Monday, August 31, 2009

Mile High Mavens: Polish in Denver & Shine on Vail

by Bruce Shaffer, and for Cantor Birdie Becker, Caryn Aviv, Cherie Karo Schwartz, Ilan Glazer, R. Brian Feld, R. Elliot Baskin, and we-missed-you R. Marc Soloway and Sarah Pessin
August 17-22, 2009

What an intense and Mile-chai week for us Colorado mavens-in-training, and honored Midwest guest trainees – Judy Schiller and Marge Eiseman. Amichai, Naomi and Jake treated us to a non-stop, four day Phase III workout, focused on the Professional, Polished and Independent Maven. Using Acharei Mot (for Yom Kippur) as our text, in groups of 2 and 3 we delved deep and deeper into 12 step methodology, and emerged together beneath the big, purple Storahtelling chuppah as official, ta-da, Mavens. And then for Birdie, Bruce, Caryn and Ilan, it was on to Shabbat Shoftim for the show “Casting Stones” with the summer kehilla of B’nai Vail (a Mile High Mavens perk).

Casting Stones explored Shoftim’s mandate to pursue justice in context with the season’s slichot and tshuvah overlays. Using the dueling pair of Ruth Madoff and her sister-in-law Sondra as our foils was daring enough for our two Denver mincha audiences the previous week, but was it too risky for the Vail kehilla? Ayn baya – no problem. The first two aliyot, yamdooo’s “y’all betrayed ones,” and “those wantin’ to see some justice done,” brought ‘em up in droves. And it was standing room only at the bima for the third, “Yamdoooooooo all you ferociously committed change agents,” so much so that the rest of the folks stood in solidarity at their seats. The 2nd aliya stretch was active and on-point with our themes. When one fellow suggested that perhaps we should look at ourselves to see why these travesties occur in our community, we were finally seeing bulleye and feeling Welcome to Storahtelling.

Caryn and Birdie were convincing in their roles, evoking plenty of pointed audience reaction. Ilan was strong and timely on Torah. Bruce’s translations hit home, and he conducted an ‘engaging performance’ that left the original people of Israel at the foot of Vail mountain wanting more Torah – so we each continued in 1:1’s about justice, forgiveness, compassion, greed, status, tshuvah, as we eyeballed a slowly disapperaing Kiddush feast. And the people were wanting more Storah, where they winter in Alabama, California, Arizona and Texas. Also, Las Vegas (a Mile High Mavens perk).

All in all, it was a great way to cap off a great week of Maven training!

Friday, August 28, 2009

My First Solo-Maven: Shehechiyanu

By Mile-High Maven Ilan Glazer
August 8, 2009

My first Solo Maven Storahtelling had me worried.

Could I pull off a full Maven experience even if I wasn't yet fully trained?

Could I memorize my lines even if I didn't finish tweaking the script until Friday afternoon?

Would I make a complete fool out of myself in front of my classmates and teachers?

As a student in the ALEPH:Alliance for Jewish Renewal Rabbinic program, I am required to attend the Davennen Leadership Training Institute, a 4-part schooling in the art of creative prayer facilitation taught by Rabbi Marcia Prager, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, and Hazzan Jack Kessler, all pillars of the Jewish Renewal movement. I've looked up to these three wonderful teachers since I started the program a few years ago. I was asked to co-lead Shabbat morning services, and since I was a Maven-in-Training with the Mile-High-Mavens, the Colorado cohort of Storahtellers, I decided to surprise my teachers and fellow students with a Storah-style Torah service. Could I pull it off?

I decided to keep it a secret from everyone except my two co-leaders. I worked on the script with my friend and fellow Maven-in-the-making Dr. Caryn Aviv and flew to Elat Chayyim for the retreat. All week I tweaked the script. I asked a few musical friends for assistance with a few melodies while people came up and down for aliyot. I coordinated with Torah readers and prepped them to leyn Storah-style. I lined up ark openers and ritual leaders. And each afternoon Hazzan Jack worked with the whole group (about 40 people) on creative Torah translations. Still, I remained silent, waiting to surprise everyone during services.

Shabbat morning finally arrived. We began davening. The closer we got to the Torah service the more I worried. Can I do this? Reb Marcia's the Dean of the Rabbinic program - am I going to completely embarrass myself? Is Hazzan Jack going to like my translations? What have I gotten myself into? Finally, it was time. I invited people to close their eyes and listen to a beautiful meditation from Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra. I look around the room at the 150 or so people waiting for the Torah service to begin, I take a few deep breaths (here goes nothing!), peek at my script, and say Ladies and Gentleman, Welcome to Storahtelling!

I should have known it would be okay. Actually, it was great. The readings from Parshat Ekev were all about letting go of fear and relating to God from a place of love. We had a wonderful discussion about how to bring God into our everyday lives, and how to let go of our fears that we weren't smart enough, worthy enough, holy enough to do so. The leyners were great, the musicians were happy, and the brilliant Maven template carried me through. Many people came up for the aliyot, and lots of people told me it was one of the best Torah services they'd ever been to. It wasn't perfect, mind you, but once I let myself get in the flow of the service, I relaxed and let the Torah carry the day.

