Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Terumah Storahblog: Biblical Beautification
By Jon Adam Ross

Two weeks ago, Al and Florence Green celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Delaware. This past Shabbat, Isadore Alex Wolfson and I were at Beth Emeth to perform our maven of Parshat Terumah, “Biblical Beautification.” I was Art K. Tecture, a biblical continuity expert, there to retrofit the sanctuary to meet biblical specifications (see: goat hair rain tarp). And Alex played the role of the synagogue’s resident angel, having been at the shul for ages and ages and vouching for the sanctuary’s holiness despite lacking unicorn skins and goat hair in the construction design. In establishing his ‘resident angel’ bona fides, Alex made reference to the fact that he was at Al and Florence Green’s 63rd wedding anniversary celebration. It made Al and Florence laugh; the whole congregation joined in. No one saw it coming – but we had done our homework. We got a tip from our friend Sue Paul, the adult education committee co-chair (with Deb Heffernan) who coordinated our Storahtelling Shabbat. But there is no way we could have prepared for the enthusiastic response we got the entire time we were in Wilmington.

From the moment we arrived at Beth Emeth on Friday evening, it felt like we were among family. Alex and I joined the 8th graders and their families for Shabbat dinner before services, and in between hanging out with the students, Alex and I did a short introduction to what Storahtelling was and what we would be doing that night and the next day. After dinner, we joined the congregation for a warm and wonderful Friday night service led by Cantor Stanton and Rabbi Robinson and during which we provided a “setting the stage” for the next morning’s show. In fact, the buzz about Storahtelling was so happening that the shul had to open up its social hall for extra seating (something it does only on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Purim!). Nearly as many people joined us the next morning as we did our maven version of parshat Terumah and there were more than 125 people who stayed for the Meet the Maven workshop after lunch. The most I had ever seen in my 10 years with Storahtelling! The workshop was compelling and exciting and multi-generational with both young kids and senior citizens tossing up their own original translations of the “Shema.” It was a perfect ending to a perfect Shabbat. But it wasn’t over yet.

As we were packing up to leave, we got a surprise visit in the conference room of the synagogue – Al and Florence Green wanted to give us a hug! We didn’t need an introduction. Sue Paul knocked on the door and said, “I have some people who want to meet the two of you.” Alex and I looked up and I said “Florence?!” and she said “Jon!” and we hugged as Alex and Al rehashed memories of past life cycle events at which Alex, as the resident angel, must have also attended. The point of our maven show earlier that morning was that though Parshat Terumah lays out the blueprint for the mishkan, a model for the modern sanctuary, in these modern times we don’t need goat skins to make our sanctuaries holy. We need each other, in the space together, as a community with intention. The sanctuary at Beth Emeth needs no help in that department. We may have been brought to share Torah through performance, but we were just the lucky ones who got to bear witness to their show – of warmth, of holiness, of biblical beautification.

-Jon Adam Ross Feb, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reflecting on the ‘Snowpocalypse’
by Mark Pearlman of JInsider

Is it urban havoc or winter wonderland? With the East Coast shut down by a series of record-breaking snowstorms of late, JInsider wanted to dig deeper into the personal meaning of snow. We asked the always-thoughtful Amichai Lau-Lavie to explain this natural phenomenon.

Lau-Lavie is the founder and executive director of Storahtelling, Inc., an international organization advancing Jewish literacy and engagement. Also, to experience a truly different Purim, join Lau-Lavie and “Hadassah Gross” on Feb. 27 at City Winery. For more details visit www.storahtelling.org.

First Snow

The first time I saw snow was on Purim Day, in Jerusalem. I was 8 or 9 and we drove up to the city from our home near Tel Aviv, and at first I had
> no idea what I was looking at. Then I remember carefully lifting my long velvet cape (was I a superhero? a king? a queen?) and trying not to get it wet. Everything looked better under the snow, even Jerusalem. There was a sentence from the Yom Kippur prayer book that I remember understanding that day: “Your sins will be forgiven, white as snow.” How it covers everything, but only for a while.

