Tuesday, October 20, 2009

by Shawn Shafner
October 6, 2009
Last Saturday, October 3rd, I had the great pleasure of joining forces with Amichai Lau-Lavie, Avi Fox-Rosen, Katie Down, Isaac Everett and Jess Lenza in presenting Raindance: A Musical Sukkot Celebration at the 14th Streety Y in New York City. With songs and dances, learning for adults, fun movement for kids and a big, huge story and lulavim to reckon with, the event offered up something for everyone. But I often find that, within big stories, there are little moments sticking out, opening up windows into larger, communal stories.
King David has decided to build a large temple on the highest mountain in Jerusalem, and to dedicate the space to God. He and his men roll up their sleeves and begin digging the foundation. Deeper and deeper they dig, when the lower and upper waters were being separated. This rock is the celestial plug that holds back the Leviathan, the chaos inherent in creation. King David, disregarding the rock's warnings, digs it up, and the earth is flooded. Problem! Relying on Talmudic marriage counseling, David is instructed to write the ineffable name of god (representing order) on paper and throw it into the water. Doing so, order is restored, but the water recedes down so deep that a huge drought falls on the land. Problem! Again. And at this moment, the King begins to cry.
At this moment, I, the actor, sit on my "throne," my hands over my face, my shoulders heaving in theatrical sobs. I hear young voices from in front of the stage: "Look, he's crying. The King is crying, mommy." There is a silence and a weight spread over all of us. Amichai, our MC, explains that King David, in his sadness, composed 15 psalms. I step downstage and begin to sing Mi Ma'amakim: "From the depths, I call you. Hear my prayer, listen to my song!" I look out at a sea of eyes--from the youngest toddler to the oldest adults--and can see that at that moment, we are all together. We are all together, have together transformed the theater to a field of dying plants, a burning sun and dry, hot air all around. The need for water, for measured chaos, is palpable. When I teach the song to the audience, there is a visceral sense that this can change everything. If we get the notes just right, perhaps, by singing these words together, we can bring the water back.
Near the end of the afternoon, Amichai asked us all what kinds of things we wanted to rain down. Amidst cries for cookies and calls for candy, I heard young and old alike ask for love and peace. But when we work together, believing all as one, perhaps we can transmit something important. Perhaps together, with songs, letters, actions and stories, change can occur. From deep dark depths, we can bring the water back.

Monday, October 05, 2009

10 Day High Holiday Residency in California

By Naamah Harris

Now, we all know the Torah says rain is a blessing, but it was an absolute pleasure being out in sunny Los Angeles with Naomi Less for Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur and all the days in between. Naomi and I had one of the best, craziest, (longest) and most rewarding gigs ever! We had the privilege of doing a ten day residency at Valley Beth Shalom, in Encino, California, where we were able to work with many facets

of their “all-in-one” synagogue; this included the youth programs, the day school, the Hebrew School, as well as their clergy, educators and congregants.

We started off the first day of Rosh Hashana by doing...well, what else...storytelling!! In “Child’s Play,” a Maven based on Parashat Vayera, we focus on the rift that happens between Sarah and Hagar, and how our interpretation of their story is only one of many. We come to recognize the difference between truth, lies and myths and how these stories that are told over and over, year after year, change depending on the storyteller. We must be open to all tellings and recognize that our version is not necessarily the only one.

We kicked off the second day by doing a production of “Like A Prayer,” a fully staged Storahtelling show, that focuses on the different ways and places in which we can connect with God. We shared the stories of Sarah, Hagar, Chana, and Aaron, and how they each found their own way of praying to God, through laughter, crying, pleading and even finding secret, special places to pray.

Throughout the week we had the opportunity to run several workshops for the Hebrew School, the Day School and even an educators’ workshop, lead by Naomi Less, Storahtelling’s Director of Education and Training, in addition to several performances of “Like A Prayer.” We concluded our time at Valley Beth Shalom with a Maven for Yom Kippur called “Innermost,” based on Parashat Acharei Mot, that deals with the responsibilities of the High Priest and what he must do in order to erase the Jewish people’s sins. While we no longer have a High Priest, we suggest to search for people within our communities who fill that role today, as well as figuring out what we can do as individuals to cleanse ourselves of our wrong doings.

