Few sanctuaries are as fabulous as that of the Upper West Side’s Congregation Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, where North America’s oldest congregation prays amid marble columns, crimson carpet and soaring balconies.
Determined to fully exploit the space’s dramatic potential, Storahtelling — the nonprofit acting troupe that takes the Bible as its script — took the shul over last week to educate, to entertain, and to pass the hat a bit.
The occasion was the group’s annual fundraiser, this year an hour-long rendition of the Five Books called “Scrolling to the End” performed in front of about 175 paying audience members. It focused on brothers and mothers and featuring a constantly unspooling Torah scroll, traditional chanting and actors popping in and out of pews, said the group’s founder, Amichai Lau-Lavie.
“The sanctuary, any sanctuary, really, becomes a theater when our oldest story is retold,” said Lavie, who has performed in over 500 of them, from Copenhagen to Palo Alto. “The grander the sanctuary, the grander the theater, so it was really amazing to bring the Storahtelling to this magnificent space.”
The event raised at least $25,000 from sales of tickets that ranged in price from $36 to $1,000, an online event journal with sponsorship opportunities and additional gifts, director Isaac Shalev said.
The performance was also an elaborate “Mazel tov!” to the 20 or so New York-area rabbis, cantors and educators of all denominations whom the group trained this year to bring Storahtelling-style Torah back to their own congregations. Some of them participated in the performance, which stopped periodically to invite audience participation.
“It’s a live way of saying Torah is always evolving, and if Torah is always evolving,” Lau-Lavie said, “we are creating it together.”