Jews get into the Christmas spirit
Sonny Calderon still remembers the words his outraged 8-year-old son cried out when he learned Santa Claus wasn’t real, that his father had been perpetuating a myth: “I hate you, and I hate the way your farts smell.”
Calderon relived this traumatic moment on Dec. 10 in front of a packed house at hipster-hangout El Cid, where the irreverent, nondenominational collective East Side Jews held a storytelling show called “Light Up the Night: Holiday Mashup.”
“It was a very L.A. moment, having this flamenco venue on Sunset Boulevard, with Jews coming to talk about Christmas. It was a great melting-pot moment,” said Zan Romanoff, program coordinator for Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center
(SIJCC). East Side Jews operates under the aegis of SIJCC.
As the smell of paella wafted and sangria intoxicated, five storytellers, including Calderon, took the stage. The evening acted as a middle ground between the two holidays, Christmas and Chanukah, and — at least for one night — the two holidays got along famously.
Romanoff, who is an occasional contributor to the Journal, kicked off the night with ease by introducing the storytellers. The 27-year-old, who has a Jewish father and a formerly Catholic mother who has since converted, asked the audience to tweet the evening (#eastsidejews) “so we can take back our hashtag!” To which one person in the audience whispered, “Who took it?”
Immediately after, Brett Fromson, Deanna Neil and Tannaz Sassooni performed “Instagram,” a millennial rendition of Paul Simon’s 1973 single “Kodachrome.”
Storyteller Becca Frucht, a Southern belle with an interfaith upbringing, talked about her family’s iconic “Chanuk-as” (Chanukah + Christmas) parties in a town where, as Frucht described it, “There’s more fried okra than Jews.” Meanwhile, she donned a Christmas-inspired yarmulke that just about summed up the evening.
Storyteller Avishay Artsy, a news producer at KCRW and a Jewish Journal contributor, prompted his story with a precursor about his notions of Christmas.
“The music is great,” he said, “granted, all the music is written by Jews …”
Where’s the Passover story?
It’s one of the great mysteries of the Jewish tradition. Every year, Jews around the world gather around a seder table to retell the story of our people’s liberationfrom slavery. You can read a thousand articles, talk to a thousand rabbis, and they’ll all say the same thing: At the Passover seder, we retell the story of the Exodus.
There’s only one problem with this statement: It’s not really true.
At least not if you go by the traditional definition of story.
Pay attention to every word when you go through the haggadah this year, and ask yourself: Where exactly is the story? Especially all you folks in Hollywood — agents, screenwriters, producers, actors — who live and breathe stories every day. Is this an actual story you are reading? Where’s the buildup? The character development? The narrative flow? The climax?
The haggadah, as handed down by our rabbinic sages, breaks all the rules of good storytelling.
Sure, there are snippets of story here and there: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem our God took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”; “The Egyptians did evil to us and afflicted us and imposed hard labors upon us,” and so on.
But the bulk of the haggadah is a mercurial mash-up of commentaries and biblical exhortations. A minute into the “story,” for example, we are mired in a Talmudic discussion between Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and four other rabbis in Bnei Brak on the subtleties of a particular phrase in Deuteronomy — as they debate not the Exodus itself, but simply when and how often they should study it.
What comes next? Well, had the writers concerned themselves with the basics of storytelling, they might have continued like this:
“The year was 1445 B.C.E. The Israelites are now captives in Egypt, and the time of Joseph, the Jew who became prime minister in Egypt, is long forgotten. The ruling Pharaoh fears their numbers. The Israelites are an estimated 2 million in number. Moses, who had been raised in Pharaoh’s court, is now living as a shepherd in the desert.
“As he is tending to his flock, Moses sees a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames. He goes to the bush, and, to his astonishment, God speaks to him from it: ‘Come now, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, so that you may bring forth my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’
“It took some convincing to get Moses to agree to the task. Moses was not a good speaker and he feared that he would fail. But still, he listened to God and set out with his family on the long trek to Egypt.”
The story goes on, and it’s an epic one, full of high drama and human conflict. Unfortunately, most of it is not in your haggadah.
