Thursday, March 27, 2008

Not Just for Children, Congregation Ohev Shalom of Orlando

By David Loewy

Storah On The Road

Immediately after Purim, Congregation Ohev Shalom of Orlando retreated. They grabbed their families and took off for a Shabbat away from normal synagogue life. Deanna Neil and I joined them for their annual family weekend at a Methodist campsite in Leesburg, Florida, complete with an alligator-infested lake and a giant, floating, neon blue cross. (Yes, really.) The two days that followed were packed with joyous disjunctions and a strange sense of escapism.

This congregation has to work pretty hard for its Jewish life. These are central Floridians, and their resources aren’t as robust as their Southern neighbors. There’s also a sizable Cuban contingent in the congregation, adding a vague sense of longing to the communal mix. Their identity comes with no small amount of struggle, and the group culture bears this out with a heightened intensity to their ritual life. They sing. They clap. They stomp their way through a service. This is a community that is really looking to find serious joy in the sacred spectacle.

The thing is, I suspect they don’t get to partake in quite this way back in their own sanctuary. Numerous people mentioned to me how Shabbat services had become focused on B’nei Mizvah, how their practice as Jews had become almost solely focused on their kids. And it’s working, by the way. The kids in the community are enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and Judaically active, but I think the adults are missing their chance to play in the spiritual sandbox.

So what show did Deanna and I give this congregation for Parashar Tzav? What else, but “Sacred Spectacle.” Through the moment of Moses anointing Aaron for the priesthood, we addressed issues of holiness, authenticity, and theatricality in rituals. How do you make material palatable without becoming cloying? How do you make simple things profound without becoming pedantic? The show was about the show (very “meta”), and it resonated with the congregation’s need to find more substance and less exercise in their ritual life.

For a while, I thought I might have been projecting these issues onto the community. After all, I’m a Storahteller; these issues are our bread-and-butter. But my suspicions were confirmed when the parents all crashed the teen workshop. Though slated for ages 10-17, over half of the participants were adults for our Saturday afternoon session. In a remarkably gentle coup, they wrested control of content from their children, and reclaimed a share in the meaning of this particular Shabbat. It wasn’t aggressive. They just wanted to participate. Rather than a search for meaningful Judaism on behalf of their children, they sought it along side their children. I felt privileged to be in the room.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Staged Reading of Becoming Israel at The Academy of Jewish Religion

By Isadore Alexander Wolfson

Storah On The Road

Hello Storahlovers, leaders, and livers,

It is my esteemed pleasure to write some tid bits about the Becoming Israel staged reading that took place at the Academy of Jewish Religion on Monday, March 17, 2008. We all met up at the Storahtelling office in the morning and gathered our various doo-dads (I like to use words like that..oh, and tid bits too…I like tid bits) and headed on out into the great wide world of Manhattan, chugging along with our gig bag and Storahtelling banner in tow. Courageously, we boarded the trusty train bound for staged reading glory. We arrived to find that thankfully, we had been provided with bagels, juice, and coffee. What a nice surprise that was. After a quick bite, sound check, full read through, and lots of sitting and waiting, our audience filed in, staring at us with wide eyes, ready to receive the dose of Israel becomance (I made that word up) we were about to serve them. Franny expertly read the Torah verses, Emily Warshaw threw down some excellent translations as well as making sure the stage directions were properly announced throughout, and myself (Isadore Alexander Wolfson), Sarah Sokolic, and Daliya Karnovsky Bros read through the script as Jake, Leah, and Rachel respectively. I think the audience really connected to our tale in a real way. Many of the comments afterwards were eye opening and unexpected, including the gentleman that equated American Jews to the character of Leah, peering across the river Yabok at the wrestling going on between the angel and Jacob.; creating a direct comparison between the relationship with American Jews and Israel and the characters in the play. There were also a lot of people that were searching for more answers to the questions that were posed in the play. Franny, of course, reminded them that our job is not to provide those answers, but simply to provoke the questions. All in all, we learned a lot, had a great time, and really helped each other move forward in our own explorations of this play, this world, and these characters.

