Monday, February 14, 2011

Deeper Threads

By David Loewy, Storahtelling Maven
Storahtelling Maven Torah Reading Ritual
The Society for the Advancement of Judaism, New York City
“A pregnancy test…” is not the first answer you expect to a question
asked in synagogue, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect

I’ll explain…
This past Saturday at The Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ)
on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I had the privilege of delivering
a maven interpretation of twelve verses from Parashat Tetzaveh. Now,
Tetzaveh is chock full of minutely detailed instruction regarding the
materials and assembly of the tabernacle. In particular, it dwells on
the elements of the priestly uniform. It gives a very technical
description, right up until the mention of the Urim and Tummim, the
items through which G*d will decide the fate of the Children of
Israel. They are essentially an oracle attached to the high priest’s
breastplate. Whereas everything else in the inventory of the
tabernacle is given a complete set of specifications, the Urim and
Tummim, are named and then described no further.

This leaves poor Betzalel, the biblical designer who had to implement
the construction of these items, a little in the lurch. In his
character, I turned to the congregation and asked them for examples to
follow. “What are some items that provide foresight? What are things
that tell the future?” This yielded the immediate answer: “a pregnancy

A pregnancy test gives an authoritative, binary answer and predicts a
specific result within an approximate timeframe. At the same time, it
leaves the future open enough for the questioners to begin to craft
the possible futures in their own mind. It is the perfect example of a
definite stimulus that provides a wide variety of possibilities. It
was an ideal answer to spark our discussion.

As the congregation at SAJ concluded, objects only offer the foresight
that we give them. By deeming a thing prophetic, it allows us to look
to our future. By sanctifying something as holy, we gain transcendence
in its use.  We access the spirituality within the physical world by
endowing the physical world with aspiration, insight, and hope.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Joseph Dreamed in January

By Brian Gelfand, Storahtelling Maven
StorahSteps January Series:  Joseph's Dream
Sunday, 1/23/2011, at SSDS.
Have you ever wondered about Joseph and all the trouble his special cape caused? Run Shayo and I presented a series of shows about Joseph's Dream in January around New York and New Jersey.  Run played the part of Joseph and his sister Dina was played by the puppet, also courtesy of Run.  I played Reuben, the biggest, strongest, oldest son. We put on four successful shows, including the first Shomer Shabbat StorahSteps program for children and parents.  

Even without instruments and microphones, the show was still a hit!  It was an interesting experience adapting the show for a Shomer Shabbat audience. The kids had a larger working knowledge of both Hebrew and the bible story itself. While the limitations on instruments and microphones needed to be worked out logistically, other opportunities were available to make the show a smashing success. Because the children were aware of when we deviated from the story written in the Torah, this allowed for discussions on the topic of midrash and what can be learned from telling various versions of the same story. 

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Bible, Interrupted

By Jake Goodman, Storahtelling Maven
Storahtelling Maven Workshop
Temple Solel, Hollywood, FL

This last weekend, Storahtelling Maven Shira Kline and I traveled to sunny Hollywood, FL to perform a unique Storahtelling program for the Temple Solel community.  Our goal was to do a presentation focusing on our belief that story matters.  Looking back a few weeks prior to Parshat B'shallach, we highlighted the crossing of the sea and, most pertinently, the demise of Pharaoh and his entire army.  The Israelites crossed the sea, turned back to look and, ding-dong, the wicked witch (and all her little monkeys) were dead.

In the brainstorming of this, I referenced my educational training, which taught me that to stop the repetition of hateful rhetoric, you must interrupt it.   Quite simply, harmful stereotypes and concepts continue throughout history because, quite obviously, people repeat it:  often unconsciously, often with "benign" intentions, this rhetoric simply becomes part of common parlance.  (Example: the use of the word "Gyp," as in, "He Gyp'ed me," which is a slanderous reference to Gypsies/Roma.)  The way to stop this rhetoric is to interrupt it, as it happens, however often it happens.

