Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New York, NY

There was a moment at the beginning of our show, Field of Dreams, when I knew that our audience was fully engaged and ready to go on a journey with us. I was playing ‘Grandpa Judah Maccabee’ and I couldn’t find my hammer (of course it was sticking out of my back pocket). Now as I was spinning around the stage looking for my hammer, many children and adults in the audience started shouting for me to look in my back pocket. One enthusiastic child felt it was his responsibility to grab the hammer out of my pocket and give it to me. It was a kind gesture. But then he wouldn’t let go. For about five minutes, every time I held up the hammer, the little boy would run up to the performance space, and grab the hammer back from me – just as a reminder, I suppose, of who the hero in the audience that found the hammer in the first place really was. Chanukah is a holiday all about heroism; we tell many stories about the bravery of the Maccabees. And yet, I had never made a connection in my head between the Chanukah story and the corresponding narrative in the Torah that we read this week during our festival of lights. But that name for Chanukah, the ‘festival of lights,’ holds the clue.

In Miketz, we hear about Pharaoh’s bad dreams – the ones about the 7 fat cows and the 7 skinny cows, etc. And we hear the tale of how Pharaoh cannot find anyone to satisfactorily translate his dreams into actionable intelligence; that is, until he meets Joseph. Joseph (played in our show by the multi-talented Jewish rock star ShirLaLa - founding company member Shira Kline) not only translates Pharaoh’s dreams for him but gives Pharaoh the gift of en'light'enment. For so long Pharaoh has been unable to sleep through the night – his dark nightmares cursing him to lie awake in bed – staring into even more darkness (not an uplifting situation). But Joseph reveals that 7 years of plenty are on the way, followed by 7 years of famine. And that if Pharaoh can devise a way to take the plenty and make it last 7 more years (kind of like getting oil for a lamp to last 7 more days), then all will be well. A long time ago our ancestors were living through a dark situation themselves: the first winter. It was getting darker and darker as the days were getting shorter, so our ancestors lit a candle, and the next night another candle. For eight whole nights this went on. And they weren’t scared anymore. We can go back even further to God’s first words in the Torah: “Let there be light!” There was only darkness before and God created light to fill the void. Joseph gave that light to Pharaoh, to save all the people in Egypt and the entire region (including his own family). Each time I have the privilege of performing as a Storahtelling maven, I feel that I am being put in Joseph’s position. Just as Joseph translated Pharaoh’s dreams, so I translate the Torah, shedding light on a story that may otherwise seem to dwell in a dark, faraway place that has no relevance or bearing on our lives today. But that sharing of light can happen in our everyday lives too. We ended our show this past Shabbat afternoon by asking people to think about how they might share their light – what wishes they would make on the candlelight of the Chanukah menorah. We have a few more months of winter ahead of us, but hopefully, we can find that light inside ourselves, the light that Joseph shared with Pharaoh, that our ancestors used to scare away the dark, and that God first granted on our new world. As we say goodbye to 2009 and hello to 2010, may we all find and share the light that dwells within each of us.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Ennismore, Ontario

My good buddy James Williams brought me up to Camp Moshava outside Toronto for my first ever Bnei Akiva experience (Bnei Akiva is a worldwide religious zionist youth movement) and I couldn't be more grateful. The welcome could not have been warmer, though the weather gave me the cold shoulder. And not only did I get to teach and learn with an amazing group of new friends, and experience prayer with a special vigorous enthusiasm, and spend a nice Shabbos in the woods, I also got to hear some dynamite stories. Did you know that there is a contractual obligation in the Orthodox Jewish community in Toronto that if you are a pulpit Rabbi, you must have a beard? I did not know that and it is my favorite new fact. Also, I heard a great story about a family that moved to America and decided to give themselves absurd names...all ending with Berkowitz. My favorite: Just Berkowitz. Brilliant.

"Your name sir?"
"Just Berkowitz."
"Yes, and your first name?"
"I'm sorry sir, just what?"

I've already written several pages of dialogue (quite thrilling and pedestrian when read from an existential point of view). I think it will be all part of a new play about a babyfaced guy named Berkowitz who comes to Toronto to accept a position as a pulpit Rabbi. Obviously the catch would be that he can't grow facial hair, or that when he does his face resembles the butt of a bald monkey - something like that. But the congregation will have hired him sight unseen! So, like Buddy Holly at the Apollo, it'll be quite a show. Who's got two thumbs and thinks this is a great idea for a play? That's right Michael Feldman: This guy.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Lake Como, PA

