Wednesday, January 28, 2009


A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join me for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a Biblical verb and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. comments welcome, let’s talk the walk.

January 28, 2009

"God Bless You"– this common post-sneeze sacred invocation that has gone completely secular is uttered endlessly and mindlessly around the world. Just like 'God Bless America,' this is often simply a polite figure of speech, a civic, civil nicety. In Hebrew you say "La'brioot" – "to health."

The cultural differences are interesting but either way, these are expressions of empathy, and I've been intrigued by this word/concept--empathy--for about a week now. How come there is no word for "empathy" in Hebrew? No exact translation, that is – Israelis say "empatia," one of many foreign words that migrated into Modern Hebrew and stuck. It's a telling fact, though, that words like 'empathy' or 'pluralism' or 'text' do not have an Israeli life of their own. These days, I wonder not only about the missing word in Hebrew but also about the collective ability to exercise the word's imperative: to feel empathy towards others, esp. others in distress, and esp. others in distress who are very much 'the other.'

Ten days since the ceasefire in Gaza, and many efforts at rehabilitation take place– physical, emotional, political and diplomatic. But for many here in Israel, the anger remains. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Merely suggesting the expression of empathy towards the people of Gaza, alongside support for the IDF soldiers and the people of Sdeort, gets many Israelis – including family members and close friends – furious. Calls for empathy and care for the estimated 20,000 Gaza residents who are now homeless is met with pursed lips: "let Hamas help them, its their own fault." Empathy, generally recognized as "the ability to sense and understand someone else's feelings as if they were one's own," seems to take a backseat to her fierce and frugal sister -- survival. "I just can't afford to be thinking about them right now" M. tells me. I get this approach but it drives me nuts. ‘You’ve been in NY for too long’ B. tells me ‘this is how we roll here, remember?’ This isn’t helping either.

There are, thankfully, other voices, and other initiatives that think and do otherwise. L., for instance, a 27 year old student from Jerusalem who teamed up with another student and organized within 5 days a 7 truck convey of emergency supplies to Gaza, thousands of Israeli donations of clothes, food, blankets and personal letters from Israeli citizens to the families beyond the border. I met L. at the weekly Zohar class we attend at the Hartman Institute – who knew she was such an organizer? She didn't sleep for a week and offered many of us a way to be really helpful. I helped by carrying boxes. The story hit the media two days ago -- even Al Jazeera wanted to interview her…

And meanwhile, I've been asking people for Hebrew translation for 'empathy' – heads are scratched, options offered, all admit that there is no one single perfect Hebrew word for it. Yet. How long has it been missing? How come there isn't one?

"In essence," L. tells me, mid-carrying-boxes, "'love your neighbor as you love yourself' is the root of empathy – and Judaism's core concept – but I guess it got lost in translation. isn’t this in the Bible somewhere?"

So I turn to search for empathy in Exodus and check out this week's Torah tale – BO. It’s got the Prime Time coverage of the actual moment of the Exodus – the last midnight in Egypt. The firstborn of Egypt are slain – and there isn't a home in the land that has not been struck by death. Amid the screams, the king relents – demands that they leave the land – and offers the most audacious invitation for empathy:

"Take both your flocks and your herds and be gone; and bless me also" (Ex.12:32).

He's asking them for a blessing?

How can he expect Moses and his people to have anything but hatred in their hearts towards him? And yet he asks. And we are invited to consider, seriously, his request. Can we bless the enemy – then, now?

And let's say we do decide to grant him a blessing – let's pretend that empathy swims in our veins – what blessing would he receive? What blessing would you offer the ruler who has ruled over your misery?

This past Sunday evening, right after the Zohar class (in which L. updates us that the convoy of trucks, courtesy of the UN, made it into Gaza and that the supplies have already been delivered) I walk over to my parents’ house to have dinner. it’s a 10 minute walk, the evening is cold and crisp, and on the way I ponder this question – who is my Pharaoh? Would, could, should I bless him? I recall the psychological/mystical reading that the Zohar offers the Exodus saga – this is all a description of our inner drama. The oppressed slaves are within me – yearning for more freedom, for more autonomy, for more self expression, Moses is my inner drive for growth, my connection to the Higher Self, and sometimes this inner Moses will resort to strange tricks or fierce strikes to get its point across. And Pharaoh – Freud would call him ‘ego’, and I see him as that part of me that refuses to change, yet knows he – I – have to change in order to grow. Can I have empathy towards my inner resistance? Can I have empathy towards my fellow Israelis who have no empathy?

