Friday, September 26, 2008

Back to the story of Becoming

Becoming Israel at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael

By David Schiller

Storah On The Road

It's been four months since Elana Bell, Franny Silverman and I performed Storahtelling's original work, "Becoming Israel" at the JCC in Manhattan to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut - Israel's 60th. But guided by our steady director Annie Levy and supported by another Jake turned stage manager, Isadore Alex Wolfson, we prep'd ourselves and made our way to Springfield, NJ and the congregation of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael.

The first and only time I had visited this Shul, was when my father's community merged with this larger one in Springfield, and we brought the Torahs from Union, NJ to their new home. I joined in with others by blowing the shofar and heralding their arrival. That day, Rabbi Mallach welcomed their new congregants with a sermon talking about how their name had changed from Temple Beth Ahm, to Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael...and, I kid you not, discussed the meaning of the name Israel and how the shul had "become" something new. He even encouraged the congregants to struggle as much as they could with their beliefs and knowledge, reminding us that GOD wishes for us wrestle with the hard questions. If he only knew that half a year later or so, he would hire an acting troupe to hammer this idea home in the form of what I think is a fabulous theatre piece that takes the audience on a journey of laughter and tears.

The show itself went quite well and we did just that...made them laugh and cry! With the mics not working, an AC that was blaring, and a space that wasn't as full as we would have liked, our cast kept the focus and grabbed the audience right from the beginning with our modified figure 8's and beautiful chanting and translation.

Afterwards, Franny beautifully led us in an educational talkback where there were not many comments, but a few that hit home for us all. The first was from an audience member who noticed that there were 3 instances of Israel being born, or 'Becoming': Yaakov wrestling and winning his fight; our character Rachel working in Palestine and witnessing the birth of the State of Israel; and young Jake seeing the land for the first time and him becoming a lover of his heritage and people. This led to the Rabbi mentioning that all three characters took trips on water to get where they needed to go and how spiritually significant that was: Biblical Leah crossing the river Yabuk and watching the fight from across it; Rachel stuffed on a boat crossing the Mediteranean from Europe to the Holy Land; and Jake flying over the Atlantic.

It was an absolute pleasure to work thru and discover more of the beauty of this show and a double, no, quadruple pleasure to perform in front of both of my parents and my two sisters. We thank everyone involved and hope that those of you who haven't had a chance to see the show yet, will get to very soon. And let's all start manifesting the NYC run that this show deserves.

L'shanah Tovah, PEACE and BLESSINGS,

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"King's Kafé": A Maven-style Bar Mitzvah in Wisconsin

By Marge Eiseman

Storah On The Road

I've finally come down enough to write about the Storahtelling experience of my son Zach's Bar Mitzvah on Sept. 6, 2008, for Parashat Shoftim at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee. From the moment I walked out from behind the lectern with the bright red "King's Kafé" sign in hand, we had their total attention!

As I introduced myself as Huldah, the waitress at the King's Kafé, I mentioned that we have lively debates -- such as the one going on at Table Two. There were two kings, Solomon and Josaiah (my sons Jona and Zach), and they were arguing about Justice and the consequences of their actions. Remniscent of an old Yiddish folktale, they brought their dilemma to a Levitial Priest (Jona's twin, Jacob) who declared that each was right, and that the law was on their side. Overhearing that, I asked, "Wait, how can they both be right?" And my point was well-taken. We obviously needed to take it up with the rabbi! Rabbi Cohen stepped in, and introduced Storahtelling, the concept of the Maven and Meturgeman, and then facilliated the whole Torah ritual.

So began the Seder Kriyyat HaTorah (Order of Reading Torah), which was now the high point of this Bar Mitzvah on an otherwise normal Shabbat morning in a Reform congregation. We picked up the characters at the 5th and 6th aliyah, and found the kings in conflict again about the biblical limits that are written into Deuteronomy 17:14-17 and then found our young king writing his own scroll with the help of the Levitical Priest (Deut. 17:18-20).

I heard from the parents of Zach's classmates that "this was not a regular bar mitzvah -- it was cool!" and friends asked when the next Storahtelling could take place.