The Holocaust

For my father, snow means always being back at Buchenwald, standing for hours on end at the roll call. If anybody urinated and a stain was seen on the snow, they’d be shot “for dirtying the beautiful snow,” my father said.


I look at the snow now outside my window, falling and filling the eye, and I wonder what the blessing is for snow? I make one up: “Bless You, Creative Creator, for whiting out what is and giving me new ways to wonder.” Then I rush off to build a snowman with the kids.

Deeper Reflection

There is an expression in Hebrew, Talmudic in origin, “It’s like yesterday’s snow” — intangible, here today, gone tomorrow. How big a deal is a sidewalk of snow when you have to cross it today. It won’t be here tomorrow. Look beyond the now; have perspective beyond the momentary fear or challenge.
Final thoughts: The Kabbalah of Snow
from Rabbi Simon Jacobson

Nothing is as it appears. What lies beneath the enchanting snowflakes floating gently from heaven to earth? Is this heaven speaking to us?

It says in the Zohar that snow is beneficial to both spirit and matter, body and soul of the human being. When it snows it means that there is an element of Divine energy being bestowed upon us from heaven. It blankets the earth and allows us to experience, if we’re open to it, a higher form and a higher wisdom.

Snow is the concept of explaining knowledge in metaphor. Its cosmic significance is this: To understand the process of how God created the universe, God could not allow the borders of divinity and spirituality to just flow ceaselessly and annihilate the boundaries of existence. God had to contain it, and the way He contained it is reflected in snow.

The mystique of snow is precisely because of its dual quality of heaven meeting earth, water meeting land. Next time you look at the snowflakes gently dropping from heaven, blanketing earth in its white embrace, remember that you are witnessing a kiss — the kiss of the Divine and the mundane.

click here to see the original article

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Baby Carrots, Jew Mutts & White Shirts: Postcard & Poem from Storahtelling Weekend in West Palm Beach

by Amichai Lau-Lavie

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Promised Pink Land of Florida, and just got back from a quick weekend trip – enough for a mini tan and taste of the bittersweet reality of Jewish life struggling to survive amid the strip malls, post recession. I led Storahtelling programs at the West Palm Beach Federation HQ to a group of clergy - some delighted for new tools and others suspicious. Later I was warmly welcomed at a Reform temple temporarily housed at an empty JCC and the next day visited a vast 60’s style Conservative Congregation, right out of ‘A Serious Man’. Once again, familiar conversations about the yearning for change but the fear of changing the true and tried and somewhat stale; the dwindling memberships in synagogues, the elders who insist on things as they were; so few youngsters, so little money, even in West Palm Beach. And still – the ones who care and show up, and dress up for each occasion. The weekend fell on the Sabbath of the Ten Commandments, an opportunity to revisit Sinai and what our story is all about – our collective contract – the myth of who we are and who we want to be, today. Postcard from Palm Beach:

1. White Shirt (or the 4th and 5th Commandment )

Friday afternoon, almost sunset: I stand at the window of my room in the Hampton Inn, overlooking a swimming pool with fake roman pillars, and beyond, a parking lot. I’m changing clothes for Shabbat, putting on a white shirt, absent minded, when I notice a guy, with his shirt off, leaning on a car in the back of the parking lot and also dressing. I can’t tell if he’s handsome or not but he’s young and strong and half naked so I look on as he pulls out a white shirt hanging on a hanger from the back of his car and puts it on. Tucks it in, walks away.