After dinner with my father (my mother is out at some lecture) I sit with him and open a Torah and read the verses with him and ask – what blessing would you have given the king?

My father, who is no Pollyanna, may or may not be thinking of his Nazi jailers, or the Hamas fighters or any other mythic or historical 'Pharaoh' as he quietly, and with great empathy, offers this version of a blessing to the King of Egypt: "May your river continue to flow."

God Bless him.

(And, If you were to bless the Pharaoh – what would your blessing be?)

Inaugural Maven: Knockin’ on Pharaoh’s Door
By Annie Lewis

A newly minted Maven apprentice, I sit in the pews of the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, as Brian Gelfand and Shawn Shafner orchestrate a translation for multiple generations of Parshat Vaera.

The cantor escorts the Torah around the room like royalty and images of the week’s Inauguration flicker in my mind; the bundled masses, assembled, endless, across the Mall. This Shabbat, in Queens, all in the congregation become the Hebrew slaves on the cusp of sea change.

Moses returns to the land of his birth, to recruit his long-lost brother Aaron for a mission. He notifies him that God has commanded them to confront the Pharaoh, to demand he set the Hebrew slaves free. Moses appeals to his brother to accompany him to Pharaoh’s office to take action. The incredulous Aaron brushes off Moses with his pampered palace upbringing, perceiving the plan as na├»ve at best. Aaron has been a slave all of his life and has little faith that things can be different. With the chance of change low, and the cost of confronting power high, Aaron prefers to leave things the way they are. As we journey through the parsha, Moses and the community members urge Aaron and one another to imagine the possibility of a better day and to take the leaps of faith to make it happen.

The first aliyah is for those like Aaron, who have doubts. They gather under the shelter of the super-sized Storahtelling talit. For the second aliyah, Maven Shawn calls up to the Torah - the micro-managers, the obsessive compulsives, the control freaks - all those who want things their way. A wave of laughter ripples around the room. People nudge their partners, parents and kids. They giggle and bicker and at last the chosen ones find their way up to the bimah, ready to receive their Torah. The energy in the room shifts and we are there; the story is a mirror for who we are in this moment on this day. After the aliyah, the congregation reasons with Aaron to consider playing a part in the Divine plan:

“You’ve got nothing to lose,” one young woman asserts.
“Now is your chance. The Pharaoh knows Moses,”
“Better get out before the Ottoman Empire comes to power,” an astute student advises.

At last, the wary Aaron has a change of heart, and decides he will speak truth to Pharaoh’s hard heart. However, before he and Brother Moses set out to knock on Pharaoh’s door, Aaron calls for a blessing from all of those in the room who know what it’s like to take leaps of faith, for all those on the verge of making bold moves with unknown outcomes.

After the stories and the blessings, some signs and wonders on Pharaoh’s floor, and the journey of two brothers reunited, the rabbi weaves Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changing,” into the Aleinu, a prayer about what is to come.

This Shabbat Vaera, we are part of a nation under new leadership, energized, questioning, bracing ourselves for all that is on the way. I think of the passengers balanced on the wings of an aircraft just two weeks earlier, waiting to cross freezing water. I pray for courage, grateful to a God who still carries us out on Eagle’s wings.

I am grateful to Brian, Shawn and the Forest Hills community members for an experience of revelation. For Torah that is living water, an infinite reflecting pool that meets us where we are, reminds us how far we have come and helps us imagine how we might one day be free.

Ki hem hayenu v’orekh yameinu
For (the words) are our life and the length of our days

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

DRAGONROD, or Empathy in Goshen?

Storahtelling Solo-Maven Show in Jerusalem
January 24, 2009

by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Empathy has been on my mind a lot these past few weeks – inspired, ignited by the political situation and the hardening of hearts all around me. I walk no moral high ground and am hardly a peace activist, but the fact that ‘empathy’ is so often perceived here in Israel as a left-leaning political statement and not as a basic human, humanitarian (and Jewish) value is really frustrating to me. It feels like there is no room for real conversation about it – so last weekend an opportunity came up to have an open conversation (disguised as Storahtelling performance) about empathy.