Focusing on Shirat Ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea (which includes the famous Mi Chamocha text), we interrupted the Exodus narrative which we retell every year at Passover, and which is usually a source of great celebratory pride for us.  Just after the Hebrews successfully crossed the Sea of Reeds, God caused the waters to crash back down on the entire Egyptian army, killing everyone like ants.  As this happened, the Israelite people broke out in song.  The words of this song praised God's power and might.  They also reveled in the violent destruction of our enemies.

During the interactive part of our Storah presentation, we invited the congregation to put on their psychologist hats and look at the mentality of the people singing these words.  Congregants’ diagnoses included: angry, victims, post-traumatic stress disorder, exhausted, grateful, relieved.

We then asked, "Do you think this behavior has been repeating itself throughout our history, from ancient times to today?"   Are we still playing and replaying the victim roles that our mythic ancestors did, of vengeful celebrants?  Are we still living as though we are in a narrow place, as if it is us vs. them? 
People were eager to jump into this conversation with us.   Afterward, congregants approached both Shira and me, expressing gratitude for doing something so "different," "accessible" and mostly for "interrupting" their norm -- for making them see (and hopefully tell) this story in a different way.  Thanks to the Story, together we experienced a new consciousness.

*”Bible, Interrupted” was a phrase initially coined, to the best of our knowledge, by Amichai Lau-Lavie.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

God in a Box

By Annie Levy, Storahtelling Maven
Storahtelling Maven Shabbaton

Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, CT

What should the Temple of the Future look like? How can it be built on the solid foundation of the past  (biblically speaking, as we were translating Terumah) and the present (pluralistically speaking, fulfilling the needs of the largest community possible)? And do we still need a “box” for God at all? This past weekend, Shawn Shafner and I spent Shabbat with Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, CT exploring these questions, and the many others that undoubtedly come up over an artist in residence shabbaton. However, the questions that everyone seemed to want to know the answer to went as follows: There is no story in Terumah, might as well just leave it in the Hebrew; what are you possible going to do to make it interesting to us?

Shawn and I were confident that we would, at least, be able to answer that last question, the question of personal relevance, without breaking a sweat. We are Storahtellers after all, Mavens trained in the intricate art of translating ancient instructions into contemporary conversation. Shawn and I set out to meet the challenges of a parsha that is basically just a list of building instructions, literally biblical blueprints, by setting up two characters, Bezalel’s contemporary ancestor, a modern day architect, and the matriarch Miriam, who were at odds with each other over whether we should look to the parsha as instructions of how our modern synagogues should look, or whether we should scrap the whole idea of what “was” in the interest of developing the best possible “what will be.” The Maven ritual climaxed, as it so often does, in the second aliyah stretch with the question, “How can we create the Temple of the Future to fulfill the spiritually needs of the largest possible community, especially those who are otherwise unengaged, the spiritually unfulfilled?”

The congregation faced this question with the expected moment of silence for contemplation and consideration (a few younger members of the congregation filled the adult’s silence with their offers of “a swimming pool!” and “a petting zoo!”)  but soon all of the adults' hands shot up and they began to offer a pretty thorough checklist of ways to improve on synagogue life in order to build the Temple of the Future. Shawn and I were feeling pretty proud of ourselves, we had clearly found our way into the story, our plan had worked, we had somehow managed to make this boring, irrelevant parsha meaningful! However, the real revelation came at the talk back, when we were asked if we had know that this synagogue was currently wrestling with the very question that the parsha asked, in the form of strategic planning to insure a Temple of the Future for that community. We had gone in with a plan of what we thought was relevant only to find that these stories are playing themselves out on their own.

Storahtelling Hires New Executive Director

Storahtelling Hires New Executive Director

Storahtelling, Inc. has announced the appointment of Isaac Shalev as its new Executive Director, effective February 15th. 

As it prepares to launch its 13th year of operations with a Bar Mitzvah celebration, Storahtelling is thrilled to be adding a key player to its leadership team. 