Having just finished the Maven Training in July, it was a gutsy move to offer to do this, but it was fantastic! Big thanks to Jake Goodman for his assistance and advice; to Terri Schuster for help with translation, and to Jona for help writing the script (which should be in the Storahtelling archive). I only have one regret, that this was my last son to become a Bar Mitzvah!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Just for the Record"—performed at CSAIR in Riverdale

September 23, 2008

By Deanna Neil

Storah On The Road

The title of the parsha from last week is "Ki Tavo" meaning, when you arrive or when you come. In the parsha, Moses delivers a lengthy set of instructions to the people of Israel about what to do when they arrive in the holy land. Arriving in a new land is very much like arriving in a new year. We are gathering up our instructions of what to do. We look back at the record. Just like the people of Israel, who will amass on the mountain of blessing and the mountain of curse, we too will climb up a metaphorical mountain and take a look around. We'll see where we came from and where we are going. We'll assess our blessings and our curses. We'll fast and we'll feast, just as the Israelites would feast on the peace offering on the mountain.

This was the parsha that Jonathan Ross and I addressed during our show at CSAIR in Riverdale this past weekend. It was a perfect parsha because there are a lot of new things happening at the synagogue this year. I will be working with Naomi Less and various members of the CSAIR congregation on a MyDrash program and Maven Mentor program. I will be taking the full year to train two people, Diane Sharon and Phil Keisman, to be Mavens. Naomi Less will be working with Mike Dorfman to use Storahtelling techniques to engage 6-8th graders with torah. It was a great kick off to a year long process and it was exciting for us to climb up that mountain and look into the new year as well.

Letter from Rabbi Barry Dov Katz

September 23, 2008

By Rabbi Barry Dov Katz

Storah On The Road

*This past weekend, Storahtellers Deanna Neil and Jonathan Adam Ross performed a Maven Torah Reading Ritual for Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale (CSAIR). Below is from an email CSAIR’s Rabbi Barry Dov Katz wrote after the event.

Dear All of Storahtelling,

I did not have the chance to say a proper goodbye and thank Deanna, Jon (and Naomi), but I wanted to say Todah to all of Storahtelling.

It was a great weekend.

As a congregation we stretched but the stretching created an entrance point for families who rarely come to shul. For these families and for most of the congregation, the morning offered a chance to open the Book and find out/be reminded that there is something good and timeless in it. We saw two very talented people, products of the Conservative movement, successful smart, talented and hip, stand on our bimah and show, in a way that words can never capture, that Torah is relevant.

The service launched MyDrash in a powerful way. It turned MyDrash from just another new Saturday morning program for kids to something bigger, an integral part of the mission of the shul "to enlighten the mind with learning."

Watching the kids at the end of the afternoon engaged with text in a serious and fun manner was a remarkable testament to the talent of Jon and Deanna, our own mavens, and the rest of CSAIR’s own remarkable volunteers and staff who devoted so much time, intellect and energy to this.

A good way to start the year!

For all of the record keepers and for the Jews in the pews!

L'shana Tovah Tikateivu

Training future Rabbis, Cantors and Educators to be Mavens at Hebrew Union College

By Naomi Less

Storah On The Road

"Who's in? Who's out?
And what am I signing up for with this whole covenant thing?"
- "Today" Parshat Nitzavim - Maven Torah Reading Ritual

These and other tough questions were put to the test in Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's tefillot/services this morning. Storahtelling Founder and Master Maven Amichai Lau-Lavie, along with Director of Education and Training and Senior Maven, Naomi Less, led the rabbinical, cantorial and education students through a challenging Maven Torah Reading Ritual where students explored issues of inclusivity in Judaism and the boundaries the text puts in front of the community.

With the unprecedented invitation from all three professional schools, Amichai and Naomi presented a Maven "Demo" as a kick off for a new partnership between Storahtelling and HUC-JIR. Cantor Bruce Ruben (Cantorial School), Jo Kay (Education School) and Rabbi Renni Altman (Rabbinical School) met several months ago to begin planning for this event. All were in attendance along with Dean Shirley Adelson Monday morning to participate in the event alongside their students.

This January, Storahtelling will offer it's first seminary student-Maven training program available to rabbinical, cantorial and education students gratis by HUC-JIRprogrammatic.