Saturday Morning, inside a large public dining room/social hall, 200 Israeli and American college students take their seats, semi circle, facing a long table, with a Torah scroll on it, covered in a bright green prayer shawl. Holding the 10 foot tall ‘rod of Moses’ (a plank of wood I picked up that morning in the parking lot outside) I lead a Storahtelling performance in Kiryat Moriah - an educational conference center in Jerusalem. The organizers of this encounter program wanted the group to have a positive interaction with the Biblical narrative and an open conversation about the role of Bible, ritual and Jewish values in the lives of these students. No problem. I chose 20 verses from the weekly Torah portion, and focused on the moment when Moses actually launches the Exodus Campaign. His first act is to wow Egypt with feats of wonder – his famous rod (handed over since Adam and Eve, according to one legend) and transforms the object into a living alligator (snake is a mistake in translation, the King James Bible suggests Dragon!!). But nobody is impressed and he needs to up the power. This is where the conversation comes in:

I placed the group in role: 'Imagine you are the people Israel, in the land of Goshen, minimum wage migrant workers, slaves to the system, oppressed and abused – when this guy comes up with a plan to get you out. This is the town meeting in which you need to decide, oh Israelites, if you are going along with the Exodus Campaign, support your leader Moses and agree to a violent series of strikes against Egypt, your host/oppressor. Can I see a show of hands – how many are in favor of violence as a way to achieve our freedom? Can I see a show of hands for those opposing violence? Who’s on the fence?’

The room was not split evenly. Most voted for violence and when asked to explain used the rhetoric familiar to us all and demonstrated in the Exodus text– only power will save the day. And also – God said so. Those who spoke for non-violence spoke of Gandhi and of not harming innocent others and won’t it just come back to haunt us later? There was tension in the room- the conversation happened in ‘split screen’ – the story and our reality.

'Well, what about all those dead Egyptians?' I ask. 'Should we even consider the pain of the enemy?? Can one want to be free and still feel for the one preventing the freedom? Can I have empathy to my upstairs neighbors who (having just broken up with his girlfriend) blasts loud music late at night, can he have empathy to the girlfriend who ditched him, can any one of us have empathy towards any random beggar on the street, or the wounded child in Gaza, the firstborn of Egypt?'

There was a long silence, and then everybody wanted to say something.

One young woman was adamant in her reply: NO. I have only this much energy to care for others and at times like these (was she talking Goshen or Gaza?) I only have room for care for my own people. There isn’t always the privilege of having empathy for others. Many agree. One Israeli, politely, stood up and said – you can’t ask this question and expect us to believe that it is a neutral question. The moment you are suggesting we express empathy you are positioning yourself on one side of the political equation. It’s not fair to those of us who think differently. Another guy challenges him – what about ‘don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you?’ and so on.

I wrap is up with a comma, not a period. More will be discussed later- this was just a trigger for further questions.

The Rod of Moses closes the show. It is the same stick with which he will one day strike the rock for water instead of speaking to it – and the price he will pay is high – access to the Holy Land – denied.

Sometimes we need to speak, not strike. And sometimes – often, though maybe not always – empathy is key.

The Storahtelling performance is followed by a short discussion about this form of ‘translating’ ancient scripture to modern reality and how we get to use these inherited tales to address human values and dilemmas in our personal and collective lives. Heated conversations erupted after the show – small clusters of people stood and debated. Many came up to me to keep on talking, animated, charged. I eventually left them to continue probing the limits of empathy and went to my parents house for a Shabbat lunch. I leave the 10 ft. long pole back in the parking lot.

Personal Testimonial: BECOMING ISRAEL at Limmud NY

by Yael Tzalka, Program Coordinator, Limmud NY

Saw BECOMING ISRAEL at Limmud NY 2009

Becoming Israel highlights the stories of three individuals from different eras, beautifully intertwined together through time. Many generations of people have laid the foundation for what Israel is today. People of different religions, nationalities and generations have taken a part in what has ‘become’ Israel.

Becoming Israel shows us that we too have had a part in the making of Israel. But more than anything it shows us that just like Jacob, we wrestle with G-d, with Israel, with Judaism, with the importance of our history and our influence on its future- no matter where we come from.

Becoming Israel will have audience members leave with questions that will sit on the soul for days, letting us ponder how we each individually molded the complicated and gorgeous land so many of us call home. Becoming Israel had the audience moved and captivated as they connected with the idea that we all wrestle with the pressing issues that Israel faces yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Becoming Israel at LiMMUD NEW YORK

nevele grand resort in the catskills

january 16-19, 2009

By Elana Bell

For those of you not yet familiar, Limmud is a conference that brings together hundreds of Jews from all walks of life, all Jewish backgrounds, all lifestyles, and all ages for four days of lectures, workshops, text-study sessions, discussions, exhibits and performances. Storahtelling was invited to Limmud to do two performances of Becoming Israel, as well as to lead the workshop: Backstage with Storahtelling.