Instead, after the Talmudic debate in Bnei Brak, the haggadah continues with one of the great non sequiturs of Jewish liturgy: The Four Sons. Think about it. What do these four characters have to do with the story of the Exodus? In Hollywood parlance, they don’t even establish a subtext, or plant the seeds for a future plot twist. They just show up.
So what gives here? Why is our annual night of storytelling so devoid of actual storytelling? How can we ask Jews to relive the story of their people if we don’t explain it to them — and make it part of the official liturgy? How can we expect them to embrace and discuss a story that looks so disjointed and full of holes?
Sometimes I think we should contact the Creative Artists Agency and ask them to produce the world’s most compelling retelling of the Passover story. Can you imagine the haggadah that an elite team of Jewish screenwriters and producers could create? Families and seder participants would be riveted to the page. The tension would build as each person would take turns reading from this extraordinary story — and no one would think of asking, “When do we eat?”
This all sounds so logical and wonderful that I feel like calling CAA right away. But before we rush off and rewrite our 2,000-year-old liturgy, it’s worth asking one key question: Why would our brilliant sages tell the story of the liberation of the Jewish people in such a mercurial and fragmented way?
The usual answer is that we are encouraged to fill in the holes with our own questions and discussion. This response has never satisfied me. I don’t know about you, but I’m more likely to discuss a story and ask questions if the story is told clearly and completely.
No, I think it’s possible that our sages had something deeper and more subtle in mind. Maybe, just maybe, our sages were elusive in their writing because they didn’t want us to get overly attached — to our own story.
This thought occurred to me during a recent Friday night meal at my place with two great thinkers from Israel (Avraham Infeld and Gidi Grinstein). We were talking about the need for Zionism to renew itself, and in doing so, to make sure it doesn’t stay too stuck to its old narratives. Yes, it is critical to remember the stories and lessons of our past, but not in a way that deadens our thinking in the present or stops us from considering new ideas for the future.
In that spirit, it could be that our sages gave us a more grainy and less explicit version of the Passover story so that we could review it from a healthy distance — and not get so enmeshed in the drama that we fall prey to triumphalism or victimhood. In other words, they wanted us to own the story, rather than have the story own us.
Maybe that’s the great hidden lesson of Passover: We can become slaves to anything, even to our own amazing story.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
7 Days in the Arts
Saturday the 7th
Take a stroll for a good cause at today’s 14th annual Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk. More than 100 teams are scheduled for the 5K recreational walk around Hollywood Park racetrack, and those wishing to register today are also welcome. Also ambling are celebrities Peter Gallagher, David Hyde Pierce, Leeza Gibbons and Lea Thompson.
7 a.m. (registration), 8:30 a.m. (opening ceremonies), 8:45 a.m. (warm up). 9 a.m. (walk). 10:15 a.m.-noon (health expo, live entertainment, celebrity autographs and prizes). 1050 S. Prairie Ave., Inglewood. (323) 930-6228.
Monday the 9th
Sneak behind the curtain into the life of Pulitzer and Tony award-winning playwright Tony Kushner in the new documentary, “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner.” Following the writer from just after Sept. 11, 2001 to the 2004 presidential election, cameras captured Kushner’s work on the Broadway musical, “Caroline, or Change.” and the children’s Holocaust opera, “Brundibar,” as well as his “humor, ambition, vision and dazzling braininess,” according to Newsweek.
” border = 0 vspace = 12 alt=””>
Jewish Renewal leader Rabbi Shefa Gold debuts her first book, “Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land,” this month. Described as an approach for using the Torah as a path for spiritual growth, the text has been praised by Renewal leaders like Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Gold visits Los Angeles this week, offering workshops in conjunction with the release. Tonight, she is at B’nai Horin/Children of Freedom.
Oct. 10: (310) 441-4434 or e-mail PeggiS@mac.com.