I wear white ironed shirts for the Sabbath, religiously, as I have done since childhood, mandated, commanded by my mother. This guy and I, we’re both dressing up for an evening out. He, perhaps as a waiter at the nearby steakhouse, and I off to Temple Israel, to usher in the Sabbath and make a key note speech about the future of the synagogue and Jewish life in the 21st century. I will also address the 10 commandments – this weekend’s Torah Theme. Commandment 4: respect your parents and obey their rules - check. Commandment 5 – remember and honor the Sabbath - check. Thanks anonymous guy in a parking lot for reminding me of the little symbolic details that matter. Later that night, on stage at the Temple I talk about my white shirt - recalling the commandments that my parents handed over. My father’s was to never fear, and to blend in with the crowd, and survive at all costs: The wisdom of a Holocaust Survivor. My mother’s – wear a white shirt on Shabbat. I read a poem by Yehuda Amichai that I remembered at the last minute, goggled on my iphone and quickly translated on a napkin during dinner (scroll down for the full poem). What would it feel like, I ask the congregation, several hundred, mostly older, to hear the commandments of Moses with the voice of our parents? What are the rules and teachings and commandment we each carry in our hearts and memories to guide our own truths and celebrate our own sense of sacred? Temple Israel is currently hosted in an empty ghost town of a JCC – gone bankrupt post Madoff (10th commandment – don’t desire so much). What are the new or renewed ten rules that will get us back on track – ethical, moral, healthy, relevant, sexy, real???

Welcoming the Mutt

Saturday Morning at Temple Torah in Boynton Beach, a Conservative congregation. Capital C. Older crowd, lots of doilies on blue hair-do’s, a handful of children. Janie, a friend, sits next to me wearing a beautiful matching set of prayer shawl and kipa – all her handiwork. She compliments the women and men who walk past wearing other fabulous religious creations and shows me the row of wheelchairs at the back of the sanctuary where tired seniors and their caretakers slowly gather: ‘look – how eager they are to be here. How they need this healing.’ On the vast Bimah, Jerusalem Stone and pink carpeting, a sad cantor with an amazing voice and Sefardic melodies takes my breath away. I later learn that he is of Iranian descent, the uncle of my dear friends Michelle and Galeet Dardashti. I also learn that he was just fired. Maybe that’s why he seemed so sad. The congregation rises and sits, turning pages, again and again, until it’s time for the Torah Service, and the house is full, and I take the stage. Today I am Eli, son of Moses, half Jew. The Torah portion is Yitro – named for the pagan prophet who is father in law to Moses and teacher of how to transmit laws to this newly born nation. He is Eli’s grandfather, and together, according to the narrative in Exodus, the leaders’ not so Hebrew family travels to Mt. Sinai to reunite with Moses on the eve of revelation. I translate, Storah style, the Hebrew verses, speaking as Eliezer son of Moses, in first person, and the congregation is delighted (though one older gentleman, I’m later told, grumbles that it’s a shanda). At some point I turn to them, as Eli, and ask – do you want me here? Should I join you Hebrew people? I am half Jewish only, half breed, a mutt – Am I welcome among you? A teenage girl is not so sure, and challenges me. Others hesitate. It’s a short and charged conversation: do we welcome the others into our homes? Our public lives? I then invite those who want to climb the stairs to the Torah, up Mount Sinai if they feel that it’s time for them to re-examine their personal relation to their people, their story, their covenant. Dozens climb the Bimah. The Ten Commandments are chanted out loud with little drama though everybody rises to the occasion. I wrap up the Storahtelling program with a Talmudic legend that tells of Moses’ great grandchildren who chose to stay Jewish – despite their mixed origin, and went on to become great scholars of Torah. Rabbi Botnick, ruling confidently over his flock, will echo my question in his closing remarks for the morning – what is the role of the modern congregation in answering the difficult questions? How do we explain our religion to the next generation? The spiritual call to action is followed by a plea for funding, and a promise of free parking space for the ‘enhanced donors’. The rabbi even promises, half jokingly, his own parking space for those who donate more. This synagogue, like so many others, is struggling to stay afloat. Recently all clergy took a 20% salary cut. At Kiddush, over the usual coffee cakes and mini cups of grape juice many enthusiastic conversations continue. “I will never look at Torah the same way again” a lovely lady tells me. “My son-in-law is Christian,” another man whispers to me – “I’ve never spoken about it here. But today I did’. I walk out and away into the Florida sunshine, past the vast parking lot and the rabbi’s empty parking space. Another day in the Jewish trenches. Can this model of communal life survive the 21st century?