While Naomi and I had many meaningful experiences during our time in L.A., there is one that really stands out in my mind. During the Days of Awe, where we as Jews are working to improve our ways from the previous year and better ourselves and others, Naomi and I had the honor of having Shabbat dinner at Valley Beth Shalom, with people who fight for improvement not only on these ten days but every moment of their lives. These people are members of the Beit T’shuvah community, a Jewish residential treatment center and a full-service congregation, whose vision is to reduce the incidence of addiction and other harmful behaviors through individual and family education, with a focus on Judaism and Jewish values. It was truly inspiring to be around fellow members of our Jewish community who continually have the power and courage to recognize and admit their mistakes, lift themselves up and devote their lives to becoming better people.

People are often so quick to pass judgment on others and exclude anyone who appears to be “different.” Therefore, it was dually inspiring to spend the High Holy Days in a congregation like Valley Beth Shalom, whose clergy and congregants openly and willingly invite and accept members of the community who do not always feel like they have a place in the world. In Judaism we are taught to lead by example, so I would like to extend my gratitude to the members of the Valley Beth Shalom and Beit T’shuvah community for paving an exemplary path for me and others to follow. Thank you and Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Featuring a personal note from Amichai

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 ended Yom Kippur with a private kiss. Semi private. With my back to the congregation at the City Winery, our fantastic venue for the High Holiday services in Tribeca, at the back of the stage, I leaned in and kissed the top of the wooden wine barrel that served as our makeshift ark. I hadn’t planned to kiss it, merely went over to close the tiny doors, right after the Tekia Gedola – the big blowing of the shofars and just before the wave of joy swept us as we ended a powerful day together. The kissing, a familiar gesture of approach to holy objects – just happened, came, perfectly, to my lips. I started the day, 11 hours earlier, with kissing the corners of my talit, as I wrapped myself with sacred silk and stepped up to the microphone to begin the morning service. Kissing the ark at the end of it all became my private way to mark the end of a charged day, and to take off my talit, my role. I kissed the Holy Ark with gratitude and a full heart and big smile and a face wet with tears. Then came hugs and kisses with the friends who were with me on stage to lead these worship ecstasies, and then many more cheeks, many also wet with tears, and more kisses with the hundreds who attended. Then a glass of brisk Riesling from the Winery’s finest to break the fast. A verse from the Song of Songs popped into my head as I drank the first sip: “Kiss me on the mouth, for your love is better than wine.”

A lot of sacred kissing happens in Jewish life. Kissing the mezuzah when one enters or exits a room; Kissing a holy book should it fall to the ground; kissing the fringes on the talit; Kissing a prayer book or a Bible when one is done reading; Kissing the Torah scrolls when they parade through the community; Kissing the exact spot in the Torah scroll as each new chanting begins and ends. Kissing, through the air, when the chanting is complete and the open Torah scroll is raised and revealed. Then there’s just all the kissing that happens when people meet – social kissing - equally, and differently, sacred.

Kissing is the last thing that Moses does before he dies and ends the Torah. It is, in fact, the action that kills him: He kisses God, on the mouth. The air got sucked out of Moses’ lungs and mouth into the mouth and being of the Creator and with that he was gone – evaporated, with no corpse or grave to mark where once a prophet lived.

The peaceful kiss of death is how Jewish tradition depicts the death of its mortal creator. The tradition is based on one obscure expression that appears several times in the Torah and makes its last appearance at the very end of the book. ‘God’s Mouth’ is often translated as ‘God’s Word’, but the Hebrew expression undeniably enables both translations and has thus yielded many possible interesting interpretations. Next week, during Simchat Torah - the Celebration of Torah holiday, the final Torah portion will be chanted, followed by the first few lines of Genesis, in celebration of the perpetual continuity of our story. The final Torah portion is V’zot Habracha - 'This is the Blessing,' and its last eight verses begin with the kiss, and describe the death, and are supposedly not written by Moses anymore:

"So Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD." (D’varim 34:5, JPS)

Some translations replace ‘according to the word of the Lord’ with ‘at the command of God.’