Thursday the 12th
Storytelling for grownups comes courtesy of UCLA Live this week. “The Moth,” a New York storytelling organization, comes west for a night at Royce Hall titled, “Out on a Limb: Stories From the Edge.” The show of real-life narratives will include host Andy Borowitz (creator of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”), Jonathan Ames (author, “Wake Up Sir!”), comedian Margaret Cho, Cindy Chupak (writer and executive producer, “Sex and the City”), RUN DMC’s Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Steve Osborne (retired NYPD lieutenant).
7:30 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.
Dan Berkley always carries two noses. “I always try to have a spare,” he says. “Particularly in a pie fight, it can come off. Doing anything, you’re gonna lose a nose.”
Berkley knows noses. He’s a clown in town with the Ringling Bros. When we met, he’d just jumped off the circus train from Fresno. Applying his makeup off Clown Alley backstage at Staples Center, Berkley explained how a nice boy from “the last exit off the Garden State Parkway” ran away with the Barnum and Bailey and the whole mishagoss.
He didn’t. First he got a degree in physics from a college in Maine. Then he fooled around with Circus Smirkus in Vermont and the Pickle Players in the Bay Area, developing a scientist character along the way. Did I mention he’s smart? Now, at 25, he’s an entertainer in “The Greatest Show on Earth!” (Take that Mandy Patinkin.)
Some of my best friends are clowns. I know that sounds like a line, but it’s true. Jewish clowns, too. Back East, there’s Dr. Meatloaf and Dr. Noodle (aka Stephen Ringold and Ilene Weiss). They’re in the CCU, the “Clown Care Unit” of the Big Apple Circus. Like badchens (Yiddish for clown) for the broken up, they play hospitals instead of weddings.
Here, Berkley takes a header into a pie with 15 other clown pals when an elephant walks into his diner. In a “Smashcar” pit-stop sketch, he reaches the heights — depths? — of pratfalling. Yet, his zany behavior onstage in front of thousands of ooh-ing and ahh-ing children contradicts a yeshiva bocher-level interest Berkley has in his art off-stage.
Berkley knows the difference between a badchen and a kachina (a Hopi clown). He learned some of his craft at the funny feet of the wonderful messugenah clown Avner “the Eccentric” Eisenberg. Avner lives off the coast of Maine and is, if not a ba’al teshuvah then not a bad Baal Shem Tov, using humor as a healing tool for the heart and breath. Berkley learned from Avner (and Bill Irwin and other mentors) that clowning “is an evolutionary art.”
“You’re always trying to come up with something new,” he says. “Of course, there are no new ideas. There’s your take on it.”
Clowning has deep Jewish storytelling roots — notably the cartoon faith of Krusty the Clown on “The Simpsons.” His real name is Herschel Krustofski, and his father, voiced by Jackie Mason, was a rabbi. Berkley remembers a line from the Talmud that Bart Simpson quotes in one episode: “Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?”
Nicole Feld, circus co-producer with her father, Kenneth Feld, hopes such wisdom is prophetic. Her grandfather, Irvin Feld, first moved the venerable show from tent to arena. This is their 136th year and Feld, 28, wouldn’t say whether Berkley is her favorite clown — “That’s like asking me if I love my mom or my dad more!”
“He brought his college background and his interests in physics to his character,” Feld says. “Dan’s great because he can talk to kids about all kinds of stuff and helps us place the value on education.”
Dan starts by putting on his eyes (white, red, black). He can complete his face in 15 minutes. The latex nose goes on with skin adhesive.
“In the medical industry they use it for colostomy bags and stuff like that,” he says. “It works well. You really don’t wanna lose a nose. Guys that are prone to losing their nose, will paint their own nose red so worst-case scenario, they still have a nose. The nose within. The inner nose.”
Berkley steps away and powders.
“We powder our makeup to set it, keep it from smudging,” he explains. “I bump into somebody, I don’t want to leave my face on their costume.”
He tops off with a two-toned yak wig reminiscent of Sam Jaffee as Dr. Zorba on TV’s “Ben Casey.”
“I use yak hair because it’s tougher,” he says, too young for the reference. “It takes a beating. We beat up everything we use.”