2. Baby Carrots

This has sort of nothing to do with the weekend but it did ignite my thinking about how the much needed change in our community can happen. Before I go to sleep that night at the Hampton Inn I surf channels and land on a food channel program that tells the history of baby carrots. Who knew (or cared)? Only twenty years ago or so some big carrot farmer in California realized that so much of his produce was not fit for market because of size and such and figured out a way to make the problem into a profit: baby carrots, made from the useless excess non sellable carrots. Crisis became opportunity. The farmers’ grandson now rules over a multimillion empire, baby carrots in every lunch box. What’s the discarded excess in the Jewish education system we are not realizing? What is our crisis that can be turned into opportunity? We know the Hebrew Schools are mostly failing, B’nai Mitzvahs are hollow shells of meaning and Judaic literacy is on the decline. What’s the sweet spot? Where is the opportunity? Go to the where the problem – the useless carrots… that’s where change is waiting to happen. I met folks in Florida who get this – who want to be part of the solution and not perpetuate the problem. More and more are trying and starting to think big picture and systemic change. Let’s face it: Sinai – we got a problem. But can it be overcome? I think so. Creative crowdsourcing, and strategic thinking, brave decisions and risky business – I think we have some great solutions waiting to happen, fast. Sinai. Revisited. 5.0.

I type up the Yehuda Amichai poem, return the rental car, leave the Promised Pink land and head back to the NY cold with a farmer’s tan on my face and a reminder of why I do what I do and how change can happen. One shirt, one baby carrot, one story , one important question at a time.


Translated by Amichai Lau-Lavie

My father was god, but he didn’t know it.

He gave me the Ten Commandments, not with thunder or fury, fire or clouds,

but softly, with love, caresses, kind words.

He added ‘please, please’ and sang the words ‘keep and remember the Sabbath day’ and cried quietly: ‘don’t bear false witness, don’t lie’. He’d cry, and hug me. ‘Don’t steal, don’t lust, don’t kill’.

He’d put his hands on my head like the Yom Kippur blessing. “respect’ he’s say ‘love and live long upon this earth’.

His voice was as white as the hair on his head.

The he turned his face to me, like that last day, when died in my arms, and said: “I want to add two more commandments to the ten. The eleventh: never change. The twelfth: change, change.”

So spoke my father and walked away into his strange distances.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

"Sea Song"
StorahSteps at the 14th Street Y

by Shawn Shafner

Many know the story of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds, dead in their tracks with the Egyptian army close behind. Moses puts his hand out across the water, the sea splits, and the Israelites cross on dry land. Fewer have heard the tale of Nachshon ben Aminadav…

This past Sat, Jan. 23, dozens of families gathered at the 14th Street Y to watch the waters part, cross the sea, and sing the ‘Sea Song.’ As we began, children beautifully illustrated three moments from the Exodus, which became the pages of our Torah scroll. As the littlest ones left for StorahSteps with educators from the Y, Nachshon’s story unfolded for families in the theater. The Mavens for this particular event were Moses’ sister Miriam, played by the always colorful Shira Kline, and Nachshon himself, as played by a colorful, blue puppet. And behind every great puppet is a great puppeteer—with one tired arm.

I was that puppeteer. It doesn’t look hard and he’s not a heavy guy, but holding Nachshon up for the length of an entire show is no small feat. I took him home with me for a week, and used him like a barbell. I set an alarm and held him aloft for 10, 15, 20 min, trying to build up the muscle and stamina. The show draws nearer and I wonder: will I be ready in time?

In addition to being an actor for the company, I also coordinate the events at the Y. The pieces that make up a show are disparate to begin with. My job is to bring them, one by one, into a cohesive whole. A phone call here, an email there, copy, fax, repeat. You hope that it will come together, bit by bit by bit.

Nachshon stands at the edge of the water, afraid to move forward, afraid to go backward. The magnitude of the situation is overwhelming. Confronting the fear head on, he takes a step, choosing to believe that everything will be okay, and finds he’s on dry land; the water’s run away. He took one small step, and the path revealed itself.

The puppeteer looks past his arm, past Nachshon, at the children all around him. He is one in a group, dancing across dry land towards freedom. One by one by one—all of us together—reaching, striving, journeying—step by step by step.