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Rabbis learn to bring drama to Torah readings
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Rabbis learn to bring drama to Torah readings

‘Storahtelling mavens’ revive a lost tradition of theatrical teaching

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

“I am Jonah…terrified by the waters that are coming up to my neck while the reeds encircle me,” said Rabbi Amy Small in an impassioned voice, rehearsing a drama she intends to share at Yom Kippur services at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit.

Small is one of 19 rabbis and educators in the New York-area — including Cecelia Beyer, assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield — to have completed a course run by Storahtelling, a Jewish educational collective whose approach combines Bible study, theater, and interactive discussion.

The rabbis were trained as Torah “mavens,” learning how to bring these techniques into their synagogues.

Small hopes the approach will “replace the dull, boring service that so many people don’t pay attention to with something really meaningful, rich, and life-affirming.”

Storahtelling was developed by Amichai Lau-Lavie, an Israeli-born actor and nephew of Israel’s former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. The organization has received a slew of Jewish innovation grants for its performances and training programs.

Lau-Lavie calls its approach “pretty much the oldest Jewish technique for teaching.”

Although “maven,” or expert, is usually said to derive from the Hebrew for a scholar of great “understanding,” Lau-Lavie said the word also referred to a skilled Torah interpreter who was able to provide a “split-screen” of Hebrew chanting and vernacular translation.

“The profession of the maven was a paid one that existed in the Jewish community for about 1,500 years,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 4 phone interview. “Pretty much every synagogue had a maven on the payroll.”

Then, some 1,000 years ago, “the Torah service became more codified and formalized and the maven was phased out, but I had the idea of bringing back the profession of the maven 15 years ago to see what would happen if you fused theater and synagogue and art and education and make the Jewish story come alive,” he said.

In one Storahtelling video, available on YouTube, the reading of the story of the Golden Calf is conducted by a man impersonating Aaron, the brother of Moses. The costumed “Aaron” both reads from the Torah scroll and improvises a monologue about what drove him and the other Israelites into rebellion.

The effect should be akin to “walking out of a good movie that moved you and made you think,” Lau-Lavie said. “The Torah service is supposed to make you feel it and think about it and talk to others about it.”

A year ago, Small began reconceiving High Holy Day services by breaking with some major traditions at her Reconstructionist congregation. At one point, several members of the congregation shared stories they wrote based on themes from the Torah readings.

Their presentation “had a dramatic impact. People wanted to sit there because it kept their attention. It was not just a dry reading where everybody nods off or goes to the bathroom or talks to the person sitting next to them,” she said.

Instead, they were presented with “a really compelling story that you wanted to hear. People were just blown away.”

Small plans to combine Storahtelling techniques with last year’s innovations, although not all of the services will be based on Storahtelling.

“We will be going back and forth between the text of the Torah and contemporary interpretative translations of the Torah that come out through dialogue,” she said.

Because she has been at her job for only two months, Beyer will wait to incorporate Storahtelling’s techniques until after the High Holy Days.

“I would love to work with our teens and come up with a method of doing what the Storahtelling mavens do,” Beyer said. “We would also like to do it within our actual Saturday morning services, to have a dramatic interpretative maven reading Torah, with someone else doing the translation and asking the questions. I am really looking forward to that.”

Beyer said she finds Storahtelling appealing because “our tradition is meant to be experienced. It enables us to live with the Torah and make our texts and our tradition alive. It isn’t passive. It is an opportunity to read between the black letters on the page and the white spaces between them. This is an opportunity for the average person in the congregation to say, ‘How does this relate to me?’”

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