I am now a certified Storahtelling-trained Maven, having finished the training last week. It's a powerful experience to help others encounter the words of Torah in a new light.

and the process of creating a show, delving deeply into Torah, commentaries, midrash, and modern sources is deeply enriching.

I am blessed to be a Maven, and I've no doubt I'll be part of the Storah-world for years to come. (Next up is a year in Jerusalem - now I have to learn the scripts in Hebrew!).

Many thanks to Amichai, Naomi, Jake and all the Mile-High-Mavens for helping me join the club.

It's truly a pleasure to help change the world, one verse at a time!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I 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.


Mass Grave, Germany
(photo by Amichai)

The casket made its way down the central aisle of the Upper East Side's Sutton Place Synagogue towards the exit doors, the long black car, the cemetery in Queens, the eternal resting home inside the earth. It was followed by the slow, somber procession of mourners, among them several young women loudly sobbing. The sound of their cries, in the middle of the solemn, hushed sanctuary, was shocking - raw and real, powerful as only wordless grief can be. It reminded me of Arabic funerals I’d been to – where women, sometimes paid for this service – keen and wail to invoke the spirits, to heighten the emotion of the burial rites, coloring each funeral into an even grander drama of loss than it already often is. But this burial did not seem tragic – merely sad. Stanley H. Kaplan, of blessed memory, died in bed at the age of 90 - a visionary educator and entrepreneur, and a smart and generous philanthropist, who left behind him a family committed to his legacy of social change, a company continuing to make education possible for millions –and many grateful fans – I among them.

Hearing the wailing reminded me of what my mother told me a few months ago, when we attended a late night funeral together in Jerusalem: For us
she said – dying in bed is a privilege, and being buried by those who love you – a real luxury. She was referring to our many relatives who perished, grave-less, in the Holocaust – but how many on this planet die each day without the honor of last rites, this basic dignity of burial?

I walked away from the funeral thinking about the movie I had seen this past weekend – ‘Inglourious Basterds’, Tarantino’s new and much discussed exploration of Jewish revenge on Nazis during the Holocaust - a fairy tale like scenario that leaves a long, long trail of blood all the way home from the movie theater. I couldn’t talk for an hour after leaving the theater – trying to make sense of what got to me, what pissed me off, why I was so moved and so rattled and shaken. My friend C. described the film as ‘violent poetry’. Like that sobbing in the funeral – there was something primal and shrill about this film, and also deep and poetic, and it left me sad, and mad, and curious to hear what others thought about it – what others took away. I went online to read reviews – from Cannes (nay), Germany (loved it), Israel (lukewarm), USA (mostly thumbs up). I read an interview with Tarantino, tried to catch up on what this genre was all about and what was it about this furious fiction that bounced way off the pages of a horrible history and into what I think can be considered a new way of dealing with one of the darkest eras in recent human memory. I’m not a fan of horror movies and often would refuse to see a film if it’s full of guns and action. I’ve had enough of that in the IDF and I can do without excessive reminders of fragile mortality and cruelty. Pulp Fiction was biblical enough. I never made it to the Kill Bill series.

But Inglorious Basterds is different, and not only because it deals with the saga so close to home. It’s beautifully shot, and very compelling. It’s not just the violence and the manipulation that makes me shudder at how much I’ve enjoyed the slaughter of the bad guys. I can’t put my finger on it (partially because perhaps this film is such a specific dialogue with other films and other film genres) but I sense that he is saying something important about what we choose to remember, and how we choose to deal with our rage, and how we make
or don’t make – sense of the past. There is a big conversation to be had here about revenge (and about Jewish fantasies of revenge) but I don’t want to discuss that. I just want to think about how he made me think about death.

Walking away from the funeral, on this beautiful sunny day, I was struck by how many bodies were brutally displayed on that giant screen, how many deaths graphically depicted the loss of life – Jews, Nazis, guilty, innocent – it didn’t matter. Nobody in Tarantino’s movie is buried. There are no last rites. (Unless you consider scalping a skull a rite, which it is, but still.) Life is cheap, and the price of war is cheap deaths, and human beings become trash like corpses and there is no time to say goodbye. This, perhaps, is what made WWII – and other bloody wars and genocides – so unbearably awful – the impossible ease, and casualness of death. How we sometimes become no different than road kill on the sides of history’s highways. My mother’s words echo.

Moses, like my mother, took burials seriously. In this week’s installment of the Torah, Ki Tetze (we’re almost at the end, folks) he delivers a series of laws – everything from how to handle prisoners of war – including women, to polygamous marital problems – or the executions of criminals. In chapter 21 he instructs the people to always bury the dead – regardless of cause for death or identity of the deceased:

“And if a man committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, you will hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you will surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a curse of God.” (D’varim 21:22-23)

No scattered bodies, left to rot. Every human is worthy of burial, says the Law – no body left behind. In theory, anyway. These verses are a reminder for us to take the extra step in ethical, moral conduct – to treat even an enemy, a condemned man, to the dignity of burial.