Our adventure started on the night before we were supposed to leave when we got an email from the Limmud Staff that the boilers at the Nevele Grand Resort had broken down and there was no heat and that they would let us know by 11am the next day whether the conference would continue. Mike Cohen, Annie Levy, Emily Warshaw and I gathered at the various departure points awaiting the decision.from Limmud. By 12:30pm we got the green light that the conference was on!

Although the heat had started working by the time we got there, the hotel was still very cold. Also one of the wings of the hotel had been closed down so many participants and presenters still had not been given rooms. Imagine 900 cold, hungry Jews. Oy! I mention all of this because it sets the scene for what ended up being two very successful performances of Becoming Israel.

By Saturday morning, the lobby was getting warmer, and so were the participants. Our first show took place on Saturday afternoon. We had to change the location from the giant theater (impossible to heat) to the much cozier "Festival Room." The room was filled. And even though it was pretty chilly, people stayed for the entire performance. They listened with rapt attention and even laughed in moments. Our second performance took place on the final evening and the room was even fuller. They had to bring extra chairs. Afterwards a young woman came up to us and said "Thank you so much for this play. Thank you for being here. We needed to hear this voice."

One of the lines in the Becoming Israel is "You can't just walk away. You have to wrestle with it. Play." In the play, this line refers to the land of Israel itself. But I think it really says something about out experience this past weekend. About 1/3 of the presenters/participants decided to leave, not wanting to deal with the discomforts of the cold. But those of us that stayed created our own warmth--by sharing meals, by singing and praying together at Havdalah, by sleeping on the floors and couches of those people who did have heat in their rooms, by studying together, and by sharing our stories--both spontaneous and scripted. I am not saying that I was thrilled about the broken boiler. But I can certainly say that it brought us closer to each other and to our fellow Limmudnicks.

As Americans we are really used to being comfortable. But on occasion I think it behooves us to remember those people who constantly without heat or hot water or enough to eat, and to be grateful for our blessings. And I would say that this experience certainly helped to remind us of that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009



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.

January 21, 2009

Champagne bottles popped open as soon as President Obama removed his hand from Abraham Lincoln’s Bible and completed his oath of office. About twenty of us gathered in a Tel Aviv apartment to watch the inauguration on a giant screen. There were lots of tears (mine), sneers (Rick Warren) and loud cheers – heard from all the surrounding apartments. By the time I got on the 480 bus from Tel Aviv going back to Jerusalem I was a bit drunk. Before falling asleep on the bus I noticed that the bus driver had a digital sign behind his seat – located just behind his head and visible to all passengers. The bright red display rotated between showing the time, the temperature – and the exact speed with which he was driving the bus. It mostly flashed ‘100 KMH’ – kilometers per hour – the legal speed limit. I was impressed by this, mulling over the transparency of leadership and the public display of responsibility which this ‘leader’ was exhibiting – any deviation from the legal speed will be seen by all of us, and will enable us to protest – and defend our lives. I fell asleep with happy thoughts of Obama as the bus driver of the western world, delivering us all to a better place. I woke up in Jerusalem 45 minutes later, thanked the bus driver and hurried home to sleep it off.

‘Deliver’ is a funny word. We talk of ‘delivering’ a speech or a package, we are born in ‘delivery rooms,’ we appeal to the heavens for a safe delivery from harm. The word connotes transit, a handing over of something or someone from one entity or location to another. To be the one doing the delivery is to be the one responsible for the accomplishment of the mission, for the deliverables (and we are often reminded to NOT shoot the messenger – no matter what he or she has delivered to us...).

Delivery – or deliverance – is a big responsibility, as Obama knows and will soon really find out - and as so many of us know too well from our own life experience. And we have a daunting role model for the achievement ‘how to best deliver’: God is the original delivery guy – and the Divine is delivering salvation, not pizza.

