08/29/11

Behind The Curtain: The Story of Storahtelling

In July 1996 my father turned seventy and our entire tribe gathered at a hotel on the slopes of Mt. Hermon in Northern Israel for a celebratory weekend.

As soon as we arrived at the hotel on Friday afternoon, my older brother, an Orthodox rabbi, proceeded to hastily convert the hotel’s lounge bar into a sacred space. Improvising, he used two plastic shower curtains that the hotel supplied. One curtain, transparent plastic with little pink flowers, was hung in the middle of the room, dividing the men from the women. The second curtain, also made of clear plastic but with pink flamingos dancing on its borders, was suspended across one of the room’s corners, on the men’s side: behind it was placed a tiny Torah scroll, separating the holier from the holy.

The Shabbat morning prayers were over and it was time for the Reading of the Torah. As we began singing the familiar hymn, my uncle, the top ranking rabbi in the room, walked over to the curtained corner, gently kissed the plastic curtain and then flung it open, revealing the Torah scroll. I have seen him and others do this act on countless occasions; softly kissing lush velvet curtains in vast synagogues – but never have I seen him smile as he did this time. The irony of the situation was not lost on the rest of us but it could not and was not publicly acknowledged. For the ritual to function ‘properly’ – the curtain had to retain its identity as ‘The Sacred Curtain’. There were elements of both beauty and absurdity to his ‘insignificant’ act, and perhaps that’s why it became so instantly memorable. Something ‘clicked’ for me at that moment. I became intrigued by the drama and mystery of the all too familiar ritual that was unfolding around me, suddenly viewing it through a new, appreciative perspective.

And then my father stood up to chant the Torah portion, a Bar Mitzvah boy of seventy, re-enacting his initiation ceremony, in Poland, 1939. He stood surrounded by wife, brothers, children and grandchildren. Also in the room were his dead parents, brother, relatives and friends, deported and killed only months after he turned thirteen. He chanted quietly from the Torah scroll, telling us the tale that fate has allotted him – his portion in the Torah. By the time he was through we were all crying, even he, who seldom does. That morning, the meaning of the Torah story became less important than my father’s legacy of survival and endurance, but both ‘stories’, the text and the subtext, perfectly complemented each other.

Soon the Torah was rolled up and its velvet mantle kissed, the curtain was flung open again and closed. The service was soon over, the second curtain was removed as well, and everybody went to eat. I remained sitting there after they had left, deeply touched by the experience, my mind racing with questions.

Torah, I understood that morning, as well as the Torah Reading Ritual – is actually a pretext – an invitation for intimate storytelling that will touch our soul, mark our journeys, bring us closer to ourselves and to each other. The curtain – I thought – is just like in theaters, marking the passage into story time. And if the Torah Reading is an ancient  form of Storytelling Theater – perhaps The Original Jewish Theater itself, should it not always be as engaging and profound as this one was? Shouldn’t the world’s bestseller be worthy of a more compelling presentation?  The curtain winked at me, pink flamingos and all, inviting me to rediscover and reclaim the dormant theatrical elements of the Reading of Torah, my tribal ritual of sacred story telling.

 

 

My opportunity for this research came almost instantly. In 1997, I was invited to serve as Scholar In Residence at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. Over the course of my year long residency in this pioneering community, I realized that even at the dynamic BJ Shabbat service, The Reading of Torah had remained staid and mostly uninspiring, a challenge to clergy and congregants alike. Here, as elsewhere, the reading was somber, serious and distant, conducted and understood by few. Often marking multiple B’nai Mitzvah celebrations, the service had become, at best, a tolerable spectacle, not a featured attraction. Could this once have been the central opportunity of education for the Jewish community? Is it possible that this storytelling ritual was once an exciting, dynamic story-telling performance? How had it become so stagnant? Can the theatrical elements be retrieved or inserted and the depth of the story telling consciously revived? How can this ancient ritual become relevant to my congregants, to my peers and to myself?

 

Encouraged by the congregation’s rabbis, I began researching the history, practice and forgotten elements of the Torah Reading, seeking to uncover its roots and potential improvements. This extensive research, spanning 2,000 years and 4 continents of Jewish literature and folklore yielded a number of significant factors and ideas.  Most significant among them was the forgotten Jewish institution known as Meturgeman – the “translator”.

 

Simultaneous translation of the Torah service into the local vernacular accompanied the traditional synagogue service from its inception over 2,000 years ago, throughout the world until the early Middle Ages.  The translator’s duty was not only to convey the original Hebrew text of the Torah to the non-Hebrew-speaking audience, but also to dramatically adapt the meaning of the narrative to the viewpoint of the congregation.  Scholars debate the reasons for the eventual disappearance of this once-vital role in the Jewish community.  Some conclude that the function served by the translators was eventually replaced by rabbinical sermons.  Although still practiced in some traditional Yemenite communities, the translator and his intricate art have for the most part vanished. I decided to revive the Meturgeman’s role in the community.

 

On a Saturday morning in November 1998, in collaboration with local musicians and cantors, I presented ‘Saturday Morning Live’ – A translated Torah Reading held at B’nai Jeshurun’s sanctuary. The performance featured original Hebrew chanting, English translation and commentary, and the congregants’ active participation. The reactions were overwhelmingly supportive and led to six more translation experiments at BJ over the next few months.

 

In 1999, inspired by the successful fusion of Torah and storytelling, I founded The Storahtelling Project – an independent collaboration between several musicians, actors, cantors and artists on the cutting-edge of Jewish music and performance art.

Today, Storahtelling is a vibrant non-profit organization with a staff of five and a strong network of performers and supporter, whose performances include “shultime” (in synagogues), “schooltime” (training others) and “showtime” (events performed in nightclubs and alternative venues spotlighting classic Jewish takes and holiday celebrations – including  “Oy to the World” an interfaith Hanukkah/Christmas event held annually New York City).

Storahtelling’s mission is to reclaim the art and rituals of sacred Jewish storytelling, inside and outside of the synagogue.  We develop methods and tools by which the relation to Torah and Jewish literacy is enhanced and made more easily accessible to the wider community.  The Storahtelling model offers a simple solution to a modern challenge, deeply rooted in tradition, yet radically current.  It is an exciting vision and a sacred task. At the hard moments along this long road I am inspired by words written by Rabbi A.Y.Kook, one of the early Religious Zionists, in the early 1900’s:  ‘The ancient shall be renewed – and the new shall be sanctified.’

So what have I discovered, after all these years, behind the curtain? I’ve discovered the potential healing that resides in ritual, the deep conversation that is elicited from the right tale told in the right context. I’ve often thought about that shower curtain with the pink flamingos, about how transparent the truths around us are and how cleverly they are disguised.

 

Behind the curtain, I keep discovering, is an open door.

 

published by Storahtelling 2004