Someone once asked me what the cast party is like for a one-man show. The answer? Oreo cookies and Sportscenter. This past week I had the pleasure of returning to HaGalil USY Encampment at B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp in Pennyslvania. The last time I visited the HaGalil region was in 2005 to perform Walking in Memphis... and this time, I was there to perform God of Our Fathers and teach some workshops. A staff member, Joe, picked me up from the airport and remembered nearly verbatim one of the warmup exercises I did four years ago when he was in USY. The people in the HaGalil region are just so warm and friendly, it was as if I'd been coming back year after year. And I want to give a shout out to Michelle Rich who is a fantastic leader and educator. It is a real treat to be in her presence (and to meet her cute grandkids!). As for the cast party after my performance...Jen spent the summer as a group leader for the American Jewish World Service in Ghana and one of her participants was Jonathan Steinberg, a really nice guy who happens to be president of...HaGalil USY! I could use this space to tell a funny story about Steinberg's dad at JFK airport the morning of the group's return to the U.S., but I will spare the family from reliving his dance/chant. What I will say is that after the show the other night, Jonathan's brother Brian walked over to me and dropped a package of oreo cookies in my pocket. Jen must have told him about my favorite food. Ah love. Ah Oreos.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Atlanta, GA

I was at a B'nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) Convention enjoying the typical Jewish summer camp Shabbos dinner this past Friday night at Camp Barney Medintz outside of Atlanta when my old friend Philip Shmerling became one of my personal heroes. We were reminiscing over childhood memories (we were neighbors growing up in Memphis) when Philip, who was at Camp Barney in his capacity as a youth advisor for Athens AZA of Nashville, noticed one of his high school boys talking to two girls in the buffet line. The boy was clearly interested in one of the girls, and giving her all of his attention. Eventually the other girl pulled her friend away and they went to sit and eat their traditional camp Shabbos meal of nearly edible chicken, potatoes, and challah. At that moment, Philip jumped into action. He walked over to the neophyte and taught him one of the more valuable lessons a young man can receive in life: You have to pay attention to the friend. If you are flirting with a girl who is standing with a friend, and you make no eye contact or effort to engage the friend, you are dooming yourself. One of two things will happen - either the friend will pull girl #1 away out of boredom, or girl #1 will leave your company so as not to make her friend feel like a 3rd wheel. Either way you've lost. But pay attention to the friend, and the world is your oyster. Speaking of buffet line encounters, I experienced a first this weekend in the annals of interesting conversation starters. Saturday afternoon at lunch, I was helping myself to the make-your-own cold cut sandwich buffet when a very nice young lady whom I'd never met approached me and said 'Hi, I think your dad is my insurance agent.' Like a good neighbor, David Ross is there. Of course, no good BBYO convention can end without a dance. I stopped by long enough to notice that the girl from my lunch line conversation was dancing with a nice looking boy from Nashville...seems Philip Shmerling's advice actually worked. Grey squirrel, grey squirrel, swish your bushy tail.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Raleigh, NC

Teen Band Night at the Cary (NC) Senior Center. You read that right. The idea of a 'Teen Band Night' seems innocuous and wholesome. When I was invited to attend by the family that was hosting me for my weekend gig in Raleigh, I thought it sounded like a fun way to pass the time while also supporting the 17 year old with whom I'd be sharing the refrigerator for the weekend. I was in town to serve as the artist in residence for Temple Beth Shalom - a warm, welcoming Reform congregation with a remarkably engaged membership and one of the most impressive Rabbis I have spent time with. His name is Ariel Edery and he was born and raised in Buenos Aires, then lived in Israel for 7 years followed by some time in Mexico, rabbinical school in Cincinnati, and a few years of Rabbinic work in Spain before settling with his beautiful and fiery wife Andrea and their three children in Cary, NC. I was picked up on Friday night from synagogue by my host Lisa and her younger (13 year old) son Alex and we made our way to the Cary Senior Center. I have seen performances in strange places in my life - puppet shows in unheated bars in the dead of winter in Brooklyn, NY come to mind - but Teen Band Night at a home for the aged may be the most incongruous I've ever encountered. There is nothing like hearing an angsty version of The Gourds' "Gin & Juice" while a gentleman passes by with his walker to get a soda out of the pop machine. Did he notice? Was his hearing impaired so that the music wasn't bothersome? Would someone who is hard of hearing digest the sounds of loud teenage band playing and decide that it was mere elevator music? These were the questions that ran through my head as I listened to the talented teen band 'Citizen' perform their nightcap - an interpretation of Stevie Wonder that the talented singer, Seth, and the virtuosic lead guitarist, Austin, put over so well that even the senior center staff stopped their tasks and tapped their feet. The rest of the weekend seemed anti-climactic compared to my Friday night experience. My saturday night performance of God of Our Fathers went well (thanks Rachel!), and the talkback was really exciting - lots of passionate discussion. And though my flight back to New York was cancelled and I missed a gig for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I am grateful to have spent the time with the cool Cooper family who so generously hosted me all weekend - and gave me the gift of Teen Band Night. "These are the memories that stay with you...like memories of diamond studded elephants."