Not in the movies. Critics of Tarantino discussed the lack of morality that is depicted through the excess of violence, the ease of killing and the callousness with which death comes knocking in his films, this last one included. Perhaps, but also – and I don’t know if this is his intention of even the duty of a film-maker, the modern storyteller – he is, through the excess, reminding me of what lurks beneath our surface - not six feet under – but right inside our minds and hearts. The human ability to hate, hurt, kill or rejoice when others kill – all too human, all too familiar, disturbing and demanding attention. Where in this blood bath of revenge do I cheer? And what does this say about me? About my values? About who I am? Under similar circumstances – am I able to unleash such violence? How good are we at burying these instincts – but what would it take to dig ‘em up? I think that’s what the movie is about – for me, anyway.

Back in the Upper East Side, mourners, elegant in black, congregated on the sidewalk, preparing to drive out to the cemetery and accompany a man on his last journey on earth. Burial, in Jewish tradition, is a mitzvah – an important deed, a gesture of much value and worth, never to be taken for granted. Stanley H. Kaplan, unlike so many, received the highest honors possible for a human being in this day and age – his death, like his impressive life – was honored, marked, celebrated. May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Vail: A new spin on sacred stories

By Jessica Tenner
The Vail Daily, Thursday, August 20th, 2009

David Zinn holds the Torah he donated to the B'Nai Vail Congregation —
its second — during a Shabbat service on the wedding deck on top of Vail Mountain
Special to the Vail Daily

VAIL, Colorado — What do you do with the world's best selling book and longest running re-run now that it appears to have lost its luster and is certainly losing audience share?

This seems to be the question that the Israeli-born maverick educator, Amichai Lau-Lavie, was trying to address when he founded “Storahtelling” with a group of musicians and artists in 1999.

A portion of the Torah, which is comprised of the five books of Moses and is commonly referred to as The Old Testament, is read by Jews every Saturday. It is the world's oldest continuous ritual of sacred storytelling.

Lau-Lavie realized that in increasing numbers, the People of the Book didn't really know what was in “The Book.” And so, with an innovative combination of scholarship, storytelling, and performing arts, Storahtelling aims to bring the Torah stories to life and inject interest and relevance back into the sedate Saturday Service.

Phil Brodsky, Claudine Brandt, and Rabbi Debra Rappaport examine a special
section of the torah while rewinding it at a service for the Simchat Torah holiday
at the Vail Interfaith Chapel
Special to the Vail Daily

Reviving the maven
On Saturday, at a service being held creekside behind the Vail Interfaith Chapel, B'nai Vail Congregation is hosting a group of mavens with a story to tell. A maven is generally defined as an expert, but translated from the Yiddish (meyvn) and Hebrew (mebhin) it literally means “to understand.”

In a tradition beginning 2,500 years ago, the mavens played a very important role in religious life. They served as interpretive storytellers, translating the Hebrew of the Torah into Aramaic, Greek or whatever the predominant vernacular of their audience happened to be.

They also adapted the meaning of the narrative to the viewpoint of the congregation, creating a context for understanding the ancient text. Sadly, the practice was abandoned in the early Middle Ages, but is today enjoying a resurgence.

Four members of the Denver-based Storahtelling pilot program, “Mile High Mavens in the Making” will be participating and leading portions of B'nai Vail's service.

“It isn't just for Jewish people, everyone's invited to attend and participate,” says Caryn Aviv, a member of the visiting troupe and a University of Denver professor. “The goal is to create relevance and a resonance with the past, to find a fun and engaging way to connect with a very old story.”

As the founder Lau-Lavie has said of his enterprise, “Without being hokey, I want to offer people the opportunity of gathering around the sacred, to give people a taste of the mythic, of the eternal that will speak to the mundane challenges of their lives.”

B'nai Vail's Torah story
The guest of honor at the Saturday service will be B'nai Vail's original Torah. As long time members of Vail's interfaith community, B'nai Vail Congregation proudly owns two sacred scrolls.

The Torah that will be read this weekend was acquired in the very early days of B'nai Vail's existence, over 35 years ago. An early Vail resident, Al Amaral, was a local carpenter who had been raised as an Episcopalian, but always had an affinity for Judaism and the Jewish people.

He had accepted an invitation to a Passover Seder with the Asts and the Kleimers, two of B'nai Vail's founding families, where they were discussing the desire for a Torah. With just $189 in the fund at the time, Amaral offered to purchase the Torah if one could be found, in honor of Manny Kless, a man who had been very important to him in his early life. Kless had built two synagogues in San Francisco and a home for the blind and deaf in Acapulco, Mexico.

Through mutual friends David and Diane Pratt, then owners of The Tannery in the Talisman building, Amaral was introduced to Herb and Sharon Glaser, visitors of Vail since 1967, who became part-time residents in 1970. The torch was passed to the Glasers, and with a very limited budget, Sharon began the quest.

Scouring first the states, and then calling to London, she was directed finally to Israel. The Glasers made the trip to Maya She'arim, an Orthodox community in Jerusalem.

“I was shown Torah after Torah, that we simply couldn't afford,” Sharon Glaser said. “Picture if you will, me walking down the street being trailed by seven Orthodox rabbis in search of an appropriate Torah.”

They at long last came upon a scroll with a very unique history that would become B'nai Vail's Torah. The scroll is actually comprised of two prior scrolls, fixed together in the middle. The first half had formerly resided in Hungary, surviving the Holocaust greatly damaged. The latter half had survived a fire.

