Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Living to Hope: “Oh, Well” Maven in NJ & NY
November 14, 2009
By Jake Goodman

Just over a week ago, I traveled to Temple Shalom in Succasunna, NJ for a Maven Shabbaton Weekend. I presented a Solo-Maven Torah Reading Ritual of Parshat Chayei Sarah called “Oh, Well” and a Meet the Maven workshop for a bunch of adults. The week before, I had performed the same Maven at the 14th Street Y in NYC. The story was the same, of course, but the performances were very different because the gig in NYC also featured musician Justin Wedes and was geared toward multi/non-denominational families with children ages 2-5, while the gig in NJ was geared toward a Reform congregation of people ages 6+. There is a lot that I could say about both of these gigs and the shows, but there was one very sweet moment I want to share.

On Shabbat afternoon at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, NJ, I facilitated the Meet the Maven workshop for a lovely adults, most of whom were my parents age or older. Secret: this workshop is actually my favorite part of the Maven Shabbaton Weekend (even more than the performance) because it allows me intimate and deep interaction with members of the community about the power of story in our own lives, the history of the Maven, and it leaves us with a mandate to actually take the responsibility upon ourselves to do the work of making meaning of story through translation.

Every time we lead this workshop, we include the infamous “Shema Exercise.” This exercise has been a StorahStaple for years (long before I joined the company), and often ends up being a very powerful experience. In short, we engage people in a word-by-word translation of the Shema, the proclamation/prayer that so many of us are told is the most important piece of dogma in Judaism: there is one god. The purpose of the workshop is to prove to people that anybody can translate, that there is not such thing as a literal translation of any text, that we can find deeper meaning that we are perhaps given.

Milton was one of the workshop participants. Milton is approximately 83 years old, and a lovely, genial person. 80 minutes into the workshop, just after we had completed the Sheme Exercise, I began to do my standard wrap up: stories matter, we have to do the work to make these texts meaningful to us, we have to find how and where these texts try to make us wrestle with bigger/difficult ideas. Just as I was about to say my goodbye, Milton raised his hand and said, “Jake, this has been eye opening for me, but I’m curious. How does this help you?”

I stopped, caught off guard. Normally when teaching, I do my best to leave my personal beliefs slightly obscure so as not to influence other people’s opinions (except when I want to influence other people’s opinions). Also, despite everything, I am not a particularly religious person.

So I began giving what is, for me, a standard answer: “Well, this helps me because it helps me see that there is no such thing as a literal understanding of any text…” As I was speaking, I could feel that I was losing Milton, as well as the rest of the participants. So I stopped. “Maybe I’m not understanding your question, Milton. How does the Shema help you?”

He said, “I say it every morning when I wake up and every night when I go to bed. I said it before I had my hip surgery, and before I get on airplanes. It is a rock for me.” And then he looked at me, expectantly. At risk, I felt, was all my authenticity. At risk was any impact this workshop might have, and all of Storahtelling’s programming, because if I am a fake, who cares?

So I responded in a way that I do not always: transparently, with full disclosure. “I hear you and what you said is very beautiful to me. But I’m 30 years old and I’m just not there yet. The Shema is not a rock for me right now. I’m not where you are in terms of belief in god, in general. I hope to be, but I’m not there yet.” There was silence and then, I could just feel all the tension break. They seemed relieved at my answer. They liked that I owned up (or down) to my age, without being self-effacing, just honestly. And I felt relieved, because I spoke my truth while I was trying to be professional.

This was a lesson to me, a challenge: this work we engage ourselves in is rooted in exciting theory, but ultimately, the main question is: How can I/we use this in our lives? If I feel no commitment to the actual message—only on the methodology of understanding the message—what is the point? Why am I doing this?

Milton, I thank you.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mavens in DC: Identifying the Other
By Daliya Karnofsky

Two weekends ago, David Schiller and I went to Washington D.C. to perform Parshat Vayera: Child's Play for two very special communities. We had two incredible experiences. Our first performance was on Friday night for Gay and Lesbian Outreach and Engagement of the Washington DCJCC (GLOE), in collaboration with Bet Mishpachah Congregation. The Saturday morning performance was for the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH), in collaboration with GLOE.

We adapted the story of the exile of Ishmael and Hagar to become something deeply personal to these communities.

Ishmael and Hagar live with Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac as one family, until one day Sarah sees something pass between the boys that she does not like and this is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Sarah insists that Abraham break the family up and send Ishmael and Hagar into the desert on their own, leaving Isaac as Abraham's one and only heir.

When David and I first received the script for Child's Play, the main characters were Sarah and Abraham, and the focus of the story was on whatever it was that passed between Ishmael and Isaac that incited Sarah to take such a dramatic step. The word used in the Torah is "metzachek", and has many different meanings: from playing to laughing to fighting and even fooling around.

But for these two communities, we decided it was not important to decipher what exactly was meant by this word and what exactly transpired between the two brothers. What was more important was the aftermath of this crucial moment. The breaking up of a family, and one half of the family being made to feel like the "other". The notion that not everyone belongs in a family, and must be sent on their way because of their "other"ness. We chose to highlight the voices of Ishmael and Hagar; to feel what it was they felt as they were cast out into the desert. This is a topic that is viscerally relevant to the two communities for which we performed.

As Alex Greenbaum (a lay leader for GLOE) stated as the last point in a riveting discussion that could have gone on all night with the GLOE and Bet Mishpachah communities, the "other" in this story is exactly equivalent to a queer family today. A family that is not good enough to be a family. That is told that because of who they are, they are not fit to be part of a family. This point summed up a lot of the emotions that had been coming out that night, and Ishmael and Hagar's voices were poignantly heard.

