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.