'Live From Mount Sinai'

Jewish educator Amichai Lau-Lavie has invented an interactive method of teaching the Torah using songs and theater. It has been a great success among American Jews, but will it be received as well by Israelis?

"Torah service is a disservice," says Amichai Lau-Lavie, moving easily between the rhyming discourse of hip-hop and advertising slogans, between biblical quotations and academic reflections, as he discusses his current project: finding a way to engage Israelis with the texts of the Bible. "I should have gone into advertising," he says, "but my customers are not buying something - they're getting something."

Lau-Lavie is one of a select group of Jerusalem Fellows - who are "changing the definition of what it means to be a Jewish educator," according to Abigail Dauber Sterne, an official at the Mandel Leadership Institute, which sponsors the fellows enterprise.

Combining Jewish studies with theater and entrepreneurship, Lau-Lavie (who is the nephew of former chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau and son of former Israeli diplomat Naphtali Lau-Lavie), defies easy definitions. Educated at the Har Etzion Yeshiva and the Shalom Hartman Institute, he seeks to challenge the status quo of Orthodoxy, while celebrating what he calls the "oldest continual tribal storytelling tradition": the weekly reading of the Torah portion.

Reclaiming a ritual that has become, in his words, "so boring no one wants to go near it," through music, audience participation and performance art, Lau-Lavie's method - "Storahtelling" - revives the ancient role of interpreter in the synagogue, "translating" the texts into contemporary discourse. Although he has met substantial success in overcoming the apathy of American Jews [one of his best-known characters is the rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, whom he has portrayed in drag at numerous venues around North America], Lau-Lavie knows his program cannot simply be duplicated in Israel. "This will be a year of experimentation," he says. "I don't have an answer yet."

While American Jews may need an English translation to be able to relate better to the biblical Hebrew of the text, Lau-Lavie recognizes that in Israel, "the Hebrew already exists in the ear, and the 'translation' needs to be deeper." An additional, more serious obstacle is perhaps the antagonism that he perceives secular Israelis feel toward the religious establishment. Unlike many of their American counterparts, most non-Orthodox Israelis do not attend weekly services or even belong to a synagogue.

"Ezra and Nehemia invented a custom of telling a story, they came to the audience, they introduced Torah reading on market days," he says, asking, "Where is the new marketplace? Where do people gather? Is it on YouTube?"

An energetic and creative thinker, Lau-Lavie is pursuing the answer to these questions in several different ways. In addition to the year-long study program at the Mandel Institute, designed to offer leaders in the Jewish community an opportunity to pursue their work and to acquire the necessary critical philosophical skills to develop their ideas conceptually, Lau-Lavie has already brought his Shabbat Storahtelling to two Israeli communities: Kol Haneshama Synagogue for Progressive Judaism, in Jerusalem, and the nondenominational Beit Tefilah Israeli congregation in Tel Aviv. Of the two, the progressive Kol Haneshama more closely resembles a Reform American congregation, while Beit Tefilah is clearly a contemporary local product.

Joining the Beit Tefilah community for a recent Shabbat retreat in Neve Shalom, the Arab-Jewish community outside Jerusalem, Lau-Lavie immediately established a connection with the children, improvising a collaborative Storahtelling program. Standing barefoot on a rug, wrapped in a tallit (prayer shawl), he led the youngsters in a raucous rendition of the Hebrew children's song "Yonatan Hakatan," to accompany the story of Elisha Ben Abuya (scholar of the first century C.E.), which they enacted as a prelude to the week's Torah reading.

'Open your hearts'

"Turn off your cell phones, open your hearts and fasten your seatbelts," he proclaimed, inviting the participants to join him for a story brought to them "live from Mt. Sinai."

Lau-Lavie seemed to be ready to do whatever it takes: setting up a folding table for the Torah, cavorting with the children, coaxing a laugh from the adults - all with the goal of bringing people closer to the Torah. Dedicating the first aliyah (blessing over the reading of the Torah portion) to all those who wish to become more involved in social issues and volunteer activities in the coming year, he added, "If I don't see everyone in the room coming up here, it will be worrying."

Acting as a mediator between the text and the community gathered around him, never veering too far from one or the other, Lau-Lavie explicated each verse without imposing any interpretation on it. "I don't come with a specific viewpoint," he explained. "Once I take a particular stand, I've closed the door."

It is not surprising that the group was receptive to this style of Torah reading. Beit Tefilah is an egalitarian community that incorporates music and audience participation in its services, and encourages initiative and creativity. Yet, several aspects of Lau-Lavie's approach did not suit the participants, says Esteban Gottfried, Beit Tefilah's general director and co-founder, citing as an example the reading of each verse with its translation in contemporary Hebrew immediately afterward, rather than discussing the portion as a whole.

One way Lau-Lavie intends to improve the "fit" between his method and the different people he works with is by training so-called "mavens," who will then return to their congregations to lead Storahtelling there. Such workshops have already been held in the U.S., where several Storahtelling communities have developed. At the Kol Haneshama congregation this year, Lau-Lavie will be conducting his 12-step "Torah Rehab" program, to train people whom he hopes will bring his Storahtelling methods to a wider audience in community centers, theaters and other nontraditional venues for Jewish learning in Israel.

Room for creativity

Aware of the inherent danger that, because of its mode of dissemination, the Storahtelling method might lose sight of the texts it seeks to interpret, Lau-Lavie chooses the participants very carefully. During the course of the workshop, he transmits an explicitly defined method while always leaving room for creativity and simultaneously maintaining the connection to the Torah's narrative.

The desire to overcome apathy and antagonism and involve people in the Torah is balanced by a deep respect for the text. Indeed, Lau-Lavie believes one should "open the questions, let it happen, then close it up," and declares: "Let us remember what the Torah says." Always returning to the source, he is careful to maintain the distinction between his dramatic, provocative and often amusing "translation," and the Torah itself.

Critical of what he calls the "conscious illiteracy" he discerns among Israelis, Lau-Lavie would prefer to see "an informed conversation based on knowledge ... I don't care if you are religious. I want you to be an aware person, an aware citizen who needs to come to terms with reality."

That reality includes the effects that biblical texts have on everyday life in Israel, whether or not people are religious. For example, shmita (the "sabbatical" of the land, which lies fallow every seven years), conversion and dialogue with the Palestinians, are all issues affected by a relationship to the text, Lau-Lavie believes.

While he approaches Storahtelling as a way to spur discussion, he admits that he does at times differ from the Scripture. "I am against the death sentence," he explains, "and there is a death sentence handed down in the Bible every 15 minutes. I have an argument with the Torah on this matter, but I argue based on knowledge."

Rather than shutting the sacred away behind a glass, he insists that his approach enables people to open themselves up to the text and to make it a relevant part of their lives.

While some may view his ideas with suspicion, Lau-Lavie does not see a contradiction between the humor and theatricality he brings to the Torah reading, and respect for the text. Quoting Psalm 119, "Your Torah has been my delight," he says he feels that people have a "deep yearning for this play."