Salvation is the main topic of the book of Exodus, just as it is the main topic of most (worthwhile) therapy sessions. ‘Salvation’, like ‘deliverance’, is one of those words that has aquried a lot of extra weight over the years. Beneath the verbal pomp, not unlike the Inauguration ceremony, is a raw yearning for improvement – for real change – and this is the place where the biblical saga meets our reality. In Exodus, Chapter 6, this weekly Torah tale – Va’Era kicks in the next phase of the “Let My People Go” campaign and it’s about to get bloody, - a violent war for liberty. But speeches come first. God coaches Moses on what to say – what speech to deliver to the people of Israel who are too tired to believe anything will save them, and what speech to deliver to the Pharaoh, who isn’t interested in social reforms. “…I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage” (Ex. 6:6), says the God of the Hebrews, Moses’ chief speechwriter. Moses, newly chosen leader, reluctantly and with a stammer, delivers the news to his people and to his nemesis. “Wait, there’s more,” God tells him – remind them that “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments…”

The Hebrew word for “deliver” is ‘ve’hitzalti’ – translated elsewhere as ‘save’, ‘help’ or ‘redeem’. God –via the appointed delivery mechanism – prophet or leader - is offering the enslaved people a radical paradigm shift. But who’s paying attention? The people of Israel are too impatient and overworked, literally ‘out of breath’ (Ex. 6:9) and the Egyptian regime wants cheap labor and no nonsense. So what else is new?

Obama, like Moses, wants to help – and also faces the daunting challenge of successful delivery. The 44th president is not a religious leader and he is not, officially, speaking for God (though the 43rd president seemed to think differently about this issue...), but I do want to believe that Obama truly is driven by deeply ethical and spiritual motivations. Even the choice of biblical quotation in his inauguration speech is telling - "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (New Testament, Corinthians 13:11). It rings sincere – he is embracing a deeper, more compelling truth and obligation – a true calling. Like Moses, he has a long history with the nation he intends to radically transform, and like Moses, he is a ‘mutt’ – an outsider to some, and now the ultimate insider to many others. Moses grew up as an Egyptian child, and only later joined the Hebrews as their leader. Obama’s ‘childish things’ include all that he has been until this moment of acceptance to be the one responsible for the delivery of change.

Can he deliver? We certainly hope so, and I certainly hope that like my bus driver, Obama’s administration will provide us with ample transparency and a restoration of real checks and balances – real access to democracy and accountability. Every driver goes over the speed limit and all leaders err – but let’s hope that this ride delivers us to our next destination in peace and with continued hope and determination. A lot of us are sitting on this bus, counting on him. In Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Guantamo Bay and Washington DC – many, like the Hebrew slaves, are too short of breath to listen, but will hopefully be persuaded to listen, and to experience that great deliverance of real change for the better – even at a price.

One more word about the Bible and the Inauguration: There sure was a lot of God-talk and bible-speak– from Warren’s “Lord’s Prayer” to the actual administering of oaths under God (yes, on a Bible – church and state, anyone?) to Aretha’s hat clearly of ‘biblical proportions’. There is much to discuss about the public square in the 21st century and the usage of religious and biblical language, but I want to linger on the biblical quote that caught my ear during the recitation of the poem written in honor of the inauguration, “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander. It reminds me that what a real leader can deliver is the reminder of the possibility of trust, and of love – that ‘salvation’, ‘deliverance’ and ‘love’ are synonymous – invitations to listen deeper to what’s available to us on the road to happiness, every single day:

“Some live by ‘Love thy neighbor as thy self.’

Others by ‘first do no harm,’ or ‘take no more than you need.’

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.”

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
Woodstock NY

On January 7th, 2009, a unique Storahtelling event took place in Oranim, Northern Israel, featuring Amichai Lau-Lavie, with guest artists and scholars, including Prof. Lee Schulman, a renowned scholar and president of the Carnegie Foundation who volunteered to chant Torah. The show was co-created by Amichai and Rabbi Miriam Margles, who is also a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute. Joining them on stage were Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, using drums and voice, and Dafna Rosenberg – a local musician and singer. The event called “BEDTIME’ was part of the International Conference on Multiple Identities in Jewish Education and featured an interactive re-telling of the dying of Jacob and the passing on of leadership to the future generations. Imagine Jacob’s last request to his son Joseph-

‘Bury me in Canaan’. What is Joseph to say? As an Egyptian official is he not bound to honor the burial rites of his new country? But as a Hebrew – should he not bury his father back ‘home’? In “bedtime” we challenged the audience to imagine this dilemma from the perspective of Osnat, Josephs’ Egyptian wife, and to also question the relevance of this dilemma to modern day life. Where are our multiple identity challenges as Jews, people, and citizens of the world? Rabbi Margles’ haunting compositions of original Jewish chants and songs filled the auditorium and created a reflective and deeply moving tapestry to the performance and study piece.

