Thursday, January 03, 2008

Live from Tel Aviv

By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Storah On The Road

I sip tea with a friend at a trendy Tel Aviv café and she tells me of how the Israeli religious climate has changed. ‘Religion is everywhere – from the most old school pious to the most interesting new fusion’, she says, ‘listen to the radio – the playlist is 75% ancient prayers in modern garb – this would have been unheard of 10 years ago. There are some exciting new experiments and trends’. That morning, Ha’aretz publishes the results of a local poll: 75% of Israeli teens consider themselves Jewish first, Israeli second – an amazing fact that both mirrors and molds the current reality of a country struggling to identify itself on the eve on its’ 60th birthday.

Across the street from that café is ALMA – Ruth Calderon’s center for Jewish learning for adults – one of Israel’s hippest hotspots for new Jewish culture. This past Saturday morning I was invited to attend Shabbat services at ALMA, convened by Beit Tfila – a grassroots community of seekers who have created a non orthodox congregation at the heart of secular Tel Aviv. About a hundred people shuffle in to the library, where chairs are arranged in a circle, and a small ark stands upright – hosting an ancient torah scroll, originally from Bagdad and donated by a supporting community in Buenos Aires. Esteban Gottfried – one of the two co-founders is getting over a bad cold, but as he is joined by musicians on cello and piano, he leads the morning prayers with gusto. Everybody sings along, using photocopied pamphlets with highlights of the Shabbat liturgy. They have a Hebrew translation of ‘What a Wonderful world’ that makes everybody giggle and a few original tunes written by some of Israel’s top composers such as Shlomo Grunich, who sometimes attends.

Several friends of mine make their way in just before I begin the Storah – we had dinner the night before and they all went dancing – by the look of it – they haven’t been home yet! They bring a few friends along, eyes similarly red.. ( I learn the full story later – this is the first time I know of that clubbers make it straight from all night dancing to a storah show, enticed by the prospects of juicy torah...)

When’s it’s my turn to take over the service for the Storahtelling – the crowd is ‘warmed up’ and eager to play. The story is Shmot – the first of the Exodus saga portions, and we follow in the footsteps of Moses as he stumbles out of the palace, seeking to reconcile his split identity – Egyptian/Hebrew, Master/Slave.

Several interesting things happen here – very different from what would have happened in an American congregation. First – I ‘translate’ the torah from Hebrew to Hebrew – Biblical to Israeli, and in the process, more so than in the usual Storahtelling tradition – the story turns current and political. Second – the issue of split identity becomes a painful and heartfelt conversation as we quickly turn from history to current events – only blocks away is Israel’s fast growing neighborhood of foreign immigrants – many of them living in squalor and battling sub-minimum wage.

On a personal level – doing Storahtelling in Hebrew enables me to delve into wells of midrash that simply don’t work the same in English. I am quickly moved into tears as people start responding to my questions about Moses’s decision in naming his firstborn son GERSHOM – ‘a stranger there’. The story is about him, but it is also about me… here and there, Israeli in America, and now an American visiting Israel… life in split screen.

Following the prayer service we gather to discuss the prospects for Storahtelling in Tel Aviv. As in my previous events and workshop in this trip – the responses are overwhelming and the demand for local programming is intense. Several rabbis from local reform congregations are in attendance as well as a superintendent of the Ministry of Education who wants to see this curriculum enter the public school system. A Kiddush featuring local arak seals the deal, and we all shuffle off to a sunny Saturday in Tel Aviv, scooters everywhere and from a nearby car, the radio blasts a recent top of the charts song – psalm 150…

1 comment:

  1. a joy to read you on the road!