Step Into ‘Exodus’ at the Skirball Cultural Center

This Passover, to take your first steps toward an L.A. Exodus — fulfilling the haggadah’s edict that each person must see themselves as if they were leaving Egypt — you must first make it up to the Sepulveda Pass.

Hopefully the sea of traffic on the 405 will part, revealing at the Skirball Cultural Center a newly installed interactive art walk called “Exodus Steps.”

Each year as we sit around the seder table with commentaries, parodies and wind-up frogs, searching for a way to put ourselves into the story, why not search for a new path? Carefully choreographed and whimsically scripted, “Exodus Steps” sets out a new course, freeing us from the slavery of the usual interpretation.

The installation, a biblically inspired trail, was created specifically for the Skirball by British theater company Stan’s Cafe (pronounced “caff”), which had previously created 17 other step projects in London, Edinburgh and other locations throughout Great Britain.

The path, composed of brightly colored vinyl footprints, handprints and dialogue bubbles, was conceived by the theater company’s artistic director, James Yarker, with graphics by the Cafe’s associate artist, Simon Ford. It guides visitors on Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom, and on to receiving the Ten Commandments.

James Yarker, artistic director of Stan’s Cafe, on the trail of “Exodus Steps.” Photo by Edmon J. Rodman

Beginning at the Skirball’s parking structure, the “Exodus Steps” leads a “stepper” on a path that runs past garden walkways, down museum corridors, up and down stairs, even down an elevator.

The peripatetic show is free, and since it runs from March 1 through April 28 — with Passover beginning March 25 — it will allow not only visitors to brush up on the Passover story, but also to re-enact it.

“It’s a new way to interact with the story, to do it physically,” said Jordan Peimer, Skirball vice president and director of programs, who led a recent trek through the “Exodus Steps.”

“We want people to literally put themselves into the characters’ footsteps” said Yarker, who was influenced by commercially made mats that teach dance steps like the fox trot.

For his own path into “Exodus Steps,” Yarker looked to “America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America,” by Bruce Feiler, as well as the “New American Haggadah.” 

To get out of Egypt — which Yarker estimates may take the stepper 45 minutes to an hour to complete, though one could explore it in a shorter period — one must quickly learn to mind one’s steps.

Quickly, the trail leads to what graphic symbols (a partially completed basket and household tools) suggest is the house of Miriam, Moses’ sister. Color-coded footprints and handprints position visitors as if on stage, and dialogue balloons, affixed to pillars and walls, feed them their lines.

“Baby boys?” prompts the supplied script for an Egyptian soldier, derived from the book of Exodus when the king of Egypt orders the Hebrew midwives to kill any Hebrew baby boy who they deliver.

“No babies here, sir,” replies a child.

“OK. Get back to work,” replies the soldier.

Continuing the story, a few paces away, we find ourselves stepping into the Nile to place the basket holding baby Moses in the river.

Some scenes, indicated by graphic images of chains linked to footprints, put a single individual into the haggadah’s words: “Once we were slaves.” Other sets of colorful footprints and handprints, which bring multiple participants into close contact, bring to mind something akin to a game of Passover Twister.

“There’s a level of complication built in,” said Ford, as he applied the last touches to the Burning Bush scene of the walk.

“First they are puzzled, then it all comes together,” said Ford, recalling his previous observations of how people process the “Steps” format.

“Kids are less bothered than are adults,” noted Yarker, who on the Pharaoh’s Court area of the trail demonstrated how a child might dance through, and not exactly follow the series of footsteps that were laid out on a Skirball patio.

In another courtyard, the trail leads to a search for the 10 plagues. One discovers them, plague by plague, almost as if saying their names at the seder — frogs, locusts and boils. In the bright of day one notices, too, the distorted shadow thrown by the image of a graphic skull applied to a window — representing the death of the firstborn.

Lighter moments are represented, too, as hoof prints juxtaposed with a familiar rectangle with vertical dotted lines seems to call for feeding matzah to a sheep. In the elevator, so the Israelites do not get off on the wrong floor, there is even a handprint showing you which button to push.