The following quote is by Rabbi Kilgler, photos courtesy of Josh Weinberg.
I was privileged to participate in a masterful presentation / performance by Amichai Lau-Lavie and Rabbi Miriam Margles at the Conference on Multiple Identities in Jewish Education held at Oranim College on January 7, 2009. The dramatic weaving of midrash into the parshah was very moving, and I though Amichai was inspired in the way he used Joseph’s story as a Hebrew who becomes a naturalized Egyptian as an example of “multiple identities” Talk about making the Torah relevant! Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to participate.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Parashat Vayehi: “Back to the Future”
Maven Shabbaton at BBYO Staff Retreat & Congregation Beth Emeth, in Herndon, VA

January 9-11, 2009

by Annie Levy

Storah On The Road

How do we turn everything we inherit, the obviously good stuff as well as our inherited challenges, into blessings? This is one of the many questions Chana Rothman and I explored over the past week as we performed the original Maven piece for Parashat Vayehi called “Back to the Future.” Choosing to translate the text from the perspective of Joseph’s wife, Osnat, and a time traveling Levite, the premise of the show concerned the two characters “eavesdropping” from outside the “door” where Jacob was giving out his final blessings to his sons.

We performed the Maven ritual twice, once for the entire BBYO staff at their professional training retreat at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland and this past weekend at Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon, VA.

You always want to think that your performances are successful, that they all go over well. But you never really know. Or else you find ways to doubt compliments. However, to paraphrase a well known line from each Maven ritual, this does not always have to be the case.

Right after completing the ritual at Beth Emeth, Chana and I were standing to the back of the sanctuary in that post-performance, momentary panic wondering if what we had just created and shared with the congregation had had an impact (and hopefully a positive one). As we stood there, a congregant came up to us. He looked very serious and came in close so that he could be heard while whispering. He said to us, in hushed tones, “I don’t know if you are the bees, the pollen, or the flowers, but this congregation will never be the same.” Well, that felt good!

Over all, it was an overwhelmingly successful weekend. I think the following quote, from Mike Wikes, program director at Congregation Beth Emeth, sums it up:

"I've seldom seen such an overwhelmingly positive response to any program that we've done. Not one negative or critical comment … from a synagogue program … unheard of!

I think the reaction speaks to how starved people are for genuine interaction with the Torah, how well the Storahtelling concept fills that void and how outstanding you are at your jobs as Mavens."

If I have inherited anything from working on this show it is the way that we really do effect change among the people we perform for.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


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.

January 15, 2009

This past Saturday evening, just as the sun was setting, I was walking outside a local synagogue and saw a ten year old boy hit a younger girl. Both were still in their ‘Sabbath Best’ – he in black pants, black velvet kipa and white shirt – she, crying, in a white dress and a big white bow in her hair. He punched her in the stomach. A few feet away, inside the synagogue courtyard, older girls, clutching prayer books, were praying loudly. One of them yelled at the boy from afar ‘Just you wait till I’m done!’ The boy dismissed her and kept on hitting: ‘I’m not afraid of girls!’

I stopped and took a step towards them and just stood there staring. He looked at me, and I said to him, as calmly as I could manage: ‘why are you hitting her? Would you like it if someone bigger than you hit you?’ He hesitated for a second, the girl used the time and ran away, entering the synagogue, and he then yelled at me in anger: ‘Go away! It’s none of your business!’ and off he ran also. And that was that. I walked on and didn’t think more about this incident until the next morning when I sat to read the weekly Torah portion that kicks off the Exodus, and search for a verb that will reverberate with my life. And there was Moses, thrust into a brawl:
Exodus 2:13 And he went out the second day, and, behold, two men of the Hebrews were fighting together; and Moses spoke to the evil one: 'Why do you hit your friend?'

Interestingly, this is the first ‘official’ conversation that Moses, the Egyptian Prince, has had with a fellow Hebrew. These are also the first words we hear from his mouth – his first speech, and it will change his life. The guy he accused of hitting turns on him: “it’s none of your business” and reminds Moses of the previous time he got involved in a fight - and killed the Egyptian soldier. Moses, whose anger management issues have gone public, runs away from Egypt, thus beginning his illustrious career as one who speaks to power on behalf of the oppressed.

“And Moses spoke”: the voice of moral truth and obligation emerges from surprising sources: an Egyptian prince, a stranger on the street, a random op-ed. But sometimes, like now, amid the violence – the brawl-in-process - the multitude of voices drowns the conversation, truth and morality tossed into the mix with survival, rage, and horror.

