Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Storahtelling at CAJE Conference

By JTA's Jacob Berkman

Storah On The Road

What would you tell Max to do?

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Mourning to Magic: CAJE Conference 2008

Storahtelling presents opening night program at CAJE 33 on August 10th, 2008

By Tehilah Eisenstadt

Storah On The Road

As my former professor – Dr. Shira Epstein once told me: Education is messy, don’t expect it to be clean. The Storahtellers heading to CAJE had spent hours studying, discussing, writing, tweaking, rehearsing, worrying. As the rain poured down in Vermont musicians and actors went over and over their parts, a cacophony of multiple narratives pacing across the room, zigging and zagging around each other. We were nothing if not a bit messy.

Were we ready? Would we remember our lines? Our movements? Could we get to our individual breakout rooms and back to the main auditorium in time? Would the rain let up- or would the instruments, playbills and raisins be in peril? Would we even be able to find our rooms for the opening Tisha B’Av program? Would people know to show up?

Every educator and every performer knows that they’re walking into a situation with a few “known”s and a lot of “unknown”s. As the lights went from dim to brighter in my room I saw that the space filled with eager educators, many of whom probably got up at 4am to get toVermont - just like me, some who might be anxiously awaiting the fast’s end just like me – we were all Here, Now.

After a very satisfying discussion I led my now ritually broke-fast participants to the main auditorium. There I was “accosted” by well-wishers, people coming up to thank me, ask me questions about the performance they had just experienced and the possibility of ones to come. In the moments between Tisha B’Av and the 10th of Av I had become a performer, more importantly a Storahteller and it was exhilarating. The rest of the Storahtelling staff came in from their different locations on campus and locations in the long history of Tisha B’Av narratives. Something had happened between the 9th and the 10th of Av. Magic had happened. We were not worried or asking and wondering anymore. There was a strong voice in everyone and an eagerness to get on with the show! The finale of Mourning to Magic was powerful. Or so I heard from members of the audience. I spent a large part of the performance, as did my fellow actors, under a tallit, on stage, listening to the pieces of my colleagues’ Tisha B’Av tales. I was transported by each tale and then finally by the breaking of the glass that led us into celebration.

With my heels still sore from our raucous hora dancing I look back lovingly at the “mess of education” that we engaged in over the past month. And my only regret is that I didn’t turn to the forsaken Jerusalem of the first temple, so mistreated and ultimately so defiant of being cast forever into the victim’s role – after all, Jerusalem was standing right next to me on stage – and say: Hey Shira, you were right – amazing things happen when education gets messy. From Messy to Magic. It was a very moving and fulfilling experience to see my 3rd Storahtelling performance…from behind the curtain and under the talit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Filling the maven form: Just like making theater…

By Jesse Freedman, blogging about his experience participating in Maven Training at Brandeis University, July 15-20.

Storah On The Road

For my Maven chevruta and me, there is a tension between what we wanted to do as theatre makers and what where asked to do as Mavens. As theatre makers we want to dive completely blind into the creative process, work intuitively molding the text and our experiences and accidentally stumble onto a structure that reflects the meeting of ourselves and the tradition. As Mavens, we are asked to fit our selves into the carefully tuned Maven performance structure and to walk the razor’s edge of Rabbi Judah’s rule: fit your self into the form, and somehow, don’t be boring and conventional. The task for a Maven in training is to gain a respect, perhaps even a reverence for the form without letting it restrict the process. The question I am exploring is “what relationship should a Maven in training have to the form they are working within?”

I appreciate the valuable role of limitations and boundaries in the creative process. Orson Wells once said “the absence of limitation is the enemy or all art”. Form can facilitate art, by defining the empty space for creativity to fill and the elements for the artist to play with. I think any artist knows how to have a healthy relationship to form, deciding to write in meter or to paint in perspective, or alternatively, to not pain in perspective. Generally however, the artist decides which form is most appropriate vessel for expressing this truth. When I am told to work in a specific form or structure, it’s because I am performing an exercise, an education in form. Play your scales before you play your rock ‘n roll. Learn the rules before you break them. Or, it’s because the producers of this play are paying my well (please G_D) to direct this drawing room comedy, and that the commission is incentive to find truth in the play without subverting the text.

Although it has been refined to maximize its market vale, the Maven form is not a commercial form, it has specific educational outcomes. Also, it’s a structure not made to be subverted (or flirting with subversion) which is what I as an artist tend to do. The Maven form is something quite different: a structure designed to facilitate a sacred ritual. The Gemara Brachot (duuhhh, somewhere in the beginning) describes the tension between the Torah reader and the Maven. The Maven must be heard, but not louder than the Torah reader. The translation exists to point to the text, not to itself. To quote Bruce Lee quoting the Blue Cliff record (because the inter-textuality is so Talmudic, so funky), “Don’t think, feeeel. It’s like a finger pointing away towards the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” Paradoxically, the translation that does not point at all to itself fails to recognize its own subjectivity, creating the illusion of being the real thing. This is the tension that Rabbi Judah imposes on us as translators and creative artists.