Back on the trail, walking on a bridge, over a rock-filled creek bed, past real beds of reeds, the stepper is positioned before a previously existing curved sculpture: “Rainbow Arbor” by artist Ned Kahn, newly applied with symbols of broken chariots. If the timing is right, the sculpture shoots out a mist — you have crossed the Red Sea.

Then, what proper Exodus wouldn’t conclude with a stop at Mount Sinai?

“Here’s where Moses gives the Ten Commandments,” said Yarker, standing in the Skirball’s outdoor amphitheater. “And here’s where the Golden Calf goes,” he added pointing to the top of a step. 

Then positioning himself on its edge, he kicked at the air, demonstrating a step that Moses himself might have taken. 

[UPDATED] Minus the eruv, no excuses

UPDATE: According to the Web site, the Los Angeles eruv is down again for Shabbat, beginning June 22 and continuing June 23.

UPDATE: As of 1:30 p.m. Friday, June 22, the Web site is now reporting, the Los Angeles eruv is back up, in time for Shabbat.

When construction for the widening of the 405 Freeway put the Los Angeles Community Eruv out of operation for Shabbat on June 15, it added some complications to the Sabbath plans of some observant Jewish Angelenos. But probably few more so than Elliot Katzovitz, who was among those involved in designing the eruv about a decade ago.

An eruv defines a specific area and allows a rabbinic work-around to the prohibition of carrying in public spaces on the Sabbath.

“There was an old eruv that covered the greater Pico neighborhood, which not everybody found amenable,” Katzovitz said, explaining that it, like most such enclosures, was constructed from posts and strings.

“The current eruv” — whose 40-mile circumference is composed primarily of freeway fencing, the walls of mountain passes and large buildings — “is acceptable to all the different viewpoints of Orthodox Judaism, from the black hats in La Brea to the Modern Orthodox at B’nai David-Judea,” Katzovitz said.

Eruv administrators knew by June 12 that, because paving on a stretch of freeway wouldn’t be dry in time to replace a stretch of fencing, the eruv would be out of operation for Shabbat, for only the second time in as many years of construction. For most of the estimated 40,000 to 50,000 observant Jews who live within the eruv’s perimeter, this meant making sure their Shabbat plans didn’t include pushing children in strollers or carrying a prayer shawl to synagogue.

But for Katzovitz, whose youngest son was becoming bar mitzvah on Saturday morning at B’nai David-Judea, the absence of an eruv didn’t just mean that some guests with small children wouldn’t make it to synagogue, nor were the logistics — making sure the text of his son’s speech was in the synagogue before sundown on Friday, for one — the most significant hardship.

Katzovitz, who lives in Pico-Robertson, about a mile from B’nai David-Judea, suffers from psoriatic arthritis, a condition that doesn’t always afflict him. But last weekend, he suffered a spell that made walking painful.

“Normally, I would’ve used a cane or a wheelchair,” Katzovitz said, and had his condition been one that required him to use a cane or wheelchair all the time, Katzovitz explained, he would have done so, even without an eruv.

But because he is not permanently disabled and would have been using a wheelchair as “a temporary convenience,” Katzovitz said, it was off-limits without an eruv.

“Because I could theoretically walk, I can’t use that wheelchair,” he said, “which is going to sound crazy to anyone who isn’t an Orthodox Jew.”

Katzovitz made it to his son’s bar mitzvah on foot, and even walked back to the synagogue again on Saturday afternoon.

“God granted me the freedom and the lack of pain to be able to do it,” he said.

As of press time on June 19, administrators expected to have the eruv back in operation in time for the Sabbath beginning on June 22.

[UPDATED] Highway construction downs L.A. Eruv for Sabbath

The Los Angeles Community Eruv, which allows observant Jews to carry items within its restricted boundaries on the Sabbath, will not be in operation on the Shabbat that starts at sundown today, June 15 due to a break caused by construction on the 405 Freeway, according to a posting on the eruv’s website.