In later stages of his career Moses would become a wise and powerful world leader, using a magic wand to inflict a bio-mythic campaign for freedom upon Egypt. But at this early stage of his leadership, just taking his first steps out of the palace and into reality, Moses is still rehearsing his strategies. His first attempt at justice is purely physical and spontaneous – he kills the oppressor, burying the dead Egyptian soldier in the sand and covering up his act (Ex. 2:12). By the second time he intervenes to prevent violence he learns how to speak up.

The first words that Moses speaks in the Bible are perhaps the most important: “why do you hit your friend?” (Others translate: “strike your fellow”)

If the voice of Moses was to be heard today as it was heard during that time when he interfered with a fight – if he were to speak up about the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it is currently center stage in Gaza – what would he speak? And to whom? Who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor?

Who is the modern Moses? Can that voice of moral indignation even be heard now? Can it help?
I don’t know if the little girl with the white bow in her hair did something to provoke the rage of the older boy, maybe her brother. And even if she did, the violence in his eyes was too terrible. It doesn’t matter anymore who started; the violence has to be stopped, and the speaking has to happen. Speaking, like Moses - between one and another, fellows, friends, enemies – and the speaking up to powers, all of them, in defiance of the violence, demanding to know, speaking the words of the prophet: ‘why do you hit your fellow human being?’

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


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.

January 6, 2009

Graves go with wars and many have been already dug this past week. There must be a link between the word ‘grave’ and the concept of gravity – the relentless heaviness that comes with this looming dread of death’s toll, rising hourly with each news flash. TV is on everywhere one goes in Jerusalem, somber tension; conversations are short. Here we don’t hear the sirens - only the constant alerts on the radio. Everyone I know knows someone who is either sitting in a shelter or fighting down south. A Palestinian acquaintance sends me emails written by her friends inside Gaza. They are also getting shorter and shorter.

We lit a candle tonight at my parent’s home: a memorial candle for the dead. Starting this evening, the Tenth of Tevet – a fast day, will be remembered - though I don’t think any of us will be fasting, it’s a minor one. The Tenth of Tevet has historical roots that mark the beginning of the siege that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple – 2,600 years ago. But the reason we lit a candle is that in the early 1950’s the Israeli Rabbinate declared this day as the official ‘General Day of Kaddish’ - for all Holocaust victims whose date or place of death are unknown. My father’s mother, Chaya-Helena Lau, of blessed memory, is among them, and on this day my father prays Kaddish in her memory. He knows that she died in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, just one hour north of Berlin, around April 1945 – just before liberation, possibly from starvation. She was born on January 1, 1900.

Whenever an elderly relative or friend dies peacefully my mother says ‘at least he died in bed.’ In our family – as in so many others all over the world– a quiet death is considered a privilege.

Dying peacefully at home is one thing, dying inside your own home from a rocket or a missile is quite another. How have homes become graves?

There is a strange link between homeland and grave yard. Jacob, our grand ancestor, dies this week - and wants to go home. In this week’s Torah tale Va’Yechi, Genesis comes to a close with the death of the last patriarch, in bed, surrounded by all his children and grandchildren. The rites of passage that mark Jacob’s death and burial are outstanding, even by Biblical standards. His body is mummified, Egyptian style: a 40-day process, followed by official mourning for 70 more days. Only then, more than three months after his death, Joseph and his brothers, with Royal entourage, take their father’s body for burial in Canaan, as they swore to him they will. On their way back home, by the banks of the Jordan, they pause for 7 more (!) days of mourning. And only then do they bring Jacob back home to his parents and grandparents.

Genesis 50:13 'Jacob's sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought along with the field, for a possession, as a grave yard, from Ephron the Hittite.

It’s startling to realize that the only real estate purchase that the three patriarchs made in the Promised Land was a cemetery. The sons of Jacob travel back to the homeland but all that’s theirs there is the graveyard. A homeland is always, also, a graveyard. It comes with the territory.

The last image of the Book of Genesis is a coffin. Joseph’s 110-year-old body is laid to rest in Egypt and the first book of five rests with it. Next stop: Exodus. Joseph’s last request is to also be buried back home in Canaan. And, hundreds of years later, his descendent Moses will make sure the old bones are carried out along with the fleeing Hebrews on the night of
the Passover.