Shalev was instrumental in launching Birthright Israel NEXT, the sister organization of Taglit-Birthright Israel which provides free first-time trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. As Chief Operating Officer he was responsible for overseeing the engagement, education and community-building activities for Jewish young adults ages 21-32 throughout the USA, with a focus on the 180,000+ alumni of the Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. Shalev is widely known as a thought-leader, a builder of organizations, an educator and technology specialist. 

The transition is a tremendous milestone for the organization, currently located in residence at the 14th Street Y in lower Manhattan. 

“For everything there is a season.” said Amichai Lau-Lavie, Storahtelling’s founder. 

"Building Storahtelling from the ground up has been a tremendous adventure. With so many talented people now on board – we are ready for bigger and better. I am proud of what we’ve achieved and am excited about our next chapter." 

"Storahtelling has inspired thousands by bringing the drama of the Torah back to the synagogue,” said Shalev. 

“I'm excited to build on Amichai Lau-Lavie's pioneering work and spread the power and passion of Storahtelling to Jewish communities that are hungry for inspiration." Storahtelling, a pioneer in Jewish arts and education, informs and transforms the ways modern Jews relate to their cultural legacy, ritual celebrations and spiritual heritage. Storahtelling's signature pedagogy, The Maven Method ™, integrates Judaism’s oldest teaching tools with contemporary stagecraft and educational techniques. The organization has satellite programs operating in Colorado, California and Israel. Lau-Lavie will continue on with the organization, transitioning to the role of “Founding Director” solely focused on overseeing the organization’s work training Mavens around the world. 

"Isaac is a perfect fit for our organization and will be instrumental in enabling us to realize our full potential," said Sarah Sokolic, Storahtelling Board member who led the efforts of the search. "We have come so far already, impacting the lives of so many people through our work over the years. We are now poised for even greater successes.” 

For more information about Storahtelling log onto

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

In the Space Between

By Naomi Less, Storahtelling Director of Education and Training
6th Graders and parents encounter the Maven Method (TM)

Shaaray Tefilah (NYC)
This weeks's parsha highlights the famous "ark of the covenant" and the beautifully crafted golden cherubim that are to be placed on the cover's edges, facing each other. In that space, between the faces of the two cherubs, is where God will dwell. This was a perfect analogy for what I witnessed when facilitating an introduction to the Maven Method (TM) with 6th Graders and their parents at Shaaray Tefilah on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Through intensive, interactive and engaging work together in family teams, participants were able to find a bullseye, a main focal point, of what the story of Terumah is all about.

"If you build it, God will come!"
"God dwells in the space between two people's relationships!"
"The outside packaging can often be as important as the message inside!"

How these families converged together to find that this ancient ancient story of a blueprint can speak to us on a personal level, on a local current level and on a 2011 world-view level demonstrated that God truly dwelled in the space between.

A Double-Storah Spectacular: Moses in the Sky with Diamonds & Becoming Israel

By Daliya Karnofsky, Storahtelling Maven
A Double-Storah Spectacular: Moses in the Sky with Diamonds & Becoming Israel

Congregation Beth El, Sudbury, MA

This weekend Alex Wolfson, Franny Silverman, Emily Warshaw, and I had the pleasure of spending Shabbat with Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts. We were prepared to learn with and enjoy our time in an uber-educated and intellectual community, highly involved in their Jewish studies, but we had no idea just exactly how much of a treat was in store.   Before Alex's and my Maven performance, "Moses in the Sky with Diamonds," on Saturday morning, we met a lively, involved, enthusiastic group of individuals with fantastic insight and a wicked sense of humor. They loved our humorous take on feminism and appreciated the questions we raised about how to take part in a democracy while still feeling our individual voices are heard.

Normally nervous for these performances, after my first line, I knew I was safe. This congregation felt like home. They were hungry for entertainment, discussion, knowledge, and a worthy forum for their astoundingly unpretentious intelligence. Sometimes our "Second Aliyah Stretch" can be a bit frightening for a community.  Faced with probing questions, Mavens are sometimes met with thoughtful or simply stunned silence.  Not at Beth El!  This time, it felt as if it could have gone on forever. The responses ran the spectrum from humorous to well thought out to just plain bizarre. Every individual was respected and cherished in this community, called by one "a cast of characters", and the acceptance was felt. We also had a lively talkback afterwards accompanied by an amazing potluck Kiddush lunch; just another symbol of this community's generosity.

