The Jewish High Holiday signify an annual return to the tradition of family dinners, daylong fasts, hard synagogue benches, and endless reasons to feel guilty.
But Powerpoint presentations? Giant Puppets? Drag Queens?
This is definitely not your bubbe's holiday.
Flouting the holiday tradition once again, Storahtelling, a music and theater nonprofit based in Midtown, are reenacting biblical stories with a modern-day twist. Their goal, says founder Amichai Lau-Lavie, is "to make the world's best seller come alive as a radical text."
For Rosh Hashona, the Jewish New Year, this meant turning the streets of Manhattan into a stage for a reinterpreted Tashlich, the ceremonial casting off of sins into the water. On September 23rd, more than 20 performers and an interfaith audience of more than 100 assembled at the Actor's Temple in Midtown Manhattan for a peace parade honoring both the Jewish holidays and the intersecting Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Frank London, a trumpet player from the Klezmatics, played alongside musicians from Storahtelling and Circus Amok. The processions wound down the West Side Highway, culminating at the dock of the Intrepid
The performers carried puppets designed by Jenny Romaine, a puppeteer and co-founder of the Great Small Works Theater Company, who had previously collaborated with Storahtelling on their Purim celebration. Eight people hauled a 15-foot boat made of bamboo and cloth with big, silver paddle wheels. Midway through the performance, the boat blew apart, only later to be reconfigured.
"When the boat blows apart, it is like a messed-up version of the destruction of the temple," explained Romaine. "When we put it back together, we are re-committing to heal the world."
Romaine also contributed several paper mache goat heads to the performance, for the scapegoat ritual in which an animal sacrifice bears the burden of a community's sins.
But midway along, Lau-Lavie, who was emceeing the event, stopped the show in its tracks. After an audience poll, he decided to let the scapegoat live, discarding outdated notions of blame.
"Usually the scapegoat is a quick and dirty celebration," says Storahtelling production manager Scott Nechemias. "People don't put a lot of thought into it, so we wanted to make the audience think. That's why we also used a peace boat on the bridge in front of a military destroyer." Using a peace boat instead of the Intrepid, he explained, represents a journey or departure from our current situation in Iraq to a place of peace.
Storahtelling's upcoming Kol Nidre ceremony, commemorating the eve of the day of atonement, Yom Kippur, will also be full of surprises. In the works is a hands-free service, with the entire liturgy projected on a screen using Powerpoint and featuring music provided by Nat Rahav, A.k.a. DJ Buscuela.
The onscreen performance at Union Square Ballroom will continue with excerpts from three versions of the movie "The Jazz Singer." An hour and a half discussion will proceed from the tale of a cantor's son, torn between his desire to follow in his father's footsteps and follow his own passion for a life of jazz music.
This divide, familiar to Lau-Lavie, sits at the heart of Storahtelling. Born in B'nai Brak, Israel, Lau-Lavie was raised in the Orthodox tradition and attended the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Elul Center in Jerusalem. But he always felt the pull of nonconformity. He founded Storahtelling in New York in1998, creating performances called "RituaLabs," part ritual, part laboratory for experimentation.
Storahtelling holds touring performances throughout the United States, translating weekly torah portions into interactive theater for synagogues, schools, and clubs with their unconventional perspectives on classic texts. At Tribeca Grill this past Saturday, they performed their play "The Birth of Laughter" for the Downtown Hebrew school, Tribeca Hebrew, as part of the Rosh Hashona service. The six-member cast explored the birth of Isaac and the ceportation of Ishmael, telling the story from both Sarah and Haga's points of view. The audience then had the chace to ask the Biblical matriarchs to reconsider their actions and heal the Arab/Israeli conflict, which many trace back to this story from Genesis.
Tribeca Grill also hosted a live music even fro children on Saturday. The free-spirited celebration involved pint-sized partiers singing and dancing barefoot on a 1970's-style red plush carpet, underneath colorful hand-printed wall hanging.
"It's a trick to manage the kids, but also to talk to the adults," say Storahtelling flute player Ayelet Rose Gottlieb.
Other Storahtelling performances are geared to a more mature audience. At one of thier Purim events, Lau-Lavie emerged in drag as an elderly Jewish woman named Hadassah Gross, a widow to six rabbis, Kabbalah teacher, and Holocaust survivor.
"I let the court jester speak and walk through the shadows," he said. Normally Lau-Lavie sports a goatee on his angular face, but his tall, garish, blond-wigged alter ego occasionally makes appearances at Storahtelling events. "She can talk about life and Judaism, in a way I can't. As Hadassah I can offer real insights and people can't be sure if it is serious or silly."
Though Hadassah Gross isn't slated to reappear again until a Hanukkah performance at Joe's Pub, the cast of Storahtelling wouldn't be surprised to see her before that.
Warned Lau-Lavie's colleague Scott Nechemias, "With Amichai, you have to be prepared for anything."