The only ‘real estate’ our ancestors carried on their way from Egypt that serves as home for hundreds of years – a grave…(but also, matza – life, and drums – life’s beat)

Tonight, as the candle burns, and sirens continue, and the graves dug and the battle for the Promised Land/s continues, I pause for one silent minute and pray for the peaceful rest of all the buried and those who have no grave. May they rest in peace, and may their loved one remember them lovingly and find consolation and peace, and may we all find ways to rest, and help the rest, and live in peace.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


NY, NY, December 12, 2008 - Storahtelling & HUC-JIR announces the first Maven Training Course for seminary students and alumni of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in NYC from January 5th – 9th, 2009.

Rabbi Howard Goldsmith (30) of Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, already known in his community as an innovative and charismatic leader, is ready to become an official “maven”. Goldsmith will join 25 other professional rabbis, cantors, educators and students in downtown NYC for Storahtelling’s first Maven training course specially tailored for the future leaders of the Reform Movement.

Isa Aron, professor of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR in LA said, “Storahtelling's approach is so powerful and so important in increasing the level of learning and engagement in congregations. Maven training is truly the next frontier.”

Maven is Hebrew for “expert’” a term originally used in the Bible to describe the role of the oral translator of Hebrew Scripture into local language. Until the early Middle Ages, Mavens regularly interpreted Torah to the general public, serving as storytellers and educators, enabling multi-generational access to Jewish literacy. The Maven profession faded out of Jewish life a thousand years ago, but has been restored by Storahtelling over the past decade, meeting modern needs for meaning with a unique and visionary integration of education and the arts. “To face the challenges of a global reality we need change makers that think globally”, says Amichai Lau-Lavie, Storahtelling’s founder and executive director. “Jewish illiteracy is clearly one of Judaism’s greatest challenges, worldwide. Restoring the role of the Maven is a great way of meeting this challenge and providing the global Jewish community, in its widest sense with real access to the Jewish conversation”.

Rabbi Renni Altman, Associate Dean and Director of the Rabbinical Program for the New York Campus of HUC-JIR says, “We are so excited to be able to offer to our students and alumni the opportunity to be trained in the innovative approach to interpreting Torah that has been created by Storahtelling. It is very much in harmony with the goals of HUC-JIR to provide our students with exposure to the most current and creative approaches to worship, study and congregational life. This Maven-In-The-Making training will significantly enrich our students’ professional development as rabbis, cantors and educators and will enable our alumni to better serve the changing needs of their communities.”

Storahtelling, since its establishment in 1999, has worked closely with the Union for Reform Judaism, promoting Storahtelling’s methods in congregations, schools, conferences and summer camps nationwide. The Maven Training Course in NYC is the organic next step in this successful partnership. HUC-JIR invited its student body and alumni to participate in Storahtelling’s inaugural training from January 5-9th. Fourteen students and twelve professional clergy, educators and community organizers have been selected for the training.

Storahtelling has been leading Maven Training courses since 2006, making Mavens out of 75 Jewish educators, artists, clergy and lay leaders all over the world – including London, Chicago, Jerusalem, Cleveland, and Riverdale, NY. Rose Community Foundation in Denver just announced its generous support of a new multi-denominational Maven Training cohort in Colorado, which will be launched in 2009. In this vein, Storahtelling has been recognized by the Slingshot Guide as one of the top 50 innovative Jewish organizations for 4 years is a row.

For additional information on the Storahtelling Maven-In-The-Making training at HUC-JIR, please contact Naomi Less – 212-245-8188. For information on upcoming Storahtelling events or to make a contribution to Storahtelling, please visit:

ABOUT STORAHTELLINGStorahtelling is a pioneer in Jewish education via the arts and new media. Through innovative leadership training programs and theatrical performances, Storahtelling makes ancient stories and traditions accessible for new generations, advancing Judaic literacy and raising social consciousness. Established in 1999, Storahtelling has been identified as a “trailblazer of the Jewish World” (Bnai Brith magazine), inspiring “reverence and relevance” (the Washington Post) and hailed by Time Out NY as “Super Stars of David.”

ABOUT HEBREW UNION – COLLEGE JEWISH INSTITUTE OF RELIGION (HUC-JIR) - Founded in 1875, HUC-JIR is the nation's oldest institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal service professionals, and offers graduate and post-graduate programs to scholars of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise renowned library and museum collections, the American Jewish Archives, biblical archaeology excavations, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. HUC-JIR invites the community to an array of cultural and educational programs which illuminate Jewish history, identity, and contemporary creativity and which foster interfaith and multiethnic understanding.