They had been joined together; much like the community of Jewish people in Vail, with different backgrounds and observances just beginning to coalesce in this burgeoning mountain community.

After being examined by Rabbi Menachem Gottesman, from the Glasers Synagogue in California, Gottesman carried the scroll on his lap, wrapped in a prayer shawl, for the long flight back to the states. Upon its arrival, Al Amaral created the wooden handles upon which the scroll was affixed.

The community is invited to view this sacred artifact and hear a lively and provocative re-telling of one of its stories this Saturday beside Gore Creek behind the Vail Interfaith Chapel. Service begins at 9:30 a.m. and will be followed by refreshments and conversation.

If weather is bad, the service will be moved into the Chapel. For further inquires, please call the B'nai Vail office at 970-477-2992.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Model Partnership
by Jacob Berkman

August 20, 2009

There have been some loud splashes in the philanthropy world over the past couple of weeks, from the start of Madoff book mania to more public concern over day schools to the closing of the Professional Leaders Project.

But it's a relative ripple in the nonprofit world that might have the most to teach organizations this week.

The 14th Street Y in Manhattan's East Village and Storahtelling, the avante-garde theater troupe that takes biblical stories and translates them into modern theatrical pieces, announced this week that they had formed a strategic alliance.

Under the agreement, Storahtelling will move into the newly renovated Y, which is owned by the UJA-Federation of New York, saving the troupe tens of thousands of dollars a year on infrastructure overhead. In return, Storahtelling will become something of an artist in residence and will provide monthly performances and holiday programming.

The executive directors of both groups are calling it a win-win.

Storahtelling's Amichai Lau-Lavie told me that going forward the organization was going to focus on transmitting to others around the country its expertise in teaching Jewish messages in a more modern way. But the group badly wanted to have a home base in which its troupe could showcase itself and its work, particularly in New York, where those performances would be easily accessible to potential donors; their new space in the Y will allow them to do so in a way the group couldn't previously.

"We wanted to be very local," he said. "We have a headquarters. But it wasn't a place we could invite people in. A lot of what we have been doing has been going out and seeding change. That is becoming our focus. It was recommended to us and urged to have a local center to showcase our change, especially to New York funders and supporters."

From the Y's perspective, it has a new space and has been trying to figure out programming that would attract members of the East Village's diverse and eccentric Jewish community.

The collaboration is a great example of how the older, more established Jewish organizational world can help foster the growth of new, innovative Jewish projects out there -- a source of great concern over the past 12 months as funding for those organizations is very much in doubt.

The project was very much born out of the establishment. Both Lau-Lavie and Stephen Arnoff, the Y's executive director, are recent alumni of the Mandel Jerusalem Fellows program, a one-year residence in Israel that helps foster professional leaders of Jewish organizations. Though they have known each other for years, the two both credit their involvement with the Mandel program as a catalyst for their collaboration.

Arnoff, though, said that the Y is trying to set an example for an establishment that is obligated to take under its wing the new wave of innovative Jewish organizations.

"It is criminal that larger agencies are not taking on more responsibility to sustain at least a decade of Jewish work," he said. "Some of it is in real danger because of the recession. We have so much infrastructure in the community. We have many, many, many buildings that are not performing to best of their missions, underperforming or not performing at all. This is a way to combine the old and the new in a way that is a win-win for both parties."

Fundermentalist's Take: I hope the rest of the organized world studies the example of Arnoff and Lau-Lavie, and sees if there is something to be learned. Instead of fighting over the philanthropic pie, it might be time to figure out how we can better share it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I 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.


Graffiti, Rome 2009
(photo by Amichai)
Wearing a tailored blue suit, a single strand of pearls and clutching the last of her fur coats, Ruth Madoff stood facing her angry accuser – Sondra, her sister in law. Sondra, who lost everything because of her brother Bernie, demanded an apology from Ruth, and full retribution, and if possible - revenge. Ruth was sad, but defiant, refusing to take responsibility for her husband’s actions or take any of the blame. “I, too, am a victim” she said, “The man who committed these crimes – who had this affair with some Hadassah lady– was not the same man I married. My life is, also, ruined. I should have paid more attention to what was going on. Please forgive me”.

But Sondra didn’t want to – and neither did we, who were watching. Must one always forgive?

Sitting there, on a lawn in a pretty park in Denver, this past Saturday afternoon and watching this scene, we were torn between compassion and fury. Can we forgive her and let her get on with her life? Or do we side with Sondra who demands further punishment for the woman who represents, by proxy, her terrible losses? Or both? At some point I got real angry at Ruth Madoff. “Yes” I said to her, my teeth clenched, “pay attention to what’s around you – but first – pay up!” She looked at me sadly and said nothing. My anger had nowhere to go. Frustration beat forgiveness, and it didn’t feel good.

