Have We Got a Girl for You!

Will the provocative theater group directed by Amichai Lavie-Lau - a nephew of the former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau - help provide a solution to the concerns of America's Jewish community?

NEW YORK - Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross has a mission in life. The widow of six famous rabbis, all members of the Gross family, including Moishe Gross [a Yiddish expression for "a big shot"], the rebbetzin (rabbi's wife) wants to make people better, to help each to become a mensch, as she says in a heavy Hungarian accent. Although she is well past 70, she is willing to do a great deal just to touch the Jewish hearts of the young people: She dances with her audiences to the strains of Yemenite music, tosses boxes of honey from the stage to sweeten their New Year, and reveals the difficult saga of her life, from her youth in the Holocaust up to her discovery of the kabbala.

During the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the rebbetzin goes onstage in south Manhattan and tries to convince about 150 young Jews that the time has come to repent - or, as she, puts it: to figure out "how I can make my tuches [backside] better than my tuches last year." But for Rebbetzin Hadassah, preaching is not enough. She wants responses from the audience, and asks: "How many of you owe someone money? How many of you had sex this year with someone who didn't want to? How many of you ate food that could have been better? How many of you didn't recycle batteries?" The rebbetzin counts the raised hands in the audience, and promises that it's not too late to ask for forgiveness, to look into the mirror and to turn over a new leaf.

The rebbetzin seeks to teach the world that Judaism contains many pearls, but they are covered with a layer of "dust and shmutz [dirt] and fundamentalism and ultra-conservatism." She wants to tell people what Shabbos (Shabbat) is, how one makes Shabbos for the soul and how one finds the inner truth. And the inner truth of Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, the widow of six famous rabbis, is that her name is Amichai Lau-Lavie and she is a man.

Battles with the establishment

Amichai Lau-Lavie, 35, is the son of Naftali Lavie, a member of Israel's foreign service who was an adviser to Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres and, in the 1980s, served as Israel's general consul in New York. Naftali's younger brother, and Amichai's uncle, is Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel - and heir to a great rabbinical family descended from the 11th-century biblical commentator, Rashi. And not only does Amichai have an uncle who is a rabbi: His own brother Benjamin (Benny) Lau is a well-known rabbi as well. However, like his father, who is a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Amichai Lau-Lavie has distanced himself from the realm of Orthodoxy.

The drag-queen performance as a rebbetzin is only a part of the repertoire of Lau-Lavie and the "Storahtelling" troupe he heads in New York. The members of the troupe try to reintroduce Judaism to the younger generation, to turn the synagogue into a more understandable and interesting experience, and Judaism into a more experiential and relevant issue. And Lau-Lavie does it with pantyhose, blue eye-shadow and high heels.

Without the makeup and the wig, he looks younger than his age. In spite of the fact that he has strong opinions regarding the concept of Judaism and the future of the Jewish people, he doesn't preach. Lau-Lavie has a pleasant demeanor, does a lot of listening and refrains from statements that are too definitive. He is very relaxed, likes humor and broadcasts mainly doubts rather than determination.

He himself was educated in Israel's state religious schools, and attended a hesder yeshiva, combining Torah studies and military service. During his army service, what he calls his "exit from observing mitzvot [religious commandments]" began. Lau-Lavie served in the Paratroops, and later as a teacher of paramedics. On Shabbat, he says, he used to listen to Hebrew music on Galgalatz, Israel Army Radio's music station, which reminded him of the preparations for Shabbat in his parents' home. "I used to listen to the transistor in the next tent, and after a year I already had a transistor myself," he says.

He studied at various institutes for Jewish studies, including Yeshivat Har Etzion, the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Elul Center in Jerusalem. Between 1992 and 1996 he directed the summer programs at Melitz, the Institute for Jewish Zionist Education in Jerusalem, focusing on the integration of Jewish education via the arts. His theatrical experience as a writer and performer includes the Theatre Company Jerusalem, the Acco Theatre Group in Israel and the Avodah Dance Ensemble in the United States. Between 1997-2000 he served as scholar-in-residence at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in New York City. He is a Synagogue 2000 Fellow (an organization dedicated to revitalizing synagogue life in North America), and a recipient of the Joshua Venture Fellowship (for Jewish social entrepreneurs) for 2002-2004.