That evening, after Havdallah, we took a more performative role in our production of "Becoming Israel." Again, a lively, heartfelt talkback followed with valuable input and visible emotion. Two high energy workshops completed our weekend Sunday morning, and we were off in a car weighed down once again by Beth El's love and generosity; this time in the form of the contents of their synagogue refrigerator emptied into our willing hands. We left astounded, refreshed, bathed in love and light and intellectual curiosity from this extraordinarily warm community in the middle of the coldest season. We were incredibly fortunate to have this experience, and we thank them for sharing their home and hearts with us. This kind of family is what it's all about.

We the People?

By Annie Lewis, Storahtelling Maven
A Maven Shabbaton Weekend

Temple Beth El, Boca Raton, Florida

There is a Hasidic teaching that a person should always carry two truths in his or her pockets. In one, “For my sake, the entire world was created,” and in the other, “ I am but dust and ashes.” The challenge is to know the right moment to pull each one out.

Jake Goodman and I had a weekend of revelation at Temple Beth El, in Boca Raton, Florida. We were invited to be a part of the community’ s special festivities as they began the writing of a new Torah scroll.

Friday night, we read parshat Mishpatim. As the Israelite nation arrives at Sinai, we told the story of Rachel Bat Shutelach, who nominates herself to be the 70th Elder on the Board of Elders. Elder 68 welcomes her as the first woman elder remarking, “ We have been talking about how we could use some more diversity on this board.” The words of the Torah record that everyone is present at Mount Sinai and that the people consent to the covenant with God “ in one voice.” Rachel raises her voice to question whether everybody is truly represented. As Elder 68 leads the people in the chant, “Na’aseh V’Nishmah! We will do and we will hear!” Rachel expresses doubt as to whether the people should jump into the new covenant without knowing all the details and the fine print. After all, the Israelite people are fresh out of slavery in Egypt, where they had no say over their lives, where many were no more than numbers. As Rachel makes her voice heard, Elder 68 reprimands her for getting in the way of revelation for everyone.

The community of Temple Beth El helped us to explore the tension between standing up for one’s beliefs and making one’s voice heard, and silencing oneself for the greater good. Congregants shared stories about having to sacrifice their own needs and desires as parents taking care of children and as children taking care of parents. One woman shared a familiar story about being a Jew in public school around Christmas time and making her voice heard to her choir director about the non-inclusive repertoire. One young man expressed his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the way he spoke up on behalf of himself and his people, and changed the world.

We were honored to be a part of this joyous occasion as Temple Beth El celebrated the power of Torah. We know community members will continue to make their voices heard in the telling of transformative Torah.

Storahtelling Booking Sale Going on Now!

This month only, Storahtelling is offering savings up to 20% off on a variety of programs! Re-imagine Purim, Passover, Shavuot, Shabbat (for all ages!) by bringing Storahtelling to your community!

Since 1999 Storahtelling has been informing and transforming the Jewish conversation, making ancient stories and traditions accessible and exciting for new generations, and raising social consciousness. This spring, your community can celebrate the power of sacred stories that can change the world!

StorahSteps, Storahtelling's newest program focuses on engaging the youngest members of your community. Designed for children ages 2-6 and their parents, StorahSteps brings biblical sagas and Jewish holidays to life with Storahtelling's interactive performances featuring actors, live music and puppetry.
Storahtelling's Maven program revitalizes your community's traditional Torah Reading Service with Storahtelling "Mavens" - skilled educators, performers and musicians - who bring back the ancient craft of interpretive translation with live theatre and interactive storytelling - completely customized to suit your congregational needs!

For more information on hosting a Storahtelling event, please contact Emily Warshaw, Storahtelling's Booking Specialist, at 646-395-4350 or via e-mail at

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