Did you know clowns wear two pairs of boxers? For the final touch, Berkley pokes a tiny black clown dot into his dimpled chin. In floppy two-toned custom-made shoes, he’s ready to meander out — lime-green smock over orange shirt with dark bow tie, green-and-black plaid pants held up by red suspenders — for his pre-show “all access” visit with the early-arriving audience. He has been buffooning since 3 a.m., when he did a Univision appearance (Latino audiences are Ringling’s bread and butter in Los Angeles).
Berkley likes the Wavy Gravy line: “A clown is a poet who is also an orangutan.”
“There are a lot of contradictions in clowning,” Berkley says. “There are no rules. It’s one of those arts where you can do anything. You’re limited by what you can get your hands on sometimes and how much time you have to work on it.
In Staples, I ran into some Israelis I knew. Not to get all “Up With Laughter” about it, but they said Israel could sure use a circus. Leytzan, they told me, is the word for clown in Hebrew. Dan Berkley is very leytzan.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is currently in Anaheim, through Aug. 6. For ticket information, visit see www.ringling.com/schedule/.
Hank Rosenfeld learned in a Ringling Brothers audition “ya gotta have a heart as big as Alaska” to reach the top row.
The Blessing of Bibhilu
A book’s opening chapter is crucial to setting the mood and aura for the remainder of the book’s journey. Likewise, the opening scene of a film usually helps set the tone for what will ensue.
The Passover seder is both a reader’s experience and a moviegoer’s. We sit around the table and read the haggadah, and we also witness a host of rituals. But how does the seder leader creatively capture an audience and draw it into the experience from the beginning?
My father is neither novelist nor screenwriter, but from childhood he exposed me to a Moroccan seder ritual that immediately drew all those around the table into the full experience of a seder. This ritual is affectionately known amongst Moroccans as Bibhilu.
Following the kiddush, the karpas, and the yahatz (division of the matzah), the leader takes the brass seder plate, adorned with all of the ritual items, and he begins to walk around the table, waving the seder plate over each person’s head. As the plate is being waved, the entire gathering at the seder chants in unison: “Bibhilu yatsanu mimitsrayim” (“In a hurry we left Egypt”). When my father did this, each of us wondered whether he would simply wave the plate above our heads or knock us over the head with it. This ritual created lots of positive energy — between the anticipation of your turn under the plate and the chanting in unison of Bibhilu.
Yes, it’s a lot of fun. But is there a deeper spiritual meaning, or is this ritual simply some gimmick meant to create excitement among those who might be otherwise bored?
Throughout my life, I have always celebrated the seder in Moroccan fashion, Bibhilu and all. But only a few years ago did I first see a Moroccan haggadah.
At the beginning, there was, as in all haggadot, a drawing of the seder plate, illustrating the placement of each ritual item, which generally followed the Sephardic tradition. I had always known that Sephardic Jews arrange the seder plate differently than Ashkenazim, but again, I never knew why.
The Sephardic pattern, I knew, derives from tradition attributed to the great kabbalist from Safed known as the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria). In this haggadah, the drawing not only reflected the Ari’s Sephardic arrangement, but it added something that I had never seen, something which suddenly tied together for me the logic behind the Sephardic arrangement, and the reason behind the Moroccan Bibhilu ritual. Next to each ritual item on the plate was written one of the 10 kabbalistic sefirot, the mystical dimensions describing the sacred attributes of God. The three matzahs correspond to keter (crown), chochmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding); the shank bone corresponds to hesed (kindness); the egg corresponds to gevurah (strength); the bitter herbs correspond to tiferet (beauty); the charoset corresponds to netzach (victory), the karpas corresponds to hod (splendor), the hazeret corresponds to yesod (foundation); and the seder plate itself represents malchut (kingship).
It suddenly dawned upon me that, with this mystical arrangement, the seder plate is no longer just a platter carrying a selection of ritual items. The Ari’s Sephardic arrangement transformed the seder plate into a sacred representation of God, which means that when the seder plate is waved above your head during Bibhilu, you are being blessed by the spiritual strength of the Shekhina. The body of God, as represented by the sefirot, is now being waved above your head, and for the rest of the evening, the presence of the seder plate on the table represents the presence of the Shekhina in your midst.