Lau-Lavie says that he didn't come to New York by accident. "After quite a number of battles with the rabbinical establishment in Israel, I wanted to be here, in the largest Jewish diaspora," he says. These battles included a violent expulsion, as he describes it, from the Western Wall compound eight years ago, after he participated in a joint service for men and women on Tisha B'Av (the fast of the ninth of Av that commemorates the destruction of the Temple).

Gradually, and while carrying on a dialogue with his family, Lau-Lavie says that he reached the conclusion that "I'm apparently not Orthodox." The family learned to accept his approach, when they realized that it was not a matter of being anti-religion, but an attempt to find a different meaning to religious life. At present he avoids definitions of religious denominations. He is not a member of any synagogue, and tries out all kinds of independent definitions on himself, such as "flexi-dos" or "poly-dos" ("dos" is a generally pejorative term used to describe someone who is religious).

`A golden opportunity'

The idea of Storahtelling - in Hebrew the troupe's name is Stam, an acronym for "Story, Torah and Drama" - is to revive the role of the interpreter, who existed in Jewish tradition from the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, in the fifth century B.C.E., until about 1,000 years ago, and whose function was to explain to the audience in the synagogue what was written in the Torah, during the reading of the weekly Torah portion. The interpreter would not only provide a literal translation of the text, but would also explain a little, dramatize and simplify, so that those attending the synagogue would be able to understand the biblical story.

"I liked the idea of the interpreter," says Lau Lavie. "After all, 1,000 people sit in the synagogue and die of boredom. There's a golden opportunity here. Everyone is here, the stories are good ones, there's a stage and there's a script. Everything is ready for cultural intervention."

Lau-Lavie and his group turn the Torah readings, the high point of the Shabbat liturgy, into a theater performance. The stories of Joseph and his brothers, the Binding of Isaac, the Creation and even the less dramatic sections - all serve as a script for weekly performances by the group in synagogues all over North America. At present the group has five teams, composed of actors and musicians who go "make Shabbat" at (mainly) Reform congregations and (fewer) Conservative congregations. They report enthusiastic responses and participants who say that for the first time they have been able to see the Torah as a living text that speaks about their contemporary lives. There are now even congregations that are setting up their own Storahtelling groups that will regularly serve as those same "interpreters" of the Jewish sacred texts.

"People experience Judaism through art. That's the best way to reach people," says Lau-Lavie. But the Orthodox are not enthusiastic about new ideas, mainly because they feel that they don't need new stimuli in order to attract people to the synagogues. And no, Amichai Lau-Lavie doesn't believe that the success of his theater group in Reform and Conservative synagogues is evidence of the failure of these movements to bring Jews to the synagogue. "There's a huge phenomenon of people who are now saying - `I want to be a Jew as I am, under my conditions,'" he replies.

His Judaism today includes an attitude favoring complete equality for women and other groups, religious rights for homosexuals and personal interpretation of the sacred texts. It also contains slices of American political identification with the liberal side of the map. Nor is the political message missing from the performance of Rebbetzin Hadassah, who on the eve of the presidential elections these days, is urging people "to vote for the right person," but doesn't go into detail, because she "promised Barbara (Bush) not to talk about it." (And if the troupe wants to remain a tax-exempt organization, it has to avoid clear expressions of politics in the show.)

Sleepless nights

The American Jewish community is happy to adopt the members of Storahtelling, together with Rebbetzin Hadassah and other strange things they do. Of an annual budget of about $350,000 (the group is a nonprofit organization), one-third comes from Jewish foundations and federations that want to fund the program. Another third comes from individual donations, and only a third comes from direct revenues - from the sale of their performances to synagogues and communities, and of tickets to their shows.