Take it and run with it, but don’t run away with it …oh and btw, don’t be a liar or a blasphemer. Personally, I can deal with being called a blasphemer, (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I don’t pretend either that it encourages creativity. As a theatre director, that’s not a direction I would give to an actor. “That was good. Can you run it again and this time, Othello, how can you be less blasphemous?”… Then again, as a theatre director I’m always in dialogue with my self and collaborators around the truth of the play? This doesn’t feel real on stage, or, this is not true to the text.

Chekhov is long dead, and rarely complains anymore about how his plays are misinterpreted. Living playwrights generally have more rights regarding the reinterpretation of their work. Shouldn’t we have a responsibility to the LIVING G!D, and shouldn’t the stakes be higher?

Rabbi Judah’s rule of translation is not meant to deter us from creativity, rather to provide a guide to doing justice to the subject, sacred text. When the compositional elements in question are sacred, G-d’s word, G-d’s wisdom, the fear is that if you fiddle with it you might break it, heaven forbid. But the form is not point, it is the finger. The heavenly Glory is the point.

One of my goals as an artist is that my art be divine service; both actively involved in process of creation and in the refinement of myself as a spiritual being.

A way of relating to form is to view the form as empty vessel to fill with light and energy. Another way of looking at form is, (to borrow from the Japanese theatre director Tadashi Suzuki), an unattainable form I hold up to myself so I can see where I deviate and pull myself back in line. If we as Mavens trust the evolving Maven structure and are able to embrace the tension between Rabbi Judah’s demands, we will have created a dwelling place for the divine in lower worlds. We will have given the words of the Torah wings.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Storahtelling at UJC Cabinet Leadership Retreat in Scottsdale, AZ

By Glenn Grossman

Storah On The Road

This past weekend I was asked to perform with Storahtelling for the UJC Cabinet Leadership retreat in Scottsdale, Arizona. I would guestimate that there were about 150 people or so that attended the function at the absolutely beautiful Fairmont Hotel in Scottsdale. I had the pleasure of performing with Amichai Lau-Lavie, leader, Naomi Less, guitar and vocals and Brian Gelfand, piano and vocals. It was an all around incredible experience.

One of the most memorable moments of the weekend happened during a piece that Amichai and Naomi were leading the group in prayer which included a very creatively done ritual speech while members held lit candles and focused on the meaning of our existence as Jewish people in a modern era.

The aura, impact and deepened sense of the message of community, love and spirituality was expressed in such an honest and meaningful way such that I have never felt before.

I hope everyone gets to share in the Storahtelling experience. It truly brings new light to ancient Judaism.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Drama in our Lives

By Marge Eiseman

Storah On The Road

Some of my friends seem to have a lot of drama in their lives. They are either really up or down, and find the middle way quite boring. Another (more rational) friend and I were talking about the place of drama in our lives – and I was filtering this through my recent experience in training to become a Storahtelling Maven.

She said that the place of drama is to take the personal and make it universal – that’s why we read books and watch films and plays – to see how others handle situations that are drawn in sharper focus than real life (with the boring stuff edited out), and think about how we would respond in similar situations. Well, that’s if we’re reflective people. Sometimes, we just want to watch other people struggle with impossible situations (and we’re grateful that our lives are much simpler than that).

I likened the external drama in my friends’ lives to the inner emotional need expressed by the teens who cut themselves; for both, the need to feel something is overpowering. So where does this leave the drama and pain of the Jewish story? Are we addicted to suffering, to the highs and lows of encounter and abandonment within our relationship to G!D?

My attraction to Storahtelling and Bibliodrama is my way of entering into the story, to make the universal personal! I find the great treasure trove of stories in the scroll and the books to be like a scavenger hunt with clues for living a meaningful life. If, in the creation and presentation of a Storahtelling experience of Torah, I can convey my meaning to you and your congregation, then this circuit is complete. Personal to universal to personal to universal, and on and on it goes -- “the longest-running rerun in history”!

From Mourning to Magic: Reflections of the Ninth of A
By Amichai Lau-Lavie

“Rabbi Judah the President wanted to cancel Tisha B’ Av, but the other rabbis objected.”

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megilla 5.