A rabbinic work-around to the prohibition of carrying in public spaces on the Sabbath, an eruv symbolically transforms the area it encloses into a space where carrying is permitted, allowing parents to push children in strollers, synagogue-goers to carry prayer shawls and youth to play basketball in a public park, if they so choose.

While many such enclosures are often simple constructions of fishing line or wire, Los Angeles’s eruv, which has a circumference of about 40 miles, uses a 10-mile section of the 405 as its Western boundary. With construction on parts of the 405 ongoing for the past three years, the fences and guardrails that make up parts of Los Angeles’s eruv have occasionally been altered in ways that have put the entire eruv out of commission for a Sabbath on a few occasions.

Highway construction last downed the eruv for one Shabbat in late-October 2011, according to the Los Angeles Eruv Facebook page. In that case, though eruv administrators had thought the boundary might stay down into November, the eruv was back up and running again the following week.

Signs have been posted around the heavily Orthodox Hancock Park community – including at La Brea Kosher Market in Hancock Park and at synagogues Bais Yehuda and Kehilas Yaakov – that read, “Due to the ongoing construction on the 405 freeway, the eruv is down. Please spread the word.”

Community members, shopping for Shabbat groceries at La Brea Market, expressed frustration.

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“My friend is making [her son’s] bar mitzvah this Shabbos, so I know she has a lot of friends coming in from of town with babies, and it’s going to be complicated,” said Faigie Brecher, who was shopping with her 18-month-year-old son and lives around the corner from the market. “All of us would like to go…and we’re going to be stuck at home having to make arrangements to watch our children.”

Adinah Mahfouda, a cashier at the La Brea market, sent text messages to her friends to notify them.  She said she also her rebbetzin whether a certain stoller could be used by a friend, and was told it wasn’t kosher.

Elly Rubin, 57, a member of Congregation Or Hachaim, had a different take on the situation. “It’s actually a good thing occasionally when the eruv is down,” he said, “so people remember the rules and how it works.”

Eruv adminstrators could not be reached for comment on Friday.


Carmageddon: The world will end

Can an app solve L.A. traffic?

While thousands of Angelenos are dreading Carmageddon — the closure of the 405 Freeway for 53 hours — Noam Bardin is looking forward to the challenge. As the CEO of Waze, a community-driven, free GPS application for smartphones, the Israeli-American entrepreneur is the commander-in-car of what his company calls the “Carmageddon Resistance” against the predicted Los Angeles traffic jam of epic proportions.

“The closure of 405 is the best moment to look at this app and understand what it can do for you every day,” Bardin said during an interview in June in Los Angeles at the Israel Conference, a business and networking opportunity for the Israeli high-tech industry, where he presented Waze to hundreds of businessmen and entrepreneurs. 

Waze is a Wikipedia for the road. It functions like a standard GPS, while also offering alternate routes and up-to-the-second traffic information based on the driving patterns of other Waze users (“Wazers”). Wazers participate by becoming on-site traffic reporters, providing Twitter-like status updates on accidents, road closures, traffic jams and police checkpoints. Waze maps are built and constantly updated through crowdsourcing — intelligence gathered by a community of users. 

Anyone with a smartphone (Android, iPhone, BlackBerry) can download Waze. Upon opening, what comes up is a cheerful, colorful map with other drivers represented as “speech bubbles” on wheels. Just click on another Wazer to find out that driver’s speed and to see his or her traffic status updates, if any. To ensure safety, Waze offers voice directions, and typing is disabled while driving. You can choose “passenger” mode for reports from a nondriver in the car. To entice Wazers to venture into unchartered Waze territory and hence edit the map in the process, road “goodies” appear on the map for the driver to “munch” and then later trade in for prizes. As a developed start-up, Waze foresees its revenue coming from licensing data and, more important, location-guided advertising.

Leave it to a war-torn country to lead the war against the most mundane enemy of the modern world. As the story goes, Waze was unintentionally started in Israel by engineer Ehud Shabtai, the company’s co-founder and chief technical officer, after getting a GPS as a birthday gift from his girlfriend at the time.

Story continues after the jump.