Monday, June 14, 2010

Nichemya Chet Inspires Storahtelling in HUC
By Sarah Robinson, senior at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA

Excerpt from paper for Shivat Tziyon Navi class

I attended the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts’ Unity Mission from November 15-16,2009. The Mission is an intensive two-day program, for about 35 Jews of all different religious backgrounds, designed to spark personal interaction and increased understanding among Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist participants. The group visited each denomination’s theological seminary or Mecca-equivalent (the UM visited YU, HIR, JTS, HUC, and SAJ). While there, they met world-renown scholars and denominational leaders and became involved in unbelievably deep and intense debates amongst each other and with the scholars. Sometime during each visit, the UM group davened with the respective denomination’s congregation.

When the group visited HUC on Monday mid-morning, I was in for a bit of a surprise: a Torah reading called Storahtelling, a possible spin-off of Nichemya Chet. Storahtelling is literally story-telling using the weekly Torah portion as the foundation of the narrative; the ba’al korei reads a pasuk, and a narrator and actor depict all of the actions, thoughts, and emotions portrayed in that pasuk in a captivating and audience-interactive performance. In this case, the Storahtelling Troupe depicted a few psukim describing the Yaakov-Esav rivalry.

The performance knocked my socks off. For one, the acting was unbelievable; by the end, we felt moved for everyone suddenly understood and personally identified with Yaakov’s situation (so yes, the actors were well trained and had practiced well). Additionally, the entire congregation now viewed Yaakov in a much deeper light now that they finally comprehended his true character. But most importantly, Storahtelling made Yaakov’s ancient story accessible for this 21st century generation, thus launching this ancient story amongst those participants who would have otherwise kept their Chumash shut.

A few months later when I learned Nechemya Chet in Shivat Tziyon class, my first thoughts sprang to Storahtelling . In Nechemya Chet, Ezra HaSofer read a section of Torah and the Liviyim restated the Torah in simpler words so that the congregation could understand the psukim. While this system was very practical for the unlearned group in Ezra’s time, the core differences between Nechemya Chet and Storahtelling are: 1. The Storahtellers are not Liviyim or other Jewish leaders; they are actors acting out the story instead of restating the story in simpler terms, thus promoting a unique type of understanding which the audience attains, and 2. The Storahtellers are performing whereas the Liviyim translated as part of a ritualalistic reading.

Although I wish my Orthodox kehillah would bring Storahtelling to my school, I doubt that the administration would include include Storahtelling or a Levi-equivalent to explain the psukim in shul is because Orthodoxy expects everyone to have a preliminary understanding of the Chumash; it is understood that Orthodox Jews should not need an interpreter to tell them the meaning of a pasuk for they should already have a general understanding the psukim.

However, I bet is that if you personally ask any Orthodox Jew during Kriyat HaTorah what the Chumash is talking about, most of them will shrug their shoulders. No, not because they cannot hear the chazzan chanting; they simply do not understand. They are on a similar level of understanding that the Jews in Nechemya Chet were on – both do not understand Kriyat HaTorah without the aid of an interpreter. Because Liviyim do not interpret today, Orthodox leaders clearly hold that the Liviyim only explained the chumash in the Nichemya Chet as a “bidieved” circumstance. But it is clear that we are still in that “bidieved” position. Perhaps, we need to let the Liviyim and Storahtellers to aid our understanding of today’s aliyot.

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