But some of the Aramaic translations, and the bolder among the ancient sages preferred to read ‘Al PI ADONAI’ not as commands but rather as the source of command itself:

“Thereupon God kissed Moses and took away his soul with a kiss of the mouth, and God, if one might say so, wept as it is written in the Psalms, ‘Who will rise up for me against the evil-doers? Who will stand up for me against the workers of iniquity?'" (Midrash D'varim Rabba)

Goodbye Moses, and goodbye to a full cycle of your Torah, a complete heroic journey from birth to death and all the wandering and trials in between. I always get sad when this verse is read, and the ones that follow – the death of the hero, the end of the story, the end of a year. It doesn’t matter that I know that this story will pick up again in just a week, and that another full re-run is upon us – when Moses dies each fall, something within dies as well. And when Moses kisses God again, something within is kissed also. The Torah is like this eternally recycled spiral, contracting and expanding, like breath. Is that how our lives are lived? These spirals of our living and loving and leaving?

The death of Moses is another opportunity for us to pause and stand facing our own mortality, our hopes, fears, the promised lands we are marching towards, the doors we will never open again.

The death of Moses, his last kiss, becomes signposts, mythic reminders of all the goodbyes of our lives. Several dear friends lost loved ones this past week, just before and right after Yom Kippur. Does one kiss a tombstone? A photograph? We look to the old rituals and these simple human ones, for comfort, for physical affirmation of that is still present, when the physical love is gone. Something remains, as elusive as a the memory of a kiss. May those memories be blessings.

And so, also: Goodbye, RE:VERB, for now anyway. Kissing is verb #50, last one, closing a year of 50 gates into the Torah, a year of verbs and reverberations and revelations. It has been quite a journey. I started it in Jerusalem with ‘hope’ and will end again in Jerusalem, next week, with ‘kiss’. In between, many inspiring conversations happened, many questions, many words, some kisses. Now it’s time for that bittersweet kiss of goodbye.

I imagine holding an open, beautifully bound book, pages empty just a year ago, and then gently closing it, kissing its cover, and putting it down on the shelf. Its siblings will follow one day, hopefully.

But not just now. Many - and I am so grateful for each one - have written me notes, replies, suggestions and questions during this year of reverbing and many request that this blog continues. I am honored and flattered and eager to continue – but need some time out from the responsibility of regular blogging in order to focus on some of my urgent and very exciting tasks and responsibilities at Storahtelling. Occasional musings are assured, more consistent format, perhaps monthly, is also in the works.

Before we kiss goodbye – a request, an invitation, and a gift:

Request: Is this the first blog entry of this series that you are now reading? The fifth? Tenth? Here since ‘Hope’? Please take a minute to share any feedback at all – even just a ‘hey, read some of it, cool’ note. Feedback means a lot to me and will be really appreciated. Got suggestions or requests or ideas for next blogging topic, theme, style or format? Want to help make it happen? I’d love to talk about it. Can you help to get RE:VERB online as its own easily searched webpage? Talk to me!

amichai@storahtelling.org is the best way to reach me with any of the above.

Invitation: Join me in making the stories and secrets of Torah accessible and exciting to many more people of all ages and faiths, worldwide -RE:VERB style. In the following months I am building Storahtelling’s new training programs for clergy, artists, early childhood educators and other community leaders. One of our goals is to enable ample opportunity in our communities for inclusive, creative, free or affordable forms of Jewish culture and education – much like this blog. I invite you to join me in making this vision manifest and change the way we tell and celebrate our sacred stories in generations to come.

Got time? Got talent? Got a Wallet? Your honoring my vision and joining me in any way you can to make change happen will be truly appreciated. No amount insignificant. All love matters.
Investments in Storahtelling, tax deductible clickable here: I support Storah

Gift: Behold, a poem: 50 verbs; Footsteps in the Sands of Sinai, 50 invitations to more sacred living, one action at a time.

Sealed with a kiss

Sealed with a kiss

HOPE (like water), GET OUT, LOOK UP.