CAJE (Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education) is the biggest annual international conference for Jewish Educators and this year – its 33rd year - opening day is on Tisha B’Av. Kicking off a conference on fast day is a logistical necessity and challenge - but also a creative opportunity for honest dialogue and inspiring conversation about priorities and choices facing Jewish educators and leaders at the dawn of the 21st century. What is the legacy that this ancient fast day brings to modern Judaism? What is the role of mourning for the past as our communities struggle to craft Jewish experiences that will engage present and future generations? How much time, energy and resources should be focused on remembering what was vs. creating what will become? (Consider, for example – how much funding was allocated in the Jewish world this past year on Holocaust education vs. environmental awareness?)

Storahtelling is honored to present the opening program at CAJE this coming Tisha B’av (August 10th, 2008) , and as our team of educators and artists began planning this event, these difficult questions became the focus of our intention. Central to Storahtelling’s work is the restoration of ancient stories for new generations, inspiring Judaic literacy, personal empowerment, and societal change. With these goals in mind we went back to the classic Judaic sources that discuss Tisha B’Av and brought them back to our current realities and personal struggles. We discovered that we are not the first ones to ask these questions – almost 1,800 years ago, and only a century after the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Judah the President, leader of the Jewish People, tried to get Tisha B’Av off the calendar. His campaign failed, but ultimately sparked an important Talmudic conversation about the strategies needed for the preservation of national history as well as the healing of national wounds. That conversation continues today.

We chose to reflect on the lesser known legends that link this ‘saddest day of the year’ to one of the most mysterious holy days on the ancient Hebrew calendar – the Fifteenth of Av – the full moon summer celebration of wine, love, and hope. According to Midrash Rabbah, the seven nights that separate the fast from the fiesta represent a mythic and psychic transition, an annual, cyclical journey, both personal and collective - from grief to joy, and from despair to optimism and opportunity.

As we crafted this program, each of these seven nights became a candle of remembrance – illuminating seven specific tragedies that befell our people on Tisha B’Av. But also, each of the seven nights became a beacon of light - an invitation for courageous change in our thinking and a passionate plea for honoring the past but focusing on the present and bringing on the bright lights of the future we all yearn for.

We invite you to travel with us tonight, reflecting, remembering and learning together - from the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple, through the ports of Spain, the train tracks of Poland, the streets of Buenos Aires and the vineyards of Judea – to the hills of Vermont. As we gather for the 33rd CAJE conference may we all learn from each other, from the past, and from the dreams of the future, and find the balance that will celebrate and honor our unique legacy. May the ancient become new –and the new become sacred.

We dedicate this opening program as a prayer for peace and consolation, all over the world.

July 2008

click here to read the sources

Maven Training Group – Denver/Boulder July 30, 2008


By Amichai Lau-Lavie
Storah On The Road

12,000 soldiers prepare for war. Their elderly leader instructs them to fight for God and make sure that they kill every one of the males across the enemy lines. They go off to battle with trumpets.

This is the text from the Torah – the Book of Ba’Midbar, chapter 31, and for the past week, a group of 10 Colorado rabbis, educators, artists and scholars wrestled with the challenge of translating and adapting this difficult text into an interactive and relevant performance – Storahtelling style.

The group of ten formed the FIRST EVER LCOAL COHORT MAVEN TRAINING, and our intensive training took place on the campus of Denver University, hosted by the university’s Center for Jewish Studies.

The Maven Training is built on our years of experience with Storahtelling shows and training and by now, I’m so pleased to say – I think we got the system down. The training at Brandeis University two weeks ago and now this one demonstrates clearly that the curriculum is strong, our method of training works, and the people who go through this process are profoundly touched, inspired and well equipped to take this unique craft back to their communities – to spread the magic. (see the attached picture to see the team – really diverse!)

Throughout this past week, working in teams of two, the Mavens-in-Making struggled with the translation and dramatization of the text from Ba’Midbar about the war against Midian, one of biblical Israel’s enemies but former allies. Each team received a fictitious assignment to focus their craft - Imagine this difficult biblical tale being told at a children’s hospital, a conservative synagogue, a summer camp, AIPAC conference, or poetry slam night at a nightclub. This morning each of the teams demonstrated their skills and participated in a lengthy debrief and assessment. The overall feedback is VERY POWERFUL.

This is Good news for Storahtelling – and for the Denver Boulder community. We got a good new group of Mavens from the training at Brandeis (already, Joel is doing Maven shows in London, Marge is prepping Maven shows in Vermont and Cleveland, and others are beginning to work with our NY office team on shows for the fall) and now we got a new cohort in Colorado. Next is Jerusalem… Stay tuned.

I’m off tomorrow morning to lead a Storahtelling Shabbaton in Arizona, along with Naomi Less, Brian Gelfand and Glenn Grossman – should be great!

Back in NYC on Sunday… I look forward to catching up with many of you soon.

Tired but proud, Shabbat shalom