Some of the greatest stories ever told can be found in our oldest of books—the Torah, also known by some as the Old Testament of the Bible—and a new crop of projects are telling these stories via animation, performance, drawing, storytelling, and music. The newest generation of storytellers and educators has found innovative ways to counterbalance the notion that studying Torah is too traditional. Like the people who created them, the five projects highlighted here represent new ways to be Jewish and to do Jewish.
Above Left: Rachel + Leah = baby mama drama in Vayetze; Above Right: Joseph and his brothers — a colorful tale in Vayeshev
The yearly cycle of Torah study guides Jewish life throughout the world. Unfortunately, many Jews never hear more than the basic outlines of stories. That’s where G-dcast comes in. A series of 55 separate four-minute animated featurettes—one for each parasha (weekly Torah portion)—G-dcast is the brainchild of San Francisco-based producer and writer Sarah Lefton. It was created with the goal of raising basic Jewish literacy in an accessible, fun way. Lefton, who grew up in a small Jewish community, saw the need for a creative spin on Jewish education—one that might not be available through local resources. Although Lefton, 35, hopes teenagers will take to G-dcast, anyone can view the episodes on the series’ site, www.g-dcast.com.
The weekly G-dcast features scholars, Torah aficionados, musicians, and filmmakers, who each choose a theme to focus on. Past narrators have included the hip-hop artist Y-Love, the internationally acclaimed Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and Challah for Hunger founder and 2007 PresenTense Institute Fellow Eli Winkelman.
“We are very committed to keeping the Dvar Torahs as inclusive as possible from a religious pluralist perspective and from a gender perspective,” says Lefton, who works on each episode with animation director Nick Fox-Gieg and educational director Matthue Roth. “We try to find narrators who are themselves diverse.”
Still, the biggest challenge in teaching Torah is the language. Biblical Hebrew is full of nuances that stump even the wisest rabbis. To make the stories easier to understand, translation to the vernacular used to accompany each Torah service, says educator and actor Amichai Lau-Lavie, who splits his time between Jerusalem and New York. But the tradition of having a meturgaman (Aramaic for a Torah translator) disappeared about 1,000 years ago and no one knows why, Lau-Lavie says.
Lau-Lavie founded Storahtelling as a way to revitalize the traditional Torah reading service. The Storahtelling method employs aspects of theatrical performance to convey the meaning of each Torah portion and make Torah service a fun, intellectually stimulating activity that every member of the congregation can understand. Storahtellers bring their own skills and preferences to the translation. Sometimes they might involve the congregation, asking members to play the roles of the Pharaoh and Moses, for example. Other times, they might take a more direct story-telling approach, using intonation, facial expressions, and gestures to help convey the meaning.
Although Storahtelling was born 10 years ago, the organization became prominent in the last couple of years and began training Storahtellers in North America and Israel about two years ago. That’s because everything before that was an experiment in interpretive Torah teaching, says Lau-Lavie.
“When we started out, I said that it would take 25 years to figure whether this ancient profession can make it back into the fabric of the community,” Lau-Lavie says. “The thought behind Storah is capturing [people’s] imagination by meeting them where they are.”
That might mean using Storah techniques in synagogues and schools, but also at educational events like Limmud Jewish learning conferences, at social gatherings, or even in cyber environments like Second Life, where Chicago based Storah alum Aaron Freeman performed the first ever virtual Torah translation in early February.
Picking one theme for an episode, song, or cartoon panel is always a challenge—each parasha offers a wealth of ideas to the creative Torah teacher. Much like rabbis, the people behind each of these projects want to find nuggets of information that can be new, exciting, and different enough to keep audiences interested parasha after parasha and year after year.
“We who spend a lot of time reading and interpreting the Torah see it as the most interesting, fascinating stories,” says Freeman, 53, who also co-writes “The Comic Torah” with his wife, artist Sharon Rosenzweig. “And they are even more astonishing the third or fourth time you hear them. The story we thought we were telling three years ago could not be more different from the exact same story we’re telling today. Every year I go, ‘I can’t believe I missed that.’”
For the past three years Freeman and Rosenzweig have been “re-imagining the Good Book”—the motto behind the venture—on a weekly basis. “The Comic Torah” combines biblical scenes with 21st-century language and occasional inspiration from the world political scene.
Like “The Comic Torah,” New York-based Chari Pere’s comic strip “Of Biblical Proportions” depicts Biblical quotations and stories with modern, humorous twists. Pere, a 2008 PresenTense Institute Fellow, came up with the idea as a way to combine her love of Judaism and of drawing. At the urging of friends and family, the 23-year-old Yeshiva Flatbush and New York School of Visual Arts alum sent the first set of panels to The Jerusalem Post’s 2008 New Cartoonist Contest. She won with her quirky take on Bereshit, which twins the story of creation with a child’s quest for a puppy.
“The goal is to look at [Torah] differently,” says Pere, who recently launched a Jewish humor-centered company, Hey Yiddle Diddle Productions. “If I can make one person want to read the parasha, spark interest, that’s what I’m going for. I see the comic strip as an advertisement. It says, ‘seek more fun inside.’”
Miriam Brosseau and Alan Jay Sufrin share Pere’s attitude. The duo, better known as Stereo Sinai, composes songs playing off Torah themes, fusing ancient lyrics and contemporary melodies. The couple, who recently got married, calls their musical style “Biblegum pop.” In fact, they often “steal lyrics from God,” as Brosseau puts it. One song, a riff on David’s dialogue with Goliath, features Brosseau singing the Hebrew and an actual battle—one between the bass and the guitar. Another tune, created for the G-dcast episode “Lech Lecha,” tells the story of Abraham leaving his native land from Sarah’s perspective.
"[One song] came from a nigun I had in my head,” Sufrin, 25, says. “We draw inspiration from the text, but also from other sources, like old Yiddish songs.”
What started with a lullaby for their rabbi’s newborn son has garnered international attention, such as representing Chicago at the 2008 International Jewish Music Festival Competition in Amsterdam and a featured track in the upcoming “Pioneers for a Cure” project. The group also maintains an eco-conscious attitude, including committing to not making CDs because Stereo Sinai believes it is bad for the environment. Stereo Sinai is a rarity in the music business: There aren’t many female-fronted duos from the Midwest focusing on exclusively Jewish themes.
“Stereo Sinai is decidedly Jewish,” Brosseau, 25, says. “We are interactive, we are Chicago, we are American Jewish.”
Innovation and creativity are at heart of the five projects highlighted here. But the impetus behind them is the desire to reclaim Torah for the new generation, one that grew up with the Internet and one that might be jaded to traditional approaches to Judaism and Jewishness. They want to make the stories accessible in a way that appeals to their peers. Many of the projects make use of electronic resources, and some are only online, like G-dcast and the Torah-themed comic strips. This take on the Torah is about finding new directions and new ways to tell the old stories.
Above Left: Rebecca brings water...and kindness in Chayei Sarah. Above Right:Jacob and Esau start fighting at an early age in Toldot.
Illustrations by Nick Fox-Gieg.