While Storahtelling has worked with other Jewish seminaries before (Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinical school orientation and their Rabbinic Training Institute for Rabbis in the field), this marks the first Maven training program that equips future clergy and educators with a "drivers' permit" to try out the techniques in their various venues.

Storahtelling has spent the last two years re-focusing on training agents of change in synagogues, congregational schools, and other centers of learning, but this first step in working with seminary students opens a new chapter in our work of disseminating Storahtelling's methodology.

For more information on the January Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion intersession training, please contact Naomi Less

Monday, September 22, 2008

By Amichai Lau Lavie


Hey World -

As many of you may know, I am spending most of this year in Israel, as a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute. The program started on September 5th, and the past two weeks have been super intensive and an inspiring introduction to what will hopefully be a year of learning, reflection and growth – both professionally and personally. I plan to reflect and report on some of the highlights of this journey, and will be happy to share these snapshots with you. I’m hoping that these can serve as a way of staying in touch, and also, of providing information and conversation, on and offline, about some of the key issues and challenges that life in Israel and the modern Jewish experience present.

As an Israeli who has spent the past decade in New York, coming back to live in Jerusalem is giving me some interesting angles – coming from a place of inquiry with some (hopefully) healthy perspective. And as a cultural translator (isn’t that what Storahtelling is all about?), I am fascinated by the translation of ideologies, identities and practices between Israel and the US, in terms of socio-political values, and especially in terms of Jewish identity and activity. It’s interesting to explore the patterns and trends that indicate the way the wind blows and provides possible identification of key problems and their potential solutions – worldwide and locally. SO - Please consider these snapshots as openers for further dialogue – maybe this year of ‘espionage’ in the holy land will yield some useful data.

In addition to studying at the Mandel Institute’s fancy HQ in Jerusalem two days a week – with a stellar faculty – the program has several study tours to hotspots in Israel. Our first tour, held last week, was a three days trek to the Galilee – familiar and yet quite new, to me as well as to most Israelis who were on this journey. Here’s a note from Nazareth, a complex holy city, just in time for the High Holy days.

September 2008


Last Monday the market crashed on Wall St. but it was business as usual in Nazareth: dusty, drab and very hot. Busloads of Christian pilgrims from places like Warsaw and St. Louis flocked to the churches and to the colorful market, where shop owners, many of them Muslim, in the midst of Ramadan fast, were peddling souvenirs and fresh figs. Some of their neighbors, local Christian Arabs – the minority in town - ate lunch in restaurants but behind semi closed doors – a nod to Ramadan, and possibly to the intense heat. I was there among a group of 60, educators and community leaders, about 4/5 Jewish, and 98% Israeli, on a site visit with the Mandel Leadership Institute - investigating the city, learning the landscape and searching for patterns, for the ‘story’ of the city. We spent the afternoon in small groups, and when we gathered later that evening in a beautiful courtyard to share our respective experiences, many stories were told – weaving the sights of Nazareth with profound personal insights. One of the common themes to emerge was the remarkable and fragile cultural mix that makes up Nazareth’s population – an almost random micro specimen of Israeli society in particular, and global reality at large. Muslim, Christians and Jews - of all varieties, are the main players in this story, and the story is about a city in the midst of a split personality/identity crisis. The plot: attempts at co-existence, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness meet basic human aspirations, fear, and suspicion, mingled with a moody economy and three stubborn faiths. Big drama. Nazareth, somebody concluded that evening would be a great setting for a Bollywood movie.

(I arrived in Israel only a week earlier and my jetlag has been intense this time, so I was groggy when I got on our tour bus in Jerusalem early that morning - but I soon perked up – there were just too many interesting people to meet - Israeli and American leaders in educational, political and cultural arenas. the bus was buzzing with fascinating conversations and it became clear that the on-location study tour would also serve as background to our conversations and introductions to each other. By the end of the tour I’ve made some new friends, including K., an orthodox man who founded a network of vocational yeshiva high schools in Israel and was lamenting to me about his need to find a synagogue to really pray in; A., an energetic Druze artist and activist, award winning theater director from the Galilee who runs a successful cultural center in his hometown, the first of its kind, and Y. ,a secular Israeli educator and mother of 3, who, when not on the cell phone with either her colleagues at work or babysitters, discussed candidly the reasons for her recent shift to the political right and the social ramifications of that shift. But the official focus was the location – Nazareth, and her younger sister, Nazareth Illit - Upper Nazareth).