Performing this point of view for the members of the group homes was equally touching. The families formed in the group homes are certainly not traditional and are made up of people who have lived their lives as the "other". Our audience recognized that what Sarah did was wrong, as they empathized with the importance of inclusion and the different definitions a family can have.

All in all, mission accomplished. The voice of the "other" was heard; the notion of a non-traditional family was explored. We wanted to give these communities the opportunity to voice this for themselves as well, and that they did. The discussions we had during and after the Maven were eye-opening and encouraging, and will continue for many years to come. Hopefully with very different endings.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Learning to Get Along
JCCA Conference, Ramat Gan, Israel, 11/4/09
The Birth of Laughter: Parshat Vayera, B’reshit 21:6-10
By Annie Lewis

The word L’Garesh! is spray-painted in red letters on a stucco building near Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. I am on the way to a maven demo, about to shout that word, in translation, in its first appearance in Torah. It means to banish, to expel, to exile, to divorce, to deport. The neighborhood of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station is home to many foreign workers, from the Philippines, Nigeria, Romania, Ghana, Ukraine. Last Sunday, the decision came down from the Prime Minister’s office that the children of foreign workers in Israel illegally are to be deported at the end of the school year. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported:

“Yishai, the Shas Party leader, has been leading the call for deportation. Yishai claims that allowing the children to remain and giving them citizenship could damage the Jewish character of the state.”

In our Torah cycle, we are telling stories of Sarah, the First Lady of the House of Abraham. I had the privilege of assuming Sarah’s voice at last week’s maven as Israeli maven, Eran Kraus, read the words from the Torah and led the crowd in discussion. In Parshat Vayera, God sends Sarah into bouts of laughter, informing her that she will give birth to a bouncing baby boy. At ninety years of age, she expects to be in a nursing home, but nursing?

Our maven took place at the conference center at K’far Ha-Maccabiah, the original Jewish Olympic village. Executives from Jewish Community Centers all over the world were gathered to build relationships and share best practices. Our audience included people from Argentina, Russia, India, Estonia, France and Colorado. We invited them to the Weaning Feast of Sarah’s miraculous first-born son, Yitzhak (Isaac/ One who will laugh).

Sarah is cracking jokes, and getting fahklempt about Yitzhak getting older, and the crowd is singing siman tov! All of the sudden, Sarah panics. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Avraham’s first son, Yishmael, m’tzahkek, an ambiguous word which might mean to play, to mock, to fool around, to rough-house, to abuse.

“Get out! I want them out. Out of my home - that woman (Hagar) and her son. Avraham, Get them out!” Sarah orders. She claims that Yishmael is endangering the safety of her son, Yitzhak.

Eran asked our audience, full of parents, and decision-makers in the work place, to step into Avraham’s shoes. What would they do if presented with such a demand? One man, from Israel, looked to the verses and pointed out that the Torah’s original letters describing Yishmael’s m’tzahek, say nothing about Yitzhak. Becoming the Sarah of our Maven, I have nearly forgotten that this voice of hers is built from layers of midrash; sages seeking to justify the severity of her demand to banish this other mother and her child into the wilderness. Perhaps our rabbinic predecessors didn’t want to see Sarah’s decision as rash or jealous, or based solely on concern about sharing the resources of her home and husband.

Another woman in the audience mentioned that if she were Avraham, she would ask the boys what happened. Eran asked the others whether they, too, wanted to hear another side of the story. As decision-makers at home or at work, what do they do when a conflict arises between different people under their care or supervision? Eran told a story about a time he and his brother came to their father hitting each other and yelling, “He started it! No, he started it!” His father slapped them both, simply saying, “Get along.” The sting of the slap and the truth of those words are with him today.

We ended our sample maven with a dedication to a different Yitzhak. November 4th was the fourteenth anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, a tragic casualty in the continuing conflict between the children of Yitzhak and Yishmael, the sons of Sarah and Hagar. We closed with a prayer for shalom bayit, peace in the House of Abraham, for all of his children. With all our sides of the story, may we learn to get along. May we laugh together and heal the rifts of our past.

This short and bittersweet telling of Torah, storah-style, was received with open arms by audience members from around the world! I am grateful to Eran for the experience and to Bruce Shaffer, our hevruta from Boulder, Co, for his support.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Ya’aseh Shalom Aleinu, V’al Kol Yisrael, V’al Kol Yoshvei Tevel.

May the one who makes peace in the heights, make peace for all of us, all of Israel, and all us dwellers of this whole wide world.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Storahtelling Maven Weekend in DC
by Alexander Greenbaum
November 11, 2009

This past weekend, Storahtellers Daliya Karnofsky and David Schiller went to Washington, D.C. to perform two different performances of "Child's Play," Parshat Vayera. The program was organized by Gay and Lesbian Outreach and Engagement of the Washington DCJCC (GLOE), in collaboration with Bet Mishpachah Congregation and Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH).

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for a marvelous weekend. Storahtelling brought the Torah to life for two communities that often find it difficult to connect with out ancient texts (the LGBT Jewish community and those with special needs). The room was packed for the joint Friday night GLOE-Bet Mishpachah serivce and judging by the laughing, discussion and positive comments from those who attended, the event was enjoyed by all and provided a very meaningful experience.

For me personally, the Shabbat morning Storahtelling event was even more exciting. Volunteers from GLOE and Bet Mishpachah assisted with the event at the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes. I am not exactly sure how many residents attended, but the room was chocker-block. Though many of the residents did not fully understand that story, the fun matter in which it was presented, the singing and the opportunity to participate in the service were a big hit! Quite a number of residents came up for all three group aliyot and the excitement on their faces as they made the brachot was priceless. Approximately five residents mentioned that it reminded them of their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Storahtelling truly is opening up the Torah to the entire Jewish community.