These weren’t the real Madoffs up there on the lawn – these were two talented women who are members of the Mile High Mavens – the Storahtelling Colorado Cohort, about to complete a year long training program. As part of their training to be Storah-Mavens who translate Torah into modern ritual theater, these two ‘actors’ – Caryn and Birdie (who in real life are a cantor and a university professor), chose to interpret the weekly Torah portion of Shoftim in ultra contemporary garb. The Torah text, dealing mostly with matters of capital punishment and other judicial matters as savory as stoning, provided a perfect pretext for a public conversation about crime and punishment, and about the limits of forgiveness. 70 people gathered on the lawn in Denver’s Crestmoor Park– adults, children – mostly but not entirely Jewish audience members, and among them 7 rabbis – of every single denomination – including 2 of Denver’s leading Orthodox rabbis along with their families. The Mile High Mavens put on a great Storahtelling program, and the very diverse audience, interacted and offered a variety of responses. “Everybody deserves a second chance” – a nine year old girl spoke up. “Why is she walking away with 2.5 million??” somebody else shouted.

Perhaps we all deserve second (and more) chances to perfect ourselves, but are there limits to our ability to forgive others for inflicting harm on society? Are there times when forgiveness is just not OK?

Later that night I got this email from L.: “I've been thinking a lot about the Torah portion and the way you presented it because my cousin was just diagnosed with Hep C, infected by the drug addict who stole syringes at Rose Medical Center and replaced them with used saline syringes, infecting 21 innocent patients, including my cousin. She's been wrestling with the sense of violation and anger and sadness, not to mention agonizing over which horrible treatment option she will choose (one-year of chemo). I wonder if I could forgive, or if one is even supposed to. But your presentation laid all these issues bare.”

In Shoftim (literally ‘judges’) there is the description of a unique ritual that begs for forgiveness. Chapter 21 in D’varim outlines the theoretical situation in which a human corpse is discovered in a no-man’s-land –between two cities. The corpse is that of a murdered person, but there is no evidence as to who the killer was – this is way pre CSI. The elders measure the distance from the corpse to every one of the nearby cities – and the closest one is presumed the guilty source of trouble, the place from which the murderer emerged. The leaders of that city are then instructed to behead a young cow at a nearby river and to publicly exclaim: 'our hands did not spill this blood.' And then they turn to God and appeal for forgiveness for yet another terrible human act:

‘Forgive, O God, Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of your people Israel. And the blood shall be forgiven them.’ (D'varim 21:8)

This bizarre ritual is based on the notion of responsibility – and the possibility of forgiveness. As Sondra said this last Saturday – ‘somebody has to pay, somehow’.

The word ‘forgive’ in this context is the HebewKaper’ – translated elsewhere at ‘atone’ or ‘absolve’. Kaper is the root of the word Kippurim – atonement – as in the Day of Atonement – exactly 40 days from today.

Today is the first day of the last month of the Jewish year – Elul. It’s the kickoff for the High Holidays, a reminder to get one’s affairs settled, to clean up whatever messes this year has seen emerge, all bad blood. Anybody I need to ask forgiveness from? Anybody I need to forgive? What’s my unfinished business in terms of human affairs, commitments made and neglected, hurts intentionally or unintentionally committed? How do I prepare myself to lead the life I really want to live – with more integrity, responsibility, compassion, accountability? And, also, what do I do with the rage, and the pain, and the knowledge that there are people in my life who I’m mad at (Madoff somewhere on the bottom of the list) and it’s just hard to forgive them? Do I send them a “Happy Jew Year” and smile when I see them next? Do I confront them? Is it just hard to forgive some people – or actually impossible?

Perhaps it’s a case by case scenario. Perhaps, like the elders and judges of yore, we are each to measure the distance from the corpses and wounds of our lives to the nearest people and memories, and there, choose how to take responsibility or demand answers
for whatever bad blood remains – as long as the hurt is not ignored. And then – minus the headless cow ceremony – appeal to the universal compassion that some name ‘God’ and hope, and pray, and appeal – for the ability to forgive – not forget – and be granted a second chance at being the best possible human being around – for everybody’s benefit.

At the end of the Storahtelling program in the park, people were called up to the Torah, for the honor of an Aliyah – an ascent onto the tale. Bruce, the lead Maven, invited those who seek justice and want to make the world a better place, to come up. Ruth Madoff rose, once again, and stood by the Torah scroll, and said the blessing. Sondra joined her. These were just actors, I know, but this was also real. For one minute, in front of a temporary community, all was forgiven, and hopes, and the possibility of redemption, were all that mattered. They chanted the blessing, and we answered ‘Amen’.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I 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.


I moved back into my lovely East Village apartment this week, after almost a year away. The apartment was clean and in great shape but the little garden in the back – a rare luxury (thank you Steven!) – was a messy mini jungle overgrown with weeds and plants. It’s pretty in a way but I wanted to plant some herbs and flowers. Enter: demolition.

For over an hour, armed with a pair of garden scissors and a small machete-like knife that I got at the hardware store next door, I played gardener, demolishing most of the 8 foot tall hydrangea bushes and some of their unfortunate neighbors. Remorse followed. I guess one can call this ‘pruning,’ but as I was filling large garbage bags with clipped green branches I still couldn’t escape the sense of violence – and the eerie satisfaction I got from it. It felt good to physically tear up the garden, to clear out room for small plants, to clean up the place. But it also felt like I was violating this quiet, messy eco-system, this sample of nature-as-is in favor of some vision of what a garden ‘needs to look like.’ Who am I to mess with Mother Nature’s horticultural choices?