On the outskirts of Nazareth is a mountain called the Mount of the Leap – named for a dramatic moment in the life of Jesus, Nazareth’s homeboy. On the mount’s slope is a prehistoric cave, now a tourist attraction, pointing to the city’s ancient strategic location. Today, as for centuries, Nazareth and her economy are resting on the power of story – the mythic promise of a sex-free birth to a young woman who will one day become the Virgin Mother. Strip the Christian myth down to its basic essence and discover the primal human homage to the promise of birth and its miraculous dimensions. (Is it, possibly, an ancient indigenous shrine to the local Canaanite goddess of fertility, cleverly transformed and disguised?) Christian pilgrims and other tourists still come here, but not as many as before the intifada, and the demographics have been steadily changing as well. Even the Papal visit in 2000 didn’t help that much, and the city, once mostly Christian, is no longer so: the majority of the town’s population, totaling 65,000 is currently Muslim (67%). Most Christians, we were told by residents, have either emigrated overseas or left the city for smaller villages in the area. Migration is an important and painful topic of conversation in today’s Nazareth – a city now completely enmeshed with her younger sister up on the hill – Nazareth Illit (though the name “Nazareth” belongs to both cities – the pronunciation, though inconsistent, is distinctively different between the Arabic and Hebrew). Nazareth Illit was built In the early 1950’s, part of David Ben Gurion’s vision of ‘Making the Galilee more Jewish’. The city will grow over the years to include some 45,000 people, thanks to waves of immigration from Poland, Romania, Morocco, Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union. But the most recent wave of ‘immigrants’ to Nazareth Illit are wealthy Muslims from Nazareth –literally ‘moving on up’ the hill– and slowly changing the demographics and politics of the formerly sleepy Galilean city. Though this emigration is boosting the local economy - not everybody is happy here. As Israel celebrates its 60th year of existence and Palestinians are marking 60 years since the Nakba – ‘The Destruction’ - Nazareth and her newer sister on the hill have become yet another reality check, a vision of a multi-cultural democracy that attempts to contain minorities and conflicting cultures and religions with dignity, prosperity and peace. It’s not looking so good. Municipal elections are coming up in two months, and the streets of Nazareth Illit are filled with propaganda posters. One of the key issues is the ‘minorities’. We met Hava Bechar, deputy mayor of Nazareth Illit, who was quite candid in her views – fearing the Arab takeover of the city that will transform the Jewish majority into a minority. ‘President Shimon Peres visited here a few weeks ago’ she told our group inside a high school auditorium, ‘and told us – Nazareth Illit is becoming a mixed city, and you must accept that this is a democratic value – a state for all its citizens – but I refuse to accept that – what happened to Ben Gurion’s vision? This is a Jewish state and a Jewish city.’

But is it? The reason so many Arabs are moving into town is that so many of the younger population is moving out – seeking more dynamic urban centers or quieter suburban living. Meanwhile, residents of Nazareth are moving out and up the hill since they are not allowed to expand the city’s municipal zones - Nazareth remains virtually the same size it was in 1948, though its population grew from 10,000 (!)
Recent requests from Nazareth Illit’s newest residents for a mosque, church and cemetery have been so far declined by city hall – Mrs. Bechar considered the very idea to be an atrocity. Political pragmatism and ideological tensions are tearing these two towns apart – and the ugly demon of blatant racism is definitely out of the bottle. As the conversation with Mrs. Bechar got heated, one of the Mandel fellows tried to cool the room, suggesting that we are try to stay calm and at least make gestures of civility towards each other instead of hostile exchanges. Symbolic gestures, or the lack of them, are another important element in this painful reality: Basic gestures of goodwill and compassion that remind everybody of human-being, and shared destiny. Somehow, in the intense heat, these gestures of kindness are forgotten and are replaced by an angry fist – an image we will see all over town, as one of the political parties’ icon, splashed, violent, on huge posters.

