Nachshon ben Aminadav, the first Israelite to plunge into the Red Sea ahead of the Egyptians, had spiky purple and red hair. Isaac our forefather, in a black T-shirt and jeans, clung to the wall and trembled. And Gideon roamed about, looking for true believers among the crowd of people clutching paper plates of melon and hard-boiled eggs.
“It was certainly a challenge, especially at that hour of the morning and without sufficient caffeine,” said Gidon Isaacs, who became a biblical character at a recent training session for rabbis and teachers. Isaacs, education director at the Upper West Side’s Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue, took a cue from his own name.
The group of 19 biblical notables in the social hall of the Town and Village Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in the East Village, had gathered there to learn a new, to them, method of reading and teaching Bible from Storahtelling, the theater troupe that “hijacks the Torah service,” in the words of Naomi Less, its education director.
The original Storahtellers were wandering players, dropping in on synagogues on Shabbat and using musical instruments, audience interaction, costumes and English to offer a funky interpretation of the weekly portion featuring, say Noah as a gloomy drunk or Bezalel as a flamboyant interior designer. The troupe, whose 35 members still perform over 50 times a year, was the invention in 1999 of Israeli ex-pat Amichai Lau-Lavie, who told New York magazine that he wanted to make the Torah service less “dauntingly boring.”
But by late 2007, Lau-Lavie (who is the nephew of Israel’s former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau) and the rest of the troupe concluded that they had to transmit the method to the rabbis and teachers who stay behind after the actors pack their bags for the next shul on the circuit. If they didn’t, their gospel of empowering Plony Almony — Hebrew for Joe Schmo — to read and interpret the Bible would never go viral.
“The most important thing we’ve learned is that we need to put this in the hands of educators, or it’s a boutique experience,” said the group’s director, Isaac Shalev.
This shift in strategy demands a bit of stretching, though, on the part of both the organization and the congregations. Storahtelling’s actors have to learn how to teach; teachers have to learn how to act. And congregants used to the traditional Torah service have to get comfortable with Noah the shikker.
“Storahtelling is moving from edgy provocateur mode to something that is — I don’t want to say mainstream, because that sounds fuddy-duddy — but more focused on partnership building with established institutions. They’re hungry for content and Storahtelling can meet that need,” said Caryn Aviv, a Jewish studies professor in Denver who spurred Storahtelling’s first big step in this direction by inviting its members to train Colorado rabbis and teachers, 20 so far.
Now they are not only offering that same training in New York to folks like Gidon Isaacs, but StorahSteps, an early childhood education project, is already in operation in New York and is soon to launch in San Francisco. They are exploring expansion in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and also offer Raising the Bar, aimed at reinvigorating the b’nai mitzvah rite of passage, in New York and Los Angeles. The program has been involved in 50 b’nai mitzvah ceremonies so far.
Agents of change often hail from outside established institutions, said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Conservative movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary. But revitalization of the synagogue service is a tall — and old — order. For decades, congregants have complained about the lack of spirit in the Torah reading that Storahtelling is trying to address.
“The slow and repetitive nature of Jewish prayer is out of sync with our expectations of rapid change,” Wertheimer said. “What it comes down to is whether synagogues are counter-cultural institutions.”
Rabbis and teachers who have signed up for Storahtelling training say they hope the training will help them inspire their congregants to not just sit and let the weekly portion wash over them, but to instead wrestle with it by seeking out commentaries and alternative translations, considering different characters’ points of view and reflecting on how they themselves would teach it.
“Our Torah text is not stagnant,” said Rabbi Cecilia Beyer, assistant rabbi at the Conservative temple Beth Shalom in Roslyn Heights, L.I. “I create my own midrash (commentary), teach it to them and then give them the opportunity to do that themselves.”
Here’s how Storahtelling training works: Trainers introduce their students to the concept of the “maven,” the translator and commentator who for 2,000 years rendered the Hebrew chanting into the local language. Storahtelling invites rabbis and teachers to assume that role, teaches them how and charges them with the mission of passing the “maven method” on to their congregants and students.
The method demands that its students, many of them clergy, temporarily put aside some of their formal training.
“We try to move away from preaching,” said Aviv.
Rabbis in particular sometimes struggle to work in this new mode.
“They can find it harder to play outside of those areas, and explore new possibilities,” director Shalev said. “They’re coming in with a lot of context that’s very hard to shed.”
Some natural overlap helps in this regard. Many of the Storahtelling trainees have theater backgrounds, and rabbis are often in some sense in front of an audience. After all, the Modern Hebrew word for “stage” is “bima.”
Still, learning to be a maven isn’t easy, Shalev said. The organization uses auditions to control quality. Potential trainees prepare a short monologue based on specific biblical verses.
Storahtelling works hard to put everyone at ease. “This is a safe space, with a lot of permissions,” said Less, the education director, at the beginning of the Nov. 21 session. “Permission to challenge, to play and hopefully to not know.”
Any emotional or intellectual risks are worth it, trainees say, because the method has so much pedagogical potential, especially, but not only, for those who can’t understand the chanted portion.
“For some of our congregants, just sitting doesn’t do it for them. They have limited knowledge and limited understanding,” Beyer said. “It’s reaching people we might not reach and also reaching everyone in a different way.”
It’s not as natural a fit for liturgical traditionalists. The New York trainees’ affiliations were a mix of Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative. One Orthodox participant had signed up, but couldn’t attend because of a scheduling conflict, Shalev said.
The original Storahtellers often deploy tools such as musical instruments and amplifiers that violate traditional Shabbat norms, but the rabbis and teachers learning the method will be careful to transplant a version that is in keeping with their institution’s sensibility.
Synagogues pay no more than $2,500 per person for the training; 15 different institutions are participating in the New York sessions. In its most recent fiscal year, Storahtelling’s annual budget was $558,000. The group lost its official nonprofit status due to “administrative snags” after founder Lau-Lavie stepped down as executive director, but will be reinstated as a 501c3 soon, Shalev said.
“We don’t think this is the be-all, end-all. We don’t teach you Hebrew. You need more. But this is what we can do,” Shalev said, adding, “We want to change attitudes about what it means to be Jewishly literate, so that people can learn their whole lives.”
For their part, the rabbis who undergo Storahtelling training take care to not to throw the congregations into too much maven method, too soon. Rabbi Beyer said she might start using questions and discussion within the Torah service right away, but probably won’t step into a character until the spring.
“There are some core congregants that are more traditional and less adept at change,” said training participant Joshua Strom, rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform congregation on the Upper East Side. “But at the same time, if it’s with a higher purpose — shem shamayim — there shouldn’t be too many long-lasting holdouts.”