This month’s Hadassah magazine covers the hot new trend of having a Storahtelling ‘Raising the Bar’ event instead of traditional bar or bat mitzvah. (also covered recently in The Jewish Week). As a measure of the coolness of these events,’Raising the Bar’ was one of the ten finalists for Jewcy’s Next Big Jewish Idea Contest.
What is Storahtelling and Raising the Bar?
Storahtelling involves creating a theatrical event out of the weekly Torah portion, usually with costumes, lighting, audience participation and script writing opportunities for the child and his or her family. Storahtelling has been around for 13 years under the leadership and branding of Amichai Lau-Lavie, its charismatic founder. In its original form it took the place of a dvar Torah (sermon) in a traditional service and often included some chanting of the Hebrew text interwoven with the dramatic presentation. In the current bar/bat mitzvah format, there is sometimes no Hebrew text (though a few have a traditional bar/t mitzvah as well though most read an aliyah), often no haftorah and very little of a traditional service, but there are new rituals created by the families, who are guided by the program’s tutors over a year-long process.The Jewish Week reports “Some kids have leyned Torah and Haftorah in typical bar/bat mitzvah fashion; others have dispensed with the Hebrew altogether. One girl is writing and performing a song about Miriam as part of her ceremony.” Most of the “Raising the Bar”events are private and take place outside of synagogues. Their video promo.
My Experience with StorahTelling: Part 1 2003
My personal experience of Storahtelling was in 2003, when my synagogue brought in the talented Lau-Lavie and some of his staff for the annual retreat. On Saturday morning
he gave dramatic, exciting, provocative and sometimes irreverent (though when the parsha is Sotah irreverence seems like a good response) translation/introductions to each aliyah. The team then dramatized sections of the story and led a brief animated discussion (brief compared to this shul’s usually long ones). Then on Saturday night (due to the proximity to Shavuot) the team read selections of the Book of Ruth in Hebrew and dramatized them well,with good actors, with costumes, lights and with humour in English.
My Experience with StorahTelling: Part 2 1983(?)
Being brought up in the alternative scene this type of activity was not actually new to me. When I was about 10 years old, our rabbi introduced the concept of bibliodrama (the term and concept were developed I think by Peter Pitzele in the 1980s) at a retreat (a coincidence? I think there is just the idea that people are more open to innovation at retreats). After our rabbi set the scene, she divided us up into different characters (the story was Joseph and his brothers) and gave us background and motivations and then had us act out the story. Then we discussed what we had learned about the text seeing it from our character’s point of view. It too replaced the dvar Torah in a traditional ( if you call what Reconstructionst do on their shul retreat traditional) service. Given the detail I remember almost 30 years later, it is evident that it made an impression on me. I thought it was innovative, and cool. Of course, I was 10.
My reaction to both these experiences was surprisingly similar given the differences in time, my age and the directors. I thought it was neat and interesting experience, one that really made the text come alive. But I also though that I wouldn’t want it to replace the dvar Torah more than a few times a year. I would miss the struggling with the texts and the insights and the discussions. (Yes even as a child I found divrei Torah riveting I was weird).
The Storahtelling ‘Raising the Bar’ website and the Haddasah article talk about how this is crafting a meaningful coming of age ceremony for the child and his or her family– more meaningful perhaps because it is accessible to the guests, is worked on with the immediate family, and avoids the tedious study of chanting and Hebrew school.
Community- I think an element that is missing in all this is that bar or bat mitzvah is not just a marking of a coming of age (as in the nutty film montage in Duddy Kravitz). It is a welcoming into the adult community of which the child now begins to become a part of. This role has privileges and responsibilities (the mitzvah part of the phrase bar/t mitzvah- which means commandment in Hebrew) with in that community. And though Storahtelling tries, by working with cohorts of kids and their families, I think it totally misses this aspect on focusing on entering a community. Hadassah magazine quotes Rabbi Mordechai Finley, “What makes a person Jewish is their connection to a community. It’s not about simply getting your needs met.” Even if it is an outreach program to those who don’t really have a Jewish community, then part of that outreach should be trying to create one for the participants or connect them to existing ones. Moreover, though community service projects are mentioned as part of the program, they are not emphasized much and happen after the event so that they are not seen as part of the learning experience. At least going from what is on the website, the direct connection between entering the community and one’s obligation to contribute to it is not made.
Also, though the cost of a Raising the Bar event is similar to the costs of family shul membership and Hebrew school (at least in New York- it doesn’t cost $7-10,000 here), synagogues make sure there is access to ceremonies for those who cannot pay.
Context- Similarly, how does this help connect the child to the Judaism they are going to live daily, weekly or seasonally. How does this place what they have learned in the context of their lives now and from now on?
Continuity– Part of the traditional speech by a rabbi or shul president to a bar or bat mitzvah kid is, “Great job- see you back on the bimah next week”. It is a bit of a joke, but also a recognition of the fact that the skills they have learned in Hebrew, in learning blessings and parts of the service, in chanting, in studying text and in presenting a dvar Torah, can be used in shul and in other Jewish contexts for the rest of their lives.
Yes, practicing is tedious and boring- but we do it for anything we want to be good at and think is worthwhile, from playing piano to playing soccer well.
And my final elitist comment: though the guided study might be at a high level discussion of the text and demonstrate different methods and approaches (I don’t know – so I’ll give the benefit of the doubt) the final products (as described) seem a bit heavy on drama and a bit low on intellectual exploration. It reminded me (in a very unfair comparison) of my daughter’s day school trip to Chabad’s Exodus Experience, lots of action but not the thought process I wanted.
The Wider Issues
I realize that these critiques can apply to other forms of Bar and Bat mitzvahs (two mentioned in the Haddasah article are the Trip to Israel and the Wilderness or Adventure bar/t mitzvah) as well as some synagogue bar/t mitzvah programs. (Though I can see if you davenned in the wood in a creative way monthly with a group, then maybe that would work). A supporter of the Storahtelling program, Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL ,quoted in Hadassah magazine says that “the idea that the synagogue provides a community is a myth.” The point of post is not to single out a specific program, except as an example of a trend that is far larger than one program. The point is really to use it as a jumping off point to discuss what bar/t mitzvah was, is and should be. And if shuls are not providing that, then what should change?