Love to all of you Storah Troopers,


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Parshat Vayikra

By Amichai Lau-Lavie
Verse Per Verse

This week Lauviticus does Leviticus – the third book of the five opens with a divine call to worship, followed by endless instructions and recipes for specifics of this complex worship – the appropriate operational maintenance of the holy tent. Other than serving as the resting place for God’s presence on earth, the tabernacle functioned as the nerve center of the newly formed Hebraic Cult – focusing on the ongoing exchange of human gifts and Divine favor. The technical term for this exchange system is known in English as ‘sacrifice’ derived from the Latin word for ‘sacred’. Throughout the ancient world, sacrifices (mostly of animals and vegetation, though is some cases of humans) were the primal and primary method of celebrating the connection between earth and heaven, life and death. The food would be most often divided between the people present, the rest would burn on the altar as the smoke would rise vertically and reach heaven, and a visceral, sensory experience offered divine consolations, expiation, and healing to the person in need.
What of this ancient technology lingers today? And what of the semantics of this discontinued praxis continues to play a role in our contemporary forms of worship and social interaction? As usual, we find that some of the intricate meaning of this concept is lost in translation, and in this case the word in question is the very root of the matter. The word ‘Korban’ – most often translated as ‘offering’, appears at the very top of the book, Chapter 1, verse 2:

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the LORD, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock. (JPS)

‘Offering’ is the most popular way of translating ‘Korban’, followed by ‘sacrifice’. The Targum, gives us the old fashioned “oblation,” and Everett Fox gives us “near-offering,” which captures the root meaning in the word korban, which means “to come near.”

Clearly all this offering of grain and animal was in part the practical means by which the priests, who did not work otherwise, were fed, and the God they served was propitiated. But it was also the means by which the common person experienced some connection to the sacrificial cult, some drawing near. The offering was a sacrifice in part because it meant giving up some part of your capital, maybe even a part of your very being – a substitution for self.

What might be the equivalent for us in the modern world of the act of korban? What might we do that could cost us something and bring us closer to the mystery of life, death, past and future? What other words may best address this system of spiritual intimacy – succeeding where ‘offering’ or ‘sacrifice’ simply seem too archaic and bloody?

In the last 19th century, a German Jewish scholar by the name of Samson Raphael Hirsch wrestled with the German translation of the sacrificial concept, concluding that ‘ It is most regrettable that we have no word which really reproduces the idea which lies in the expression Korban… this term is used exclusively with reference to man’s relation to God and can only be understood from the meaning which lies in its root, KRV: to approach, to come near, and so to get into close relationship with the Divine.’

So what do you call the act of meditation, or a gym work out, or a fundraising campaign, or volunteering at a soup kitchen – all valid ways of dealing with one’s issues and coming closer to one’s self, and one’s community, via an active performance of sorts. Maybe the key here is the word ‘give’, in all its ramifications. And so Lauviticus would like to suggest: ‘You shall bring your Giving’.

We’d LOVE feedback on this one. GIVE IT SOME THOUGHT!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Maven at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, MA

By Shira Kline

Storah On The Road

Annie Levy and I traveled to Boston this past weekend to join Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, MA for a Maven and workshop experience. We were welcomed with open arms. Rabbi Alpert had met Storahtelling on numerous occasions and was absolutely thrilled to have us there. We spent the afternoon rehearsing with Cantor Schloss who, with curious eyes and a great sense of humor, joined in the fun. That night, "Setting the Stage" was Annie and my first opportunity to meet the community. You never know who is sitting before you and how as a group they will respond to a different kind of interaction from the Bima. Annie brought tears to our eyes with her personal anecdote about the power of story. The congregation didn't miss a beat. They were ready to share.

What really struck me about our experience this weekend was the number of unique voices and stories just waiting to come out. I wondered when the last time people turned and really acknowledged each other during services. For Parashat Pikudei, Annie and I probed deeply into the power of the devine design. It was clear that as Jews on a Shabbat morning, we were all in this together. Though everyone struggles individually to piece together their part in the grand design and most of all to see how each one of us is reflected in the divine.