Here’s one snapshot of a turf conflict, minor, but telling:

Inside Nazareth’s main attraction - The church of Annunciation, built on the spot where Mary heard the promise of her miraculous birth – a Polish group knelt to pray to the Virgin Mother, chanting, in Polish, as other groups, on line to reach the nave, filmed and yawned. I love churches as I do most places of worship, spying after a hint of the ‘authentic’ feeling of sacred hidden in a tassel or a hymn, no matter what deity is being invoked. The stained glass windows, the Polish hymns, the hushed tones – all familiar, but there was not great feeling of inspiration there. I’m not sure why. The church, built around an earlier one in the late 60’s felt cold and business like. Outside the church, an older Arabic man was selling Kaffiyes - Arabic headgear to tourists, and napping under an arch in the church’s outer wall, in between groups. As we sat on the curb outside the church, mid –day heat, tired from the walking, I watched him, some 50 feet away, and tried to take his picture as he slept. It was a colorful image. But as soon as I clicked the shutter he sat up and adjusted his Kaffie, glaring at me. He approaches me a few minutes earlier, yelling – why did I not ask his permission for a photo? I apologized and tried and explain that I thought he was asleep – a man in flowing white robes under an arch in front of the church, right on the public street – and didn’t think of waking him up to ask for permission. He was livid – accusing me (in English and Hebrew) that I should have asked him first – and should have paid him for the picture. ‘Learn a lesson!” he yelled at me and walked away.

Soon I forgot about the incident. But later, as we discussed the day, his anger returned. What was the lesson he wanted me to learn? What lesson do I want to take from this unpleasant interaction? I had no intention of harming him or damaging his dignity, but there I was, clearly ‘visiting’ his territory, his turf, another tourist in an endless sea of trampling feet, on a quick stop on a tour of a bigger reality. His frustration, indignation, anger, pain - at his situation, at what I represented – were sad. He became an object, a tourist attraction – and somehow, through that invasive act of being photographed, de-humanized. Was my lesson, perhaps, to be extra sensitive in general and have more consideration for other people? Maybe I should have offered to buy a kaffie – a gesture of goodwill. I regret not doing so. But from a bigger perspective - was there something about this scene that reflected on the bigger dialectics between Arab and Jew, as we negotiate public space, dignity, commerce, conflict? S., when I shared these thoughts with her later that night in the hotel lobby rolled her eyes – ‘get over it’, she said ‘and welcome to Israel’.

Nazareth and Nazareth Illit are now recognized markers for a growing rift between upper and lower – between lofty ideals and practical reality. How will Israel negotiate its Zionist ideology with the democratic vision? And how will the different sectors learn to honor the other’s pains and hopes? I left Nazareth on Wednesday afternoon and by the next day was back in New York, where Wall Street seemed to pick up and Sarah Palin covered the front page of several papers, a subject of similar conversations about discord and unity as were heard in Nazareth.
And now I’m starting to get ready for the High Holidays – reflection, assessment of what went wrong and what can I fix in my life. And I am thinking of gestures of kindness, and the need to be super sensitive, and the necessity of getting the facts straight and the data down – so that an informed conversation can take place of heated debates. Much to pray for as a new year comes on. And a lot to learn.
Wishing you all SHANA TOVA – a year of goodness – and healthy dialouges.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Launch of the Jerusalem Maven Training Project
By Amichai Lau Lavie

Storah On The Road

‘When you go out to battle against your enemies… you will see among the captives a beautiful woman and you will desire her, and take her….’ (Deut. 21:10-11)

OY-- What does one do with this disturbing biblical instruction for ‘ethical warfare’? How can we adapt, comprehend and ‘translate’ the scriptural matter of fact description of brutality and come to terms with them for our contemporary ethical behavior? These verses from the weekly Torah Portion became the script with which auditions were held last week in Jerusalem, as the first Israeli branch of Storahtelling was launched at Kehilat Kol HaNeshama, Israel’s largest liberal congregation.