M. rolls her eyes and laughs at me when she comes to visit that afternoon and hears my pangs of remorse. She is an experienced gardener and environmental activist, with a big mouth, and calls me a moron and goes on a tirade about how we need to let go of some things in our lives in order to make room for the new, even when what we let go may be precious, or beautiful, like blue hydrangeas. Even if it feels violent. Harsh times require harsh measures. Pruning is prudent, etc...

Fine. Old houses get demolished to make room for taller ones, parks are replaced by faster highways and files get deleted on hard drives to accommodate new data – I get it. Progress. But when and where do these acts of destruction/clearing/shedding get incorporated into the greedy tireless race for ‘new and improved’? When and how do the desires for improvement get implemented as acts of violence or terror? Where’s the fine line?

I know. BIG leap from an afternoon in the garden to a discourse on cosmic evil and the reasons for violence in our world of so little tolerance for mini jungles of all types; a world torn by conflicting desires and visions of order, too often interrupted by weapons far more dangerous than garden scissors. But it’s not that great a leap. As I sit in the garden later that day, after M. leaves, I flip through the pages of the Bible that has traveled back with me from Jerusalem and I open to this week’s portion, Re’eh, and there, sadly, discover the mutilation of fresh trees in the service of religion. It is a disturbing paragraph that chronicles yet another dry memo in the horrific historical battle between nature and culture, and between different forms of religions and value systems.

The context is still the last speech of Moses, complete with instructions and warnings to the People of Israel on their route to the Promised Land. The big fear is that the people will be seduced by the local pagan religions and turn away from worshipping YHWA. This is not only a theological concern – it is also financial. Later in these chapters the law is laid down plainly – worship is only allowed in Central Headquarters – Jerusalem (as it will be later named) and all gifts, sacrifices and tithes are to go there and only there: one God, in one location. As local worship gets banned in favor of a centralized system, all local deities, altars and sacred spots are to be demolished. Here’s how:

"You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site."
(Dvarim 12:2-3)

Ouch. Makes me think about the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas, the American Colonists melting down George III’s statues into bullets, and Neo Nazis desecrating Jewish cemeteries all over Europe. There are many other examples, equally disturbing in their relation to this Biblical ruling. It is uncomfortable to read and to acknowledge as yet another part of our history – remote and yet so contemporary. (how far the distance from burning books and defacing monuments to the actual shooting of ‘other’ people?)

I can only deal with this text using M’s gardening logic, applying a metaphoric, psychological reading to this painful historical fragment, most likely chronicling actual events. Moses wants his people to be focused, united, diligent in their collective building of community and nation. The local altars, often erected under sacred trees, giant living deities, represented the past, the indigenous memory that had to be repressed in order for the new narrative to form. The altars and trees were taken as diversions, preventing the people from being present in the here and now of their new identity. In the battle between gods, values, options, isms – the winner demanded exclusivity.

Demolish the desires, destroy the distractions – focus on what really matters to your wellbeing – is, in some ultra humanistic midrashic way – what Moses may be saying here. Less leads to more.

I know it’s a stretch. No point in justifying this or other Biblical text when we read laws that once reflected violent human values, interpreted verbatim, and still are by so many today. But, as I sit in my little garden now, noting that the mint is doing fine, and the Jasmine bush (I had to plant one with Jerusalem in mind) is blossoming already, and that new flowers are coming out in the much smaller Hydrangea bush – I think about demolition in the service of higher causes and hope that my violent interruption to this garden, under this luxuriant tree, is blessed by Mother Nature herself.

(Next demolition projects: files on my virtual desktop and 8 extra pounds.)

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I 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.


It took 63 years, but my uncle finally got to thank, publicly, the family of the man who helped him survive the Holocaust. In the middle of what was already an intense and emotional week in Israel, esp. with the aftermath of the shooting in Tel Aviv -and for me personally as I prepared to leave Israel after a year, not to mention the August heat - I joined my uncle, father, family members and guests at the synagogue of Yad Vashem for a long but moving ceremony honoring the courage and kindness of my uncle’s long lost and now deceased protector, Fyodor Mikhailichenko, the 164th Russian citizen recognized by the State of Israel as "Righteous among the Nations."

My uncle, Rabbi Israel Lau, is an incredible orator, and to hear him retell his own story of childhood in the camps was as always, a haunting experience – but it was even more inspiring this time, and even more moving. When the ceremony was over I walked to get the car, crossing the vast sculpture garden of Yad Vashem, (complete with horrors of all kinds) walking quietly for a few minutes, overlooking the vast Jerusalem forest, grateful for the opportunity to express gratitude - for the kindness of strangers, for the possibilities of humanity overcoming its destructive patterns - even in the midst of, especially in the midst of, days of great hate and unspeakable sorrow and simple stress. I pause to take a deep breath of thank you, recalling the tune to the prayer that little A. loves to sing: Modeh Ani.