From then on the Bibhilu ritual suddenly meant a lot more to me, because I now understood that, in addition to drawing in the audience, the Bibhilu ritual also represented a spiritual blessing for each participant as he or she prepares to set off on the haggadah’s storytelling journey from slavery to freedom.
As an American Jew raised in a Moroccan Jewish home, the Bibhilu ritual will always be part of my life. Having experienced it from childhood, and now coming full circle to understand its meaning, I will always look at the seder plate as a source of blessing and sanctity throughout the evening. Whether you are Moroccan or not, this ritual can become a powerful way to help infuse your seder with a newfound spiritual depth.
As it turns out, my father is now in a wheelchair, so he has transferred this privilege and responsibility to me. And yes, after all of those years under the seder plate, it’s lots of fun banging my father over the head while we all chant Bibhilu.
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.
Workmen’s Circle: 2-8 p.m. Have your portrait sketched by master artist Vadim Zang. Appointments are scheduled for every half-hour. $30. 1525 Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 552-2007.
East Valley Multipurpose Senior Center: 1-2 p.m. Yiddish Club with conversation, music, storytelling and films. All levels and abilities welcome. $2 donation. 5000 Colfax Ave., North Hollywood. (818) 766-5165.
|” width=”1″ height=”8″alt = “” >|
Women’s League for Conservative Judaism: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Torah Fund Study Day on “Women and the Rabbinate.” $25 (with a $36 contribution to the Torah Fund Campaign). University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-5359.
Temple Adat Elohim: 6 p.m. Buffet-style Shabbat dinner followed by services at 7:30 p.m. for the deaf community. $12 (must be mailed in advance to 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362).
|” width=”1″ height=”30″alt = “” >|
Westwood Jewish Singles (45+):
7:30 p.m. “Emotional Differences Between Men and Women,” discussion with therapist Maxine Gellar. $10. West Los Angeles. (310) 444-8986.
Jewish Learning Exchange: 7:45 p.m. “Why Being Single Happens to Good People” with Dr. Lisa Aiken. 7223 Beverly Blvd., Suite 201, Los Angeles. (323) 857-0923.
L.A.’s Fabulous Best Connections: Chinese Food at Shanghai Diamond Garden. 9401 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 782-0435.
|” width=”1″ height=”8″alt = “” >|
Wilshire Boulevard Temple: 7:30 p.m.-midnight. David Dassa’s weekly dance lessons, beginner at 7:30 p.m., regular class at 8 p.m. and open dancing from 9:15 p.m. on. $7. 2112 S. Barrington Ave., Los Angeles. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dinner With Friends (30-45): Gourmet cooking class at the Culinary Classroom in West Los Angeles. www.dinnerwithfriends.com.
Helkeinu (20-40): 9 p.m. Weekly lecture series on self-improvement. Free. (310) 785-0440. email@example.com.
|” width=”1″ height=”8″alt = “” >|
Sunshine Seniors Club: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Weekly meeting. Valley Jewish Community Center, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 764-4532.
American Civil Liberties Union: 7:30 p.m. “Current Threats to the Separation of Church and State” with Harry Schwartzbart. Free. Westside Pavilion, third floor, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 392-7149.
|” width=”1″ height=”8″alt = “” >|
Adat Shalom: 7 p.m. Cafe Adat Shalom new program for young professionals, with erev Shabbat musical service, wine and cheese reception and musical accompaniment. 3030 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 475-4985.
Ethiopian American Culture Center: 9:30 p.m. Weekly klezmer night. $5. 5819 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6661.
Chai Center (21-36): Dinner for 60 Strangers. www.chaicenter.org/ shabbat_dinner_rsvp.htm
Jewish Singles, Meet! (30s-40s): Reservation deadline for a Feb. 26 gathering at Little Rock in Tarzana. Pool, darts, drinks and live music in a casual atmosphere. No cover. (818) 750-0095.