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.


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