The enthusiasm of the Jewish establishment for the group is not surprising. If there is any subject that causes the leaders of the American Jewish community sleepless nights, it's the question of "Jewish continuity," a euphemism for assimilation and mixed marriages. In a society in which half of the Jews marry non-Jewish spouses and create families in which the chances that the children will grow up as Jews are less than 50 percent, it's clear why the establishment is willing to adopt almost any idea that will bring Judaism back into the hearts of the young people.

The problem, explains Lau-Lavie, is not a lack of interest in Judaism on the part of the young people - they are definitely interested and want to study, although it may be hard for them to become part of a community - rather that the rituals don't speak to them, the synagogue service is boring, and the success in interesting their non-Jewish spouses in Judaism is nil. That is why programs such as Storahtelling are meant to skip a generation and to once again find a prominent place for Judaism on the "shelf" of beliefs and spiritual searches.

Moreover, Rebbetzin Hadassah and her friends don't really upset the veteran Jewish establishment, either. Even if there are a few digs at them in the show, everything is done delicately. To the accompaniment of the audience's laughter, the rebbetzin repeatedly reminds people how important it is to contribute to the Jewish Federation, reminding the listeners of those same endless hours when they repeatedly heard the same call, but made seriously, during services at their regular synagogues. But everything is done delicately. The network of federations and Jewish organizations is also, in the final analysis, the hand that feeds the rebbetzin and her friends, and more important - it is the power without which no real change in the community is possible.

Lau-Lavie agrees with Rebbetzin Hadassah, his own creation, that everyone has to be a better person, but not necessarily a Jew who observes the mitzvot. "Religion is like an airline - it takes you from one place to another, [but] you can fly with any airline," he says, and his meaning is clear: "I don't think that Judaism is better than Christianity or any other religion."

A new denomination?

Lau-Lavie allows himself freedom of action insofar as the Jewish religion is concerned. He changes the wording of prayers, turns the Torah reading into a Shabbat musical, and turns the righteous rebbetzin into a comic transsexual figure. It's no coincidence; Lau-Lavie and his group see themselves as responsible for updating the Jewish religion, for upgrading it so that it will be more appropriate to the 21st century and the era of open competition on the faith market.

Last Yom Kippur, the members of Storahtelling gathered together with several other friends and family members, in order to commemorate the holiday independently. They decided on the liturgy and the nusah (the versions of the prayers), how they would be conducted and who would participate in them. In effect, they established their own synagogue - egalitarian, dramatic, more modern. Lau-Lavie is not frightened by the idea of establishing a new denomination of Judaism for himself, but explains that at this stage, it's only a "closed" experiment. At the same time, he doesn't reject the idea that in the future, the experiment will become public, providing another alternative on the "market of traditions" of modern Judaism.

Lau-Lavie considers himself an artist. "I chose the role of the artist, to be a spiritual leader through art - artists are the new rabbis," he says. He began his portrayal of the character of Rebbetzin Hadassah as the "Shabbos Queen": She was a character in a play about Shabbat that was performed by the group ("Shabbos is the most important. Everyone works so hard here, they need Shabbos for the soul. I come home on Friday, turn out the light, bring flowers, bring friends, make love, make Shabbos"), but since then she has developed into an independent character, who participates in events and serves as an emcee at shows. Last week there was a High Holiday performance and the next one will be on Hanukkah, featuring a special show for the Festival of Lights.

The Storahtelling High Holidays show at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage opened with a rock group on the stage, accompanying the rebbetzin's rendition of the traditional prayer "Open the gates of righteousness for me, I will enter them." From that moment on, Hadassah Gross wanders on the borderline between parody and utter seriousness: One moment she is a crazy figure of a man disguised as a rebbetzin, with a fictitious biography and dirty jokes, and the next moment she is the rebbetzin herself, engaging in learned discourse, recounting legends and preaching a better life, a Jewish life.

"Don't you go atheistic on me," she scolds a spectator in the audience who didn't respond to her call to put his hand on his heart, "today is not a day for atheists."

When the troupe on the stage performs the Unetaneh Tokef prayer for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Hadassah once again reminds the audience, "You haven't come here to watch, you've come to pray."