Expressing gratitude should really not be something one waits 63 years to do, although in this case, there was no other way. My uncle’s full story is HERE, but here’s the gist and my takeaway and link to the Torah tale of this super dramatic week:

Fyodor, a Russian prisoner of war, possibly a soldier, was 18, and my uncle Lulek, a Jew, was only 7, when fate brought them together inside Block #8 in Germany’s Buchenwald Concentration Camp, during the winter of 1945. There’s a steel sign, in German, still hanging at the entrance to the camp: “Each to his Own Fate.” Perhaps it was fate, combined with stealth and determination that helped them meet and survive: Lulek was smuggled into the camp and into the safer block by his older brother, my father, Naphtali who was 19 at the time – and known as Tulek. My father knew that the boy would be safer with the Russian Prisoners of War than with the Jewish inmates, and so he got somebody to extract a diamond that was hidden, years earlier, in one of his teeth and with this blooded gem bribed one of the kapos and got the kid into the better block. Fyodor apparently took pity on the boy, gave him extra potatoes, made him ear muffs from a dead man’s sweater, threw him down to the ground when there was shooting everywhere. On April 10th, burning with fever and presumed dying, my father went to find his little brother and give him a final message: "if you survive this hell – and they ask you where you want to go – say Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel. And repeat after me – so that you won’t forget: Eretz Yisrael – it is the one place where they don’t kill Jews." And then they said goodbye, and my father collapsed and Lulek was whisked back to Block 8 by Fyodor and the next day, April 11th, Buchenwald was liberated by the Americans and they were free.

Fyodor wanted to adopt Lulek and take him to Russia and Lulek agreed. But Tulek, barely conscious but alive, got his pals to guard the boy and make sure he stays with them. Lulek and Fyodor said goodbye a few days later and never knew each other’s last names, and apparently kept looking for each other for all those years.

Fyodor died in 1993. Two years ago, through a complicated twist of events and archival discoveries, his identity was finally revealed and my uncle got to meet Fyodor’s two remaining daughters. There they were, in short sleeved summer suits, standing at Yad Vashem representing their father, receiving a medal and a certificate from the little boy they had always heard their father talk about, the boy he loved. My uncle, now the chairman of Yad VaShem, got to say “thank you” and help them unveil the plaque honoring the memory of a kind man who took pity on another.

With Oscar Schindler and Raul Wallenberg as celebrity icons, the roster of gentiles who are honored for saving the lives of Jews during WW2, includes some 23,000 men and women of all nationalities. A government minister, in his opening remarks at the ceremony, explained that this is Israel’s highest honor for Non-Jews. The Russian Ambassador, in response, expressed a wish that more than 164 of these countrymen would be remembered and honored in the future. There were clearly some political subtexts going on in this media-heavy event, but for me, the real story here was the triumph of kindness, and the reminder to take stock of that which is worthy of honor and gratitude. It isn’t every day that an entire room full of people rises to such an occasion, rising to honor human honor. To say thank you.

Gratitude is not just good manners – it’s among the highest of human laws. But it’s so easy to forget.

Open this week’s Torah tale, Ekev, and there, too, is the reminder for gratitude. It’s tucked in the midst of the reminder, much like my father’s presumed-last-words to his brother – that there’s no place like home. Moses, in his last speech (for real) to his people, praises the land of milk and honey that he has never seen, and reminds them to appreciate it – to always remember to acknowledge the bounty and thank the Creator for such favorable feed.

"When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God for the good land which God has given you." (D’varim 8:10)

Eat, Fill, Thank. This biblical verse is the formula that predates ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and serves as the original inspiration for the Jewish custom to say Grace After Meals (and possibly, I assume, for the Christian tradition of saying grace before food is served).

This text is a reminder not to take life for granted. And, also, a reminder that we are fed in many ways, and it’s not always delicious and not always kind, but always worthy of appreciation.

What does one do when all the food one gets is a slice of a rotten potato stolen by a fellow prisoner? And how does one thank life when one suffers or shared the suffering of loved ones? Or how does one still say thank you to the world after turning on the radio to hear of a terrible murder of innocent lives?

Not even a week has passed since a mysterious gunman opened fire in Tel Aviv and rewired the narrative of the Gay-Lesbian Israeli experience. The aftermath is tragic loss of life, grief of family and friends, the fear of so many young GLBT youth to come out and express themselves, the worry that violence is so rampant in Israel – all this is real. But, also – and maybe something worth thanking for here – is the sense of community that has reemerged, the coming-together-because-of-great-crisis that is another bonding element for the GLBT community – in Israel and worldwide.

Maybe sometimes it does take time to see beyond the speechless rage and pain, to glimpse a sliver of a silver lining that can penetrate pain and be something that is worth thanking for?

Earlier in Ekev, Moses reminds us: “Remember everything, the entire path” – there are no good times without the bad.

All this as I finish packing, and say goodbye, and take a long stroll around the park that is near my parents house, and thank the paths, and the playground, and the trees, and the ravens, and the benches – for sheltering me this whole long year in Jerusalem. I’ve taken long walks here with my father this past year, recalling his horrible Holocaust memories, talking about God and faith. I played with my daughter on these swings. I watch now as the moon, full, rises over Jerusalem’s summer, and I say thank you to a year full like a full meal, with so many surprising appetizers and side dishes and drinks and desserts and companions and conversations.