Sunday morning, we heard even more stories from the 4-7th graders. Whether they felt silly or dramatic participating in our workshop, each contributed a unique voice. We conjured up biblical characters. Everyone was represented from Moses to the burning bush to a dead goat in the desert. All were so present with us in that room and it reminded us that each of our stories could also be found in the Torah. I think the students were taken aback at how their upcoming B'nei Mitzvah is actually an opportunity to find themselves in these ancient tales.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Parashat Pikudei

By Shira D. Epstein
Verse Per Verse

Parshat Pikudei offers an elaborate telling of the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them throughout their desert journeys. This mobile temple, which housed the Ark, served as a spiritual centerpiece for the Israelites throughout their wanderings. The narrative within Pikudei picks up where Va-Yakhel left off, describing every detail of the Israelites’ individual and collective contributions to the Tabernacle’s design and furnishings, including such minutiae as the sockets for the curtains, the covering made of dolphin skins, and the gold alter of incense. The six- chapter chronicle culminates with the descent of a cloud upon the Tabernacle.

JPS offers the following translation of verses 34-37:

Vs 34: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

Vs. 35: “Moses couldn’t enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it and the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

Vs. 36: “When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys.

Vs. 37: “But if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift.

As I read through these four verses, I noticed that the JPS translation positions all actions of the cloud within active voice. This grammatical choice suggests that the cloud has agency; the cloud is God, and therefore, can come and leave at will. Cloud-as-God is all-powerful, deciding the daily actions of the Israelites, dictating whether they would set out on their journeys, or sit tight and play a waiting game. The commentary in the Etz Hayim translation supports this interpretation of the verses, offering that the cloud is a “tangible symbol of God’s abiding presence in their midst” that is “guiding and controlling its destiny.”

Many other translations of Verse 37 echo the JPS and Etz Hayim vision of the cloud as a manifestation of God:

• God’s Word Translation: “if the column didn’t move”

• Douay- Rheims: “If it hung over”

• Young’s Literal Translation: “If the cloud go not up”

These three translations represent a widely accepted the vision of the cloud as embodiment of God, which decides at-will whether or not to “move,” “hang,” or “ascend.” However, I found a few translations that diverge from this dominant perspective: World English Bible, New American Standard, and Webster’s Bible Translation offer, instead, “if the cloud was not taken up.” This nuanced grammatical choice to utilize passive voice suggests that the cloud is not one-in-the same as God. How could it be, if it was “taken up?” Who else could “take it up,” except for God? The translation implies that God operates the pulley that either draws the cloud up to the heavens, or down to the People.

I imagine that the outlook of the cloud-as-God must have offered a less complicated theological view for the People. After all, if the cloud-as-God has the power to decide to stay or leave on whimsy, all the people need to do is check the local weather report to know what has been predetermined for the day’s travels, the cloud has control over their activities. In contrast, if there was any possibility that the cloud was not God, might it be that even if God does operate as cosmic stage manager, if the Israelites woke up in the morning with the “travel bug” or a yen for adventure rather than nesting at home, they might have to actually do something, such as request that God move the cloud so they might continue with their journeys?

I find myself wondering why it is so hard for humans to accept that we can simultaneously believe that God is present in our lives and at the same time we can chart the direction for our present-day “wanderings” and “journeys.” Despite the popularity and buy-in to belief system proposed in books such as “The Secret,” “The Laws of Attraction,” and “Creative Visualization” we are still quite skeptical of the idea that we can shape the course of our day by waking up in the morning and saying aloud or intentions for what we want and what we need, while at the very same time, maintaining perfect faith that what we need is already manifesting.

I am more drawn to the second set of translations. They offer to us the hope that even when we wake up in the morning and see the clouds hanging, we can do more than sit and wait for them to lift. I offer a modification to the Etz Hayim commentary: I suggest that indeed, the cloud can serve as a symbol of God’s presence that, rather than controlling our own destiny, encourages us to visualize and articulate what we imagine as the ideal journey for our day. We need not passively accept these clouds as “fate” - as “beshert” and “predetermined.” We need not stop and wait for the cloud to decide to ascend. We can be active partners in enabling its ascent.