Oscar de la Renta suit

When the second part of the performance begins, Rebbetzin Hadassah exchanges her gold dress for a white suit, "Oscar de la Renta made this especially for me," she says. This is the part of the show that is dedicated to Yom Kippur, and the rebbetzin has a lot to say. The idea is very familiar, but the formulation is somewhat new. "Mark all your sins and press `Delete.' If you don't do that by Yom Kippur, you will have a year full of viruses," the rebbetzin threatens the Jews of the high-tech generation. Four shofar blowers in the audience get onstage, and the rebbetzin turns to the audience, with the sounds of the shofar in the background, asking: "Close your eyes, kinderlach [children]. Pray and make the next year better."

Then Yoel Ben-Simhon, an actor and musician of Moroccan descent, from Kiryat Gat, will sing about his grandmother Sultana and her preparations for the eve of Yom Kippur.

"For me to be a Jew is to be Hungarian," explains the rebbetzin, but she hastens to add that she has been in America for many years, so she's willing to accept anything.

There's also a stand-up act for Yom Kippur by Michael Feldman, who gets onstage in order to confess his sins. And the life of young Feldman is in fact full of sins. He ate a turkey-and-cheese sandwich, and immediately suffered from food poisoning when he was, unfortunately, in the middle of a long bus trip. The audience is not spared the details, including a precise description of the bodily excretions that resulted from the consumption of the nonkosher food.

Afterward he became high on mushrooms in Amsterdam, just before he went to visit the Anne Frank House, and therefore toured her house while rolling with laughter. If these sins aren't enough, he also entered a taxi with a friend who wanted to have oral sex with him in the back seat. When he refused, because he was embarrassed about doing it in a public place, the taxi driver turned around and shouted at him: "Let him suck you already." The rebbetzin doesn't understand what the sin is here, and Feldman explains that the sin is to recount such an incident in front of an audience.

At this stage, there are also slight signs of discomfort among the troupe's hosts from the Museum of Jewish Heritage, who apparently didn't expect such skits to be performed. But even the provocation and the parody don't dull the message of the rebbetzin and her friends, a message that is not very different from the chief rabbi's blessing for the High Holidays: Repent, become better people, look into your souls.

"It's all part of a simple strategy," says Lau-Lavie. "Through entertainment we'll get to education. It's an old Jewish strategy, from the days of the maggid [storyteller] and the preachers. After all, every rabbi, even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef [former chief rabbi of Israel, and spiritual leader of the Shas party] knows that a sermon has to begin with some kind of joke, otherwise the audience won't listen."

Afterward, without the makeup and elegant dresses, he will say that what he is creating is another kind of synagogue: "People look for God in many places, but in most cases when they attend the synagogue, they find their grandmother's God. Young people don't attend the synagogue because it simply bores them."

Rebbetzin Hadassah's charisma proves this statement. After a High Holidays performance of two and a half hours, she descends to the audience and pulls them into a dance to the strains of "Im Ninalu," a Yemenite melody. The audience is enthusiastic and continues to dance - even after the rebbetzin returns to the stage to conclude with wishes for a year without wars, without foolish leaders, and with a better love life. The audience continues to cheer and dance.

Lau-Lavie's group is a formal organization, with a board of trustees and directors, and with a long-term program. They believe that within 20 years there will be Storahtelling groups in every Jewish community in the United States. By then, maybe Lau-Lavie will be able to establish his alternative synagogue.

"We are living in a Jewish Renaissance," he says. "There have never been so many people studying Torah, even Madonna."

Aren't you in effect establishing your own Hasidic court, turning into an admor (a Hasidic spiritual leader)?

Lau-Lavie: "In a certain sense, I really am establishing a court. I know that we need leaders, and I sometimes take it on myself, but I'm careful not to be a guru. It may be a court, but I'm not the rebbe [Hasidic rabbi], I'm only the rebbetzin."

And what does Rebbetzin Hadassah have to say about Madonna, a.k.a. Esther?

"It's like getting Rosenthal china as a gift. Do you use it to clean your teeth, or do you save it for Shabbos, for holidays, for your wedding day? That's what's called making something holy, not using it on an everyday basis."n