Prayer Shawl/Red Flag: What Sparks Protest Most? Word 35.

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We tried different slogans for the protest: “Everybody’s Equal!”, “No More Mo!”, “Enough Already!” A kid sitting in the front put down his copy of Harry Potter and started shouting ‘“De-mo-cracy!” (This is all in Hebrew).  And while we were having a good time translating the old Torah tales of protest for our own realities, angry protesters were taking to the streets of Turkey with slogans and fists and demands for change.

Simple slogans, strong symbols –  works best.

This was this past Shabbat, in the shady courtyard of the Democratic School in Pardes Chana, a smallish city in the North, where 50 people gathered for a cozy afternoon of singing, eating and storahtelling – under the auspices of Darchei Noam – a new Masorti/Conservative congregation to this area.  We brought out the Torah and I translated verse by verse, storahtelling style, acting the story out and inviting the crowd to step into the shoes of ancient rebels and leaders and try to figure out what’s really going on and what can we learn about how to or how not to protest injustice. I was unplugged for shabbat and didn’t know that at the same time the protests were starting to grow in Istanbul and Ankara. But it’s not like all the people sitting there haven’t tasted public protest – even the kids. Recent years have seen a lot of them, everywhere, and also in Israel.

The text we read was Korach – this week’s Torah portion, Mose’s cousin, for whom this portion is named is traditionally  considered to be the bad guy, challenging, arrogantly,  the authority of Moses and of God. The protest that he leads ends with a mythic massacre, a miracle: the earth opens up to swallow him and all his followers.

But the more I read into what I think he was really doing the more I think he wasn’t all that wrong. His protest is the demand for equality in leadership, redistribution of power and wealth, and more access to the Divine.


Of course he ends up in a pit. This history, too, is written by the winners.

The Women of the Wall are called ‘Arrogant Procotours’ by pious protectors of the Status Quo and similar names by top government officials and rabbis; the Turkish Prime Minister named the protesters – a cross section of Turkish society – ‘terrorits’.  The 82 year old ‘terrorist nun’?

There’s more to this than meets the eye.

Some of sages also had a soft spot for Korach  and crafted careful rendering of his saga.  There is this one Midrash – a legend from the 5th century CE, about what sparked the Korach revolt: A blue prayer shawl.

In the text immediately preceding this story, Moses commands the people, on behalf of God, to start wearing shawls with fringes on them, one blue fringe on each garment corner. The midrash links the stories, giving Korach the didactic skills of a Talmudic sage and the showmanship of a modern day performance artist.

Korach, in consult with his wife,  creates 250 shawls, all of blue fabric, and attaches fringes to all corners.

He stages a protest with 250 leaders from the community all wrapped in the shawls, in front of the Big Tent.

And then Korach challenges Moses to a duel of words – with a legalistic question:

If the command is to have a blue fringe, what of a shawl that is all blue? does it also require a blue fringe?

Moses replies yes.

But Korach disagrees. ‘You were not instructed these laws by God. You made it up” – he accuses Moses in an early example of Hebraic religious conflict.

And it’s all downhill from there. Either the content of his protest or the way in which he framed it or both – there is no room for opposition under God and Moses.

(Midrash Bemidbar Rabba 18:3:  Full Hebrew text



This coming Sunday, June 9, is the New Moon and that means back to the Wall for a morning of prayer – and protest. Sparked by prayer shawls, worn by more than 250 leaders of the community – all women this time, a big movement and moment has erupted – calling attention to an uncomfortable and important battle for justice, dignity and the change of the status quo at the Western Wall – and in all walks of Jewish life.

The Women of the Wall are about as much liked by most Orthodox keepers of Judaism as Korach himself. Ovadia Yosef, the leader of Shas, announced that he will attend,health permitting, on Sunday with 100,000 protectors of the faith.



Protester and protectors alike are both chanting the old words of Korach:

“Rav Lachem” – “Enoguh! You’ve gone too far!”


The protest in Turkey was sparked by the refusal of a few young people to see trees uprooted in the the public park; Korach started with a blue fringe. Here in Jerusalem, prayers shawls are again the symobl of all that is sacred and all can stifle the life of the soul.

Korach didn’t win. His story survived to remind us of the right to challenge authority – but also how to do it smarter. and succeed.

I hope that this coming Sunday will offer more prayer, less protest, a step towards respectful co-existence and a bit less hate. I’ll be there, with an all blue prayer shawl, and a slogan turned prayer: enough is enough.

Here’s to more justice, more respect, and way more peace. 

Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Two People, One Talit: Protest at the Wall

. שנים אוחזין בטלית
.בראש חודש אייר האחרון לא עצרו אותנו הבוקר ברחבת הכותל
    הצטרפה אלי נעמה, חברה ללימודי הרבנות, ועמדנו  יחד ברחבת המבקרים, טלית אחת פרושה על שנינו, סידור אחד וכוונה אחת לתפילת אמת ושלום במקום הזה שכה מעורבבים בו קודש וחילול
למה? כבר ראשי חודש רבים שנינו באים לפה לתמוך בנשות בכותל ובקריאה למרחב דתי שויוני – ומתקשים להתפלל באמת. לנעמה אסור ללבוש טלית, כמנהגה, ואני מאחורי מחיצה, ולשנינו אסור להתפלל יחדיו, כמנהגנו. שנינו תלמידי רבנות מסורתית ורוצים להתפלל יחדיו, במנין, עם טלית, ושואפים ךפתרון מכבד את הבריות – כולן

למה היום? היום ה11 באפריל הוא היום בו שוחרר אבי מבוכנוולד
הבוקר התפללתי הלל בהודיה על חייו וחירותו ובתפילה לחירות ושחרור של כל אדם בכל זמן – שחרור משנאת חינם, פחד שווא, קטנות מוחין, חרדה והדרה

נהיה שם שוב, אם תרצה השם, בראש חודש סיון, יחדיו, שנים מתעטפות בטלית, עד שתתקבל הצעה מכבדת ומכובדת על כל הצדדים.כולנו אוחזין בטלית
מוזמנות ומוזמנים להצטרף. חודש טובה

PEACEFUL PROTEST AT THE WALL FOR COED PRAYERS: The new moon of the month of Iyar just happened this past Thursday, April 11, and I spent it at the Western Wall, protesting the lack of equality for women and all non-orthodox Jews. Since women are not allowed to wear a talit in the kotel – they get arrested for violation of ‘local customs’ I invited one of my friends and fellow rabbinic students, Naamah Levitz-Applebaum, to stand with me, under my talit, and pray together, away from the either/or men/women section, and just, pray, together.
We did. And for the first time in many new moons as we’ve both been attending these protests – we could actually focus and pray. for peace. and justice, for equality, and much more.
We want to support the creation of a third section, co-ed, egal, open to all – and situated in a dignified, accesible and respectful location along side the current location of the wall. Such a plan was just unveiled this past week but is still a long way from approval or acceptance.
It was a bit hard to focus on prayer with all the commotion around – women wearing talit were being arrested, ultra orthodox men and women were shouting curses at them, and many photographers filled the scene. When they got a look at us – an usual co-ed, peaceful praying ‘couple’ – they pounced.
The good news: We were NOT arrested or even detained. The police people looked at us with funny looks and didn’t quite know what to do with us, so they had other issues to deal with. The media loved it – our photo and intentions were circulating on blogs, Facebook, Israeli TV and some newspapers.
Here is one link:
Here is the Israeli Channel 10 news hour – we’re at 35:07:
 Naamah Levitz-Applebaum wrote on her FB feed this morning: 
After contemplating what to do this morning, I decided to go to the Kotel with Amichai and daven together, with one tallit (as I couldn’t wear mine). For the first time since supporting this cause I was actually able to concentrate on my tefilla and enjoyed singing hallel together. Until there is an actual concrete solution, we will continue to come every month and support, pray together and hope that we are able to make even a small change in this complex Israeli reality
 Next new moon we intend to be back – with another minyan of co-ed prayers, he and she, sharing a talit. I suspect it may get to some same sex couples but that’s a whole other story of inclusion and justice. Thank you for your blessings and good wishes! This fight is right and will be won.

Taking Torah off the scroll and bringing it to life/Ha’aretz Online 12/2/12

Taking Torah off the scroll and bringing it to life/Ha’aretz Online 12/2/12


By Judy Maltz | Dec.02, 2012 | 10:45 AM


Amichai Lau-Lavie is breathing new life into ancient Biblical tales with his project ‘Storahtelling,’ a method of Torah engagement that has won fans in the United States and is starting to find an audience in Israel.

Amichai Lau-Lavie’s “Storahtelling” project has earned him celebrity status in the Jewish hipster world of New York and beyond. Photo by Emil Salman


The Torah reading of the week provided the performing-artist-turned-aspiring-rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie with the perfect opportunity to illustrate the relevancy of ancient texts for modern times: Two feuding brothers, in this case Jacob and Esau, put aside their differences and meet up after many long years – sound familiar?

“It’s the classic ceasefire,” declares Lau-Lavie. “Israel-Palestine, helloooo.”

Israeli-born Lau-Lavie, who lives in New York, is spending the year at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem as part of his rabbinical studies program. In between tackling issues like whether women in the Conservative movement should be allowed to participate in the priestly blessings and preserving faith in God after the Holocaust, he’s taking advantage of his visit back home to spread the message of “Storahtelling” – a project he launched when he moved to New York 14 years ago that uses storytelling and performing arts to breathe new life into the ancient Jewish texts.

It’s a project that has earned him celebrity status in the Jewish hipster world of New York and beyond, where he’s already trained 400 professional Storahtellers, or “Mavens” as they’re more commonly known – a modern-day breed of the “meturgeman” who would translate and interpret the Torah stories for the masses.

