By Paulette Schneider
Once upon a time, over a millennium ago, the weekly Torah reading may have sounded like the one at CSAIR last Saturday.
These days, it appears that “the people of the book often don’t know what’s in it.” So a decade ago, performance artist and Judaic literature teacher Amichai Lau-Lavie gathered a group of education-minded actors and founded a troupe to address this problem. Their name is Storahtelling, and their aim is to reconnect the Jews with the Torah—the Five Books of Moses—through ritual theater.
As the week’s Torah portion is chanted in the traditional manner, the reader pauses at selected passages and Storahtelling actors present what they call an interpretive translation, dramatizing the text in contemporary terms. Their material is based on careful study of standard and modern sources.
Lau-Lavie discovered that interpretive translation is far from new. From the inception of ritual Torah reading until the early Middle Ages, a professional “maven” provided vernacular translations of the Hebrew text. The maven’s interpretation may have evolved into what is now the rabbi’s sermon.
During Storahtelling Torah reading sessions, actors serve as mavens, challenging shulgoers to express their thoughts on what’s going on in the current week’s bible story. They do not hesitate to pose serious and fundamental questions: Are the Jews really chosen among all the nations? Those in favor and those opposed are asked to defend their views.
Whether or not there is a chosen people, Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale (CSAIR) was in fact one of a few chosen synagogues to receive a grant from the Legacy Heritage Fund. According to CSAIR Director of Youth and Informal Jewish Education Mike Dorfman, “One of the fund's main goals is to shift the paradigm of Jewish education from the ‘old Hebrew school model’…to models more creative and family-oriented that will provide systemic change throughout a synagogue.”
At last Saturday morning’s Shabbat services at CSAIR, Storahtelling’s Deanna Neil and Jonathan Adam Ross adapted parts of the weekly Torah portion into an interactive play, drawing out and clarifying concepts. The event kicked off a one-year program for sixth through eighth graders, who will learn Torah through theatrical programs and games developed by Storahtelling and the CSAIR staff.
Another Storahtelling “performance” at CSAIR is scheduled for June 6, 2009. For more information, call Mike Dorfman at 732-995-4707.