‘Bring texts!’ is one my brother’s favorite hilarious expressions, reserved for the end of meals when the Grace After Meals is called for and the little booklets with the liturgy are brought to the table (it’s funny in Hebrew). Later during the same day as the Yad Vashem ceremony, up in the Galilee, in my brother’s beautiful garden, our entire family gathers to eat and to celebrate little E’s first birthday and bid me farewell. I am there with my parents, and siblings and their children and grandchildren, and my children, and their mothers, and an even fuller moon rises above us and a very full heart swells inside me, and the words, familiar, that need no printed reminder and are addressed to the moon, and the sky, and the fates, and my parents, and family, friends, and if I had an agent – my agent – and whatever God is: Thank You Very Much.

For everything.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Raising the Bar in LONDON!
by Joel Stanley


I heard about Storahtelling a number of years ago when I attended courses at Elat Chayyim Jewish Renewal entre in upstate New York. As a Jewish storyteller/teacher who had trained in drama myself, I was intrigued but never had any time to investigate it further, being embroiled with a young family and working hard in the area of Special Educational Needs. Then I crossed paths with it again many years later as Joel Stanley, my son Jonathan’s Barmitzvah teacher (and drama practitioner), told me how he was training as a ‘mobile maven’. Then our Masorti (Conservative) synagogue chazzan told me how she had heard about Storahtelling. Knowing Jonathan and myself were drama enthusiasts, she suggested we incorporate it somehow into his Barmitzvah.

This creative carrot that was dangled in front of me was too delicious to resist and Jonathan and I took the plunge. We asked Joel if Jonathan could compose and direct a Storahtelling Maven as a central aspect of the Torah service element of his Barmitzvah. Joel responded with alacrity and the wonderful journey of discovery, devising and directing began. However, more than anything this journey was a spiritual one as we delved deeply into the text of Parshat Chukkat to create a dramatic staging of the public trial of Aaron, the first High Priest.

For the first time in 17 years I was involved in the collective writing of a script, a script moreover that both had to match line by line the words in a Torah Sedra and bring the words off the scroll to become a powerful vehicle for drama and engagement. Also for the first time in 17 years I had to play a public role, for which I needed to learn lines, a very different task to the improvisational job of the storyteller. Scary, but powerful. And how much more so knowing that my director, my son Jonathan, was depending on this to go right, as along with directing he would be leyning interactively with the action, verse by verse. Over to him!!!


Long before even starting to prepare for my Barmitzvah my mum had told me about Storahtelling and how Jacky, our chazzan, had told her about it. It sounded really weird and I didn’t really think about it again until, having discussed it with my parents, my teacher Joel suggested we try it out. We started exploring the history of Storahtelling through Joel’s big file, the Storahtelling ‘bible’ he had been his training in America.

I realised that this was how the Torah service was meant to be and got really excited about the method of translating and interpreting. I couldn’t wait to get started.

After almost nine months of intensive study of my three Torah portions (our family belongs to two communities and my Barmitzvah was a double-parshah) I made the decision to go with the section dealing with the hitting of the rock in the Parsha Chukkat. We then explored possible characters for the Maven, considering Miriam, the rock and Aaron. After I decided to go with Aaron my dad came in for all our discussions, lessons and rehearsals. We soon got on with writing the script – a combination of planning in the lessons, writing privately and sending it back and forth with Joel. After 5 or 6 drafts we were almost there. We started rehearsing each week and sorting out the finer details.

Eventually everything was ready and we were doing the dress rehearsal - which was a bit of a disaster! But on the day it all came together and was incredible. Everyone thought it was fantastic: my leyning, which I had been learning separately, worked really amazingly with the script, alongside my Joel’s and my dad’s acting as the judge and Aaron.


By the time it came round to Jonathan’s Barmitzvah, I had been his teacher for some three years. So most of all the Maven and Jonathan’s own ‘performance’ was the wonderful culmination of a very special process and journey.

The service was held in an enormous marquee in the garden of one of Jonathan’s family members. There were 180 people there and I think every one of them enjoyed the Maven.

Stepping forwards as Aaron’s judge, banging my gavel on the edge of the bimah and calling for “order, order” the scene was set and we had the whole room’s attention.

Somehow courtroom dramas capture the imagination. We’ve seen it so many times before in countless TV shows and movies. So it was one of this Maven’s real strengths that it brought the sedra to life in a way that people could understand and relate to. ‘Oh, OK,’ they must have thought, ‘I get what’s going on here.’

A highlight for me was the ‘Second Aliyah Stretch’, when we turned to the congregation – the “ladies and gentlemen of the heavenly jury” – and asked them to decide just how guilty Aaron was and of what. When they broke from their discussions and order was regained, there were so many people who wanted to participate and give their opinions that we just couldn’t hear from everybody. Everyone was so enthusiastic it was hard to believe that this was reserved old England.

This was the first Raising the Bar Maven to take place in the UK, the first time anyone here had incorporated a Maven into their Barmitzvah, and it was an undoubted success. Never did it feel out of place or strange, and the comments we received were overwhelmingly positive.

Jonathan now wants to work on another Maven to take place in his synagogue next year, only this time he wants it to be a challenging legal section. He doesn’t do things by halves, this boy!