22 people of various ages, backgrounds, genders and professional interests joined me in the main sanctuary to hear about Storahtelling’s vision and plans for operations in Israel, and to share their personal journeys and interests. Then, all 22 participants were invited to delve into the Torah and present their quick version of what a modern Storah-style adaptation may look like. The results were rich and compelling, giving us all a glimpse of what it may be like to ‘storah-tell’ Torah from Biblical Hebrew to Modern Israeli….

Once admitted to the training course (which will start in November), these Mavens-in-the-Making will be studying with me for a period of eight months, on a bi weekly basis, covering the entire Maven curriculum and learning how to bring Torah to life in their communities. The diversity in the group is immense – native born Israelis, recent immigrants from North and South America, seasoned actors and performers, alongside rabbis and Jewish educators.

The program is warmly hosted and organized by Kol Haneshama, a Reform congregation, but is attended by representatives of many other denominations including Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and Modern Orthodox communities, as well as several unaffiliated artists and educators, all of whom interested in developing new ways of telling Torah in the ‘marketplace’.

When it came time to present the translations, storah style, of the challenging verses from the Torah that have to do with the war and captives, we were all amazed by the colorful diversity of choices. One group, comprised of two men, told this text from the point of view of two solders, back from battle, sex crazed and shell shocked. Another group focused on the woman’s point of view, pointing a finger at the price of war on innocent bystanders, then and now. Some of the groups chose very funny humor to deal with this text, and, to our surprise, we were all laughing and crying at the same time…

The fact that this first evening was held on 9/11 was also noted. This date will be remembered not only as a terrible day of death, but also as a turning point in world awareness for the important and challenging role of religion and sacred text in the formulation of political and social reality. Storahtelling’s answer to 9/11 is a heightened focus on Biblical literacy as a tool towards an informed, inclusive and empowered dialouge - challenging the fundamentalist reading of the sacred text with a more pluralistic reading. Thus, biblical literacy, as offered by the Storahtelling model becomes a tool in the modern striving for peace. In Israel, a country fueled by biblical narratives and anti religious sentiments alike – this ancient/new technique seems to offer an important bridge. The 3 hour kick off event ended on a big high – all present excited by the prospects of becoming part of this process of training, and eager to explore ways of developing the Storahtelling method further in their lives and communities.

For me, personally, this event was a significant milestone – back in Jerusalem, insider a sanctuary I have spent many Friday nights and Shabbat mornings in- now taking my craft to the new level of change and transofrmaitons much yearned for. In a sense – bringing it home. Even my parents dropped by for the first hour, curious to hear what their youngest son is up to… they were quite pleased…)

Stay tuned for more Storah news from Jerusalem from all over Israel!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Your Friends & Neighbors” Maven in White Plains, NY
By Jake Goodman

Storah On The Road

This last weekend Yael Miriam and I went to Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, to do two Maven Torah Reading Rituals for TIC’s first day of Hebrew school. This gig was particularly sweet for several reasons:

It was Yael’s first Storahtelling gig as a Maven. She played a little girl named Miriam. Fabulously.
Nancy Parkes, the Education Director at TIC, is a friend of mine from graduate school at JTS. She is a gifted educator and wonderful person. Performing in front of her was an honor.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker is the rabbi at TIC. Rabbi Tucker is a hero of mine for many reasons, not least of all because he wrote the most beautiful tshuvah I’ve ever read called “Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality.” …writing it, it does not sound so riveting but it is. And brilliant.

This being said, preparing this particular Maven show was difficult. Parshat Ki Titze (Deuteronomy 21:10—25:19) includes laws about: what to do with a wife who annoys both her first and second husband; how not to treat a sinner who you impale on a stake; how cross-dressing is an abomination against God; what happens to a woman whose husband accuses her of not being a virgin after their nuptial night; etc. And we were building this show for 3rd-6th graders and their families! Woah.

In the end—and with the help of various other brilliant Storahtellers who served as our chevruta (Jar, Deanna Neil, David Loewy, Amichai Lau-Lavie)—we developed a script about the Golden Rule: love your neighbor as yourself. It went over very well—the kids were very much invested in the story, had a lot to say during the interactive elements and seemed very jazzed by the whole experience.

