The evening had the feel of a Greek symposium or a party with your most creative friends. Last Thursday night, LABA (a laboratory for new Jewish art inspired by classical texts) hosted DRUNK, an intoxicating evening of learning at the 14th Street Y. The theme of the evening was wine.
Why wine? As LABA teacher Ruby Namdar explained, “Wine signifies so many aspects of the human condition, the highs and the lows, taming nature into civilization. Wine is the essence of creation.” Wine was also a natural complement to the LABA fellows’ thematic study of food this year. The timing of this event between the holidays of Purim and Passover, both of which require imbibing, seemed to call out for a festive and educational exploration of the fruit of the vine.
Audience members received a first cup of wine, a light and delicious sparkling Cava, as we entered and were directed to sit on cushions around low tables covered with snacks and more glasses of wine, gleaming in the amber light. Participants were seated among the guests, suddenly standing to play a musical instrument or read a poem. The effect was of spontaneous and collaborative inspiration.
The gracious sommelier Ron Jordan offered a guided appreciation of the history, process and attributes of four wines, selected to match the texts, along with advice to “taste with your brain, with all of your senses…taste the astringency of the tannins, feel your mouth pucker as if you’re being kissed.”
After each of the four cups, LABA teachers Ruby Namdar and Basmat Hazon Arnoff led discussions of texts from Torah, Talmud and Midrash on the topic of wine, some glorifying the state of intoxication and others disparaging it. “…There are two kinds of wine,” according to the Midrash Ohr Hadash, “One is the old, aged wine that is the secret of the world to come….The second kind of wine is the wine that intoxicates, and brings harm to the world, and does not inspire knowledge….”
Ronit Muszkatblit and Elissa Strauss are co-Artistic Directors of LABA, a beit midrash for culture-makers. The texts were punctuated by presentations from LABA fellows: performances by playwright Karen Hartman and Misha Shulman, music, poems and videos.
“It is the antitheses of religious learning in synagogue,” explained contemporary composer and LABA fellow Amir Shpilman.
As the wines evolved from fruity and sweet to deep and complex, the performances layered and complemented each other, along with the flavors of cautionary tales, musical interludes and dense cupcakes with a red wine chocolate glaze from Brooklyn bakery ovenly. Said audience member Christine Drayer, “If synagogue learning was like this, I’d go every week.”
Tajlei Levis is a writer and lyricist. Her new musical “The Bootlegger & The Rabbi’s Daughter” will be presented as a part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in July.