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.’”

Was Obama, just like Abraham, selected by God? This week’s word is “President”

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President נשיא



Was Obama, just like Abraham, selected by God?
Hear me out on this one. I’m not assuming that all those who voted Blue are thanking God for the elections just as many pious ones who voted Red are not, I hope, accusing the Almighty of their loss. I definitely don’t know enough about Mormon theology to know what they make of Mitt’s defeat.  But I do wonder about the role that this elusive power plays in politics, beyond the dutiful ‘God Bless America’ at the end of the re elected president’s moving victory speech.  At some delirious sleepless point this morning, eyes wet with tears and heart full of happiness, with the sun rising over Jerusalem, I found myself praying, and blessing, and feeling the presence of life’s grander Presence in the messy details of this mortal coil.

For the record – I may have still felt this way had Obama lost. Some moments transcend business as usual no matter the result. But one is allowed to have subjective feelings, and I want to believe that if there really is a God – She is on the side of progress, human dignity, social change, and unconditional love – black, white, red, blue, able, disabled, gay, straight, etc. – the President said it better.

what does Abraham have to with it? He may have been our first big leader to fuse politics and faith, recognised by others as a delegate of forces from beyond. In this week’s Torah text, Chayei Sarah, the Elder statesman buries his wife Sarah and then dies himself. But before he does so he is honored by the locals, thus giving us the first Biblical appearance of the Hebrew word NASI – President, or Prince. And in this instance he is not just named a leader – the Hittites, in Genesis 23  name him NASI ELOHIM – Divine President, or as most English Bibles translate it: A mighty prince.
I asked my father for a better translation this morning and he thought for a moment and suggested: God’s Elect.

Mr. president, you are the newly chosen father of a nation badly in need of a competent, courageous and compassionate adult in charge. Like Abraham, and like each and every one of the 33 presidents that came before you, you are recognized as Nasi Elohim, God’s elect. I wish for you – for all of – the humility of living up to this divine inspiration – and for all of this, to support you in the tricky road ahead, fiscal cliffs and all – after all, believing or not – In God We Trust.

Shabbat Shalom


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

Sandy, Sodom, and How Not to Handle Disasters. Weekly Word #4

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

Sodom סדום/Vayera
“NYC is like Sodom”, the taxi driver says on Tuesday morning, as the radio describes the rising panic in Manhattan and the taxi swerves into the Old City of Jerusalem.” They deserve it. It’s just like in this week’s Torah when God punishes the evil Sodomites with fire. This time it’s another flood.”
Seriously?? Where to begin? I am already tired and tense- from being up all night trying to communicate with friends and family back in NY, worried for some stranded, and unsure about the state of my ground floor apartment in the East Village. All I could muster was something like ” I’m from there, and I got three young children there, and plenty of kind and pious friends, some of them so called Sodomites, and you are evil and ignorant and are disgracing the Torah and the kippa on your head, so shut the f up and stop the car. NOW.”
He wanted to argue and discuss, beginning to apologize. But this, so sorry, was not the day for patient dialogue. I slammed the door and walked away. I heard him snicker.
I’m not even sure what angered me more. The lack of compassion for other people, the arrogant religious attitude that claims to know God’s ways and attributes natural disasters to some celestial selective codes of crime and punishment , the appropriation of the Sodom story as homophobic bile, or the simpleton’s reduction of a sacred text as a cause for hate.
Sodom is in this week’s Torah tale, Vayera, tucked between the birth of Isaac and his binding by his father, the city of sin is guilty and gone. Over centuries Sodom’s crime of violence becomes identified with homosexuality. But that’s not what this text is about. Not really, a closer reading exposes the reason for the rage – Sodom was a home for hate.
Two days later, the clean up has begun, though many of my friends are still without water, heat or power. Debris is still everywhere in the streets, spilling over sewers, and with the stench, I fear, will rise more of the dark malicious accusations, speculations, mystical meanderings, evil and ridiculous finger pointing like what I  heard in the taxi.
I understand people’s need to blame something, someone for misfortunes – but this type of reasoning needs to be nipped in the bud. zero tolerance for this kind of behaviour.  Those who scorn the modern Sodom are in fact its residents – the ones truly guilty of Sodom’s  sin – the hatred of others.
Here is what I wish I told that driver:
Sodom is a state of mind. It’s a terrible story about people who forget the meaning of kindness, and are lost in their own selfish greed and fear of others. The sin of Sodom is not same-sex love – it’s the lack of love – it’s violence.  And violence can live in words.
Sodom came and went but the story lives and so does hatred. Sodom is here and now – anywhere you let it fester. But it doesn’t have to. It’s your choice to love or hate the other and the stranger to your ways. Sodom chose one way – will you choose another? Leave NY alone – there’s plenty wrong there as there is in Jerusalem. Focus on what you can do today to make things better, leave the why things happen question to another day.
Off the soapbox now. In real life all I did was slam the door.  But I hope that in the days ahead the crisis mode will be replaced with humble kindness, as people on the East Coast and beyond continue helping each other, reaching out to those alone, sharing physical and spiritual nourishment and heat. I hope there’ll be no useless blaming but only smart awareness of what we can all do to take better care of the planet, and our cities, and of each other, and to rise to the challenge of reducing Sodom like states of mind anywhere we are. Maybe next time I will breath with more compassion and react with more patience to other people’s views no matter how annyoing.
To all of you in NYC and in the path of Sandy- rise gently from the mess, and rise with love.
Shabbat Shalom