One quick story: The verse that I had the hardest time translating was the one that says, “Women may not wear men’s clothing and men may not wear women’s clothing. Doing this is an abomination to your God YHVH [toevat YHVH Elohecha]” (Deut: 22:5). The audience was too young to address this issue as thoroughly as I wanted, and also doing so did not fit the bullseye of our piece: loving your neighbor as yourself. Still, I did not want to give any impression that I thought this was okay. SO…. smarty Yael had the idea to just translate the line as simply as we could, have her character offer some dissent, and just leave it there. And that is what we did.

BUT, when we did the second performance, Rabbi Tucker was our Torah chanter. He chanted the line “toevat YHVH Elohecha” and I felt an excited chill in my body. This same word, “Toevah” is the same word that is used against men sleeping with men as they would with a woman in Leviticus 18:22, and which Rabbi Tucker wrote so eloquently about in his Tshuvah, described above. Rabbi Tucker chanted the verse and looked at us with a challenging smile, just waiting to see how we would translate/interpret this verse. We did our translation. He looked at us as if to say, “Are you done?” I laughed and we moved on. For me, it was a great moment.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What do you get when you mix 7 teenagers, 8 of their parents, 7 Jewish educators and a bunch of goats?
Jewish Milestones and Storahtelling’s first Bnai Mitzvah Family Camp!

Blogger: Jacob Wiese of Houston, TX, age 12
Edited: Storahtelling Bnai Mitzvah Family Camp facilitators – Amichai Lau-Lavie, Sarah Sokolic, Shoshana Jedwab and Tehilah Eisenstadt

It was an unusually cool August in Connecticut as families from TX, PA NY and NJ gathered to spend a week immersed in ritual performance, Torah, rites of passage, learning from wisdom culled by countless years and hours in “the biz.” Jewish Milestones ( brought Storahtelling to play and explore with five fabulously different families. Playing and exploration happened with parents and children together, as well as in separate cohorts of parents and children. There was also time for serious reflection and planning as individual families spent one on one time with Jewish Milestones and Storahtelling educators and facilitators.

The week, as all summer weeks can be, was both long and way too short. The talents, experiences, backgrounds and life stories participants shared with us were varied and brought a rich texture out of the texts and into our conversations and performances. While we wish we could share all of this with you we can share one of the most important lessons that parents, Bnai Mitzvah students and facilitators quickly learned: “brevity is the soul of wit” (Shakespeare, Hamlet) and wit dat here’s a brief reflection on the week from Jacob Wiese of Houston, TX, age 12:

“I liked the Shema exercise because it empowered me to think about the Shema in a new way. I didn't know that there were so many translations for a prayer that I have said every night of my life.”

Jacob’s favorite translation of the Shema is: "Listen up, our God is speaking, I am your only God." Jacob, like his fellow Bnai Mitzvah Family Camp participants, had a lot of fun and exuded a lot of energy at our first, late night, Shema learning session (parents let the kids stay up ‘til 10!). The translation Jacob shares above was not the only one, in fact it was not Jacob’s only Shema translation that evening, but this favorite translation choice comes out of the larger learning that Bnai Mitzvah families engaged in as they grappled with the constant tension of making Torah and Jewish ritual fun but still true to ancient understandings.

Of course Family Camp was not all fun and games with text, Jacob also notes that he really “liked the ropes course,” an experiential excursion set out in the wilds of Isabella Freedman where Jewish Milestones set up opportunities for younger participants to strike out on their own. Natural leadership skills were expressed, honed and celebrated while teamwork grew, faltered, regained momentum and flowered over hours of complicated exercises. Jacob, with a newly bandaged wrist (from a non-text related incident) was cared for by the group as they tried navigated difficult physical feats.

Jacob’s week at Isabella Freedman, with Jewish Milestones and Storahtelling at Elat Chayyim, was a place where he learned new skills and looks forward to making the different components of his upcoming Bar Mitzvah “more interesting.”

We wish Jacob and his fellow Bnai Mitzvah travelers a hearty Yasher Koach, great job, and keep up the good hard work! Jewish Milestones and Storahtelling look forward to being in touch, helping families speak about and stay true to the paths they’ve begun towards, and beyond, their Bnai Mitzvah experiences.