This past week, he demonstrated his skills at Kehillat Yachad, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Tel Aviv, where he also held a special session with the youngest congregants dedicated to the story of Jacob’s ladder. “It was a great opportunity for the kids to talk about their nightmares and fears, especially with what was going on here last week,” says Lau-Lavie.

His edgy, jazzed up interpretations of the ancient texts often involve playing the role of characters in the story, injecting music into the dramatizations, and engaging the congregants in more interactive discussions, often challenging them to draw modern lessons from the ancient stories. Unlike the traditional Shabbat sermon, delivered by the congregational rabbi after the Torah reading, Storahtelling involves real-time interpretations of the text, with the “Maven” standing at the pulpit right next to the Torah-chanter.

Spreading the word in Israel, he says, presents unique challenges. “Israelis already speak and understand Hebrew, so it’s going to be interesting to see how they react to the idea of someone interpreting the Torah for them.”

Among the projects he has lined up for the coming months is a training course for professional storytellers in the art of Storahtelling that will be offered this spring at Elul, a center for Jewish pluralism in Jerusalem. In addition, he’ll be running a course for “Mavens” at Neviah, an alternative Jewish learning center in Tel Aviv.

Storahtelling, which is a registered non-profit in the United States, has put considerable emphasis in recent years on reaching out to bar- and bat-mitzvah age children and helping them incorporate storahtelling techniques into the traditional ceremony. Training individuals in Israel to work in this niche market is another one of Lau-Lavie’s goals for the year.

Bridging past and present

If his approach to teaching Torah is not conventional, neither is his lifestyle.

The son of Israeli diplomat Naftali Lavie and nephew of the former chief rabbi Yisrael Lau, Lau-Lavie is a 43-year-old, single, out-of-the-closet gay man with three biological children – ages 2, 4 and 6 – from two women who live together as a lesbian couple in New York. A descendant of 37 generations of rabbis, Lau-Lavie broke away from his Orthodox upbringing when he was in his early 20s.

His interest in Torah stories was sparked 17 years ago, the night Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. “At the time I was studying about the sacrifice of Yitzhak, and then Yigal Amir comes and says God told him to do it,” he recounts. “Here was the sequel to the story in the Torah. Yigal Amir was an informed and educated Jew, and he used that to bring about the sacrifice of Yitzhak. I realized then that unless I and people like me find other ways of interpreting these stories, they’ll be hijacked by the Yigal Amirs and Dov Liors [a radical settler rabbi] of this world. That’s when I decided to become a storyteller.”

The practice of Storahtelling, says Lau-Lavie, devloped 2,500 years ago in the early Second Temple era, when illiteracy among the Jewish population was rampant and the people lacked a shared narrative. “Ezra and Nehemiah created this ceremony of storytelling, which they had probably learned from the Persians,” he explains. “They would bring the Torah out to the people. Someone would chant from the Torah and someone else would translate or interpret what was being said – providing the subtitles or close captions. We’ve been congealed as a people because of that ceremony.”

About 1,500 years ago, the practice died out and with it the profession of Torah interpreters. While serving as an artist-in-residence at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Lau-Lavie noticed that every week, people would simply “check out” whenever the Torah reading began. “It was the silliest thing,” he says. He told the rabbi he wanted to launch an experiment using the New York congregation as his guinea pig. “We called it ‘Saturday Morning Live’ at first, and people were absolutely riveted,” he recalls. “That’s how Storahtelling began.”

His determination to use the Torah stories as a vehicle for promoting peace and coexistence, says Lau-Lavie, is what eventually motivated him to become a rabbi. “Religious leaders can make peace,” he says.

The ultimate objective of Storahtelling, according to Lau-Lavie, is bridging the past with the present. And next week, he’ll be traveling back to the United States in the hope of building another bridge of sorts. “While I was sitting here last week and there were rockets flying all over the place and sirens going off, I was shocked that so few people abroad thought about calling and seeing how I was doing,” he recounts. “It made me feel there’s a big disconnect between here and there, and that got me to thinking about the dreidel, which is something that really illustrates that disconnect. In Israel, the dreidel has the letter ‘peh’ on it, which stands for ‘po’ or ‘here,’ and everywhere else it has the letter ‘shin’ on it, which stands for ‘sham’ or ‘there.’ So I’m going to be bringing to America 500 dreidels that have a ‘peh’ on them to show them that ‘there’ is ‘here.’”

Snake, Shiva, Schechter – Report from Jerusalem 1/12

Mourning rituals. Gay rights. Policy change and the silent scream that is the shedding of a snake’s skin and the process of change in the world. Somehow this all comes together in my report from a few meetings and encounters in Jerusalem in the first week of January 2012. 

This Midrash came to my mind a few days ago: There are six sounds that carry from one of the world to the other  – yet are never heard. These include the sound of a soul leaving a dying body, and the sound of the snake shedding its skin.  I heard echoes of these silent, painful and beautiful sounds of change during the week I had just spent in Jerusalem.  It was a complicated week of mourning, family obligations, and extended encounters in regard to the important transitions of the Masorti Movement in Israel – my extended community.

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