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

The Altars of the Slain Defy Location: The Weekly Word/Lech Lecha

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.


3. Altar מזבח/Lech Lecha

Driving through Jerusalem last night with out of town guests I point out landmarks: Here I lived and loved, this is where the bomb went off, see the hidden shrine. For natives and tourists and pilgrims alike some spots are holier than others, some attractions more popular or less. All of Jerusalem is one big sacred site, dotted by plaques and monuments, and in the middle of it all is the holy mount, and on its summit, shining gold, is the ancient altar, covered by layers of faith.  Noah, they say, built an altar here, Abraham almost offered his son.
This week’s Torah text,  Lech Lecha, is full of altars. Abraham, leaving his family’s estate in Mesopotamia to  what will become the Hebraic homeland, pauses on his journey  to mark milestones  – again and again, he builds on altar. Altars are slaughter sites – stone structures where sacrifices are offered to the local deity, food shared and smoke rising – a vertical connection between heaven and earth: the nameless spot becomes a known location: You are here now.
Two altars are on my mind this week, both connected not by space but by time.
This coming Saturday night marks the 70th anniversary of my Grandfather’s murder. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau was gassed to death in Treblinka – that terrible altar of so many sacrifices, along with one of his sons, and his entire congregation. He was the last rabbi of the town, and according to survivors he led his flock to death holding a Torah scroll and chanting the S’hma and Kaddish. This coming Saturday night our extended family will gather in B’nei Brak to welcome a new Torah scroll into my uncle’s Yeshiva.
17 years ago my grandfather’s yahrtzeit was also on Saturday night and in my home in Jerusalem I lit a candle. That was the night on which Yitzchak Rabin was murdered, in the Tel Aviv square now named for him. Spontaneous altars rose all over the country, countless candles lit.
A Rally will take place in Rabin Square this Saturday night – we will vow to never again tolerate this hostile violence. I hope to be able to attend both of these events.
Abraham’s altars lit the fires and the smoke still rises, connecting heaven and earth, private and public, past and present; candles will be lit by that fire and memories ignited: we are here – still here – always, and now.  These altars are not about location – they, like memories, exist beyond.
זכרונם לברכה
shabbat Shalom

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

PURIM 2012!

Hadassah’s Back! Purim @ JTS and Romemu! Free!

Purim Night, March 7th 2012
Hadassah & friends read the Megillah at JTS
PISH: The Purim Tish Party at Romemu

Megillah Reading @ Jewish Theological Seminary
3080 Broadway (@122nd St)
Featuring live music, a full megillah reading (chanted by JTS faculty and students), and live commentary & interaction by Rebbetzin Hadassah and members of Storahtelling.

Please arrive early and have photo ID available to enter the Seminary.
RSVPs REQUESTED at [email protected] This event is co-sponsored by the Columbia/Barnard Hillel.

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