with my father and brother?". The wh! ole roo m, about 400 people, uttered an audible "Ooooooooo....." It was a Gotcha moment!

After the service, and during the days since, so many people have told us they loved it. This is so gratifying. Many said that we should "do this more often." Rabbi Greenstein's comment was Wow! You guys were so professional! Rabbi Emeritus Stampfer said, tongue-in-cheek, "Only twice in the last 50 years have I clearly heard the Voice of God. Once was in a play where another person's voice was also heard, but today.... today was even more powerful. To hear God's voice on Rosh Hashanah? That is Divine."

Amichai has often said that it's good to go Mainstream, and I think we really did it this time. We are so grateful to Amichai and the whole Storahtelling crew for the help and support, and for the friendship and inspiration.

Shana Tova to everyone,