July 18, 2019

Theatre dybbuk Explores Hell and Ritual Exorcism

From left, Rebecca Rasmussen, Jonathan C.K. Williams, Diana Tanaka, Rob Adler, Julie A. Lockhart (masked), Jenny Gillett, Nick Greene. Photo by Taso Papadakis

While you might expect hell, demons and ritual exorcism from a Halloween film festival, theatre dybbuk’s new show in Los Feliz, titled “hell prepared: a ritual exorcism inspired by kabbalistic principles, performed within a dominant cultural context,” positions these concepts as Jewish social commentary. 

The production, which depicts a descent into hell from a Jewish perspective, is inspired by the 17th-century narrative poem “Tofteh Arukh,” written by Moses Zacuto in the Jewish ghettos of Venice and Mantua, in northern Italy. Erith Jaffe-Berg, a theater, film and digital production professor at UC Riverside, found the text through an academic colleague of hers, professor Michela Andreatta, who had translated the text from Hebrew to Italian a few years ago. Jaffe-Berg began thinking about a possible translation and presentation in English. 

“I thought this was a text that deserved to be known by a wider circle of people,” Jaffe-Berg told the Journal. She thought immediately of theatre dybbuk and its founder and artistic director, Aaron Henne, as a “natural home” for it. 

According to the Philosophical Research Society’s website, “hell prepared” features “a landscape of choreographed movement, poetic text, shadow puppetry and choral scoring,” and “follows a spiritual leader as he endeavors to exorcise the dominant culture and its influence on his world. In the process, he is driven down through the pits of hell where he sees visions of a challenging past and an uncertain future.”

Jaffe-Berg said that theatre dybbuk’s adaptation uses “the earlier text [from the 17th century] as a symbolic mirror for viewing our own times. The company members added many of their own questions about assimilation, difference and the evolution of communities in terms of preserving and changing their own culture. The result is an enriching contemplation of how humans deal with change and culturally, ethnically, racially and religiously varying identities.”

“I’m getting more and more interested in American society’s questions of dominance and subjugation and power and looking for material that speaks to those concerns,” Henne said. 

“Good artistic work should upend our expectations, leave us thrilled or provoked or upset. That’s the way we forward our society.” — Aaron Henne

Jaffe-Berg said “hell prepared” is also about “how moments of cultural crisis necessitate communities to rethink their own identity and existence,” referring to Zacuto’s struggles after the period of Shabbetai Zevi, the false messiah. 

“This was a personal as well as a community crisis for Zacuto and others within the Jewish community,” she added. “In our own 21st-century American context with radical shifts in the results of recent elections, we are also facing questions about leadership and the process by which we elect our leaders. In that sense, the questions Zacuto asked himself may be resonant for us today.” 

A longtime theater artist, playwright and director, Henne has “experienced a variety of ensemble development practices,” he said, explaining theatre dybbuk’s collaborative process. Actors, choreographers, a musician/composer and a scholar when available meet regularly. Eventually, the script is “formed in the fire of those conversations,” he said. 

Jaffe-Berg actively participated in theatre dybbuk’s “hell prepared” meetings, “providing research, background information and input on the evolving text.”

Julie Lockhart, theatre dybbuk’s marketing and communications director, who is also a performer with the theater company, said, “I really appreciate the long process we have for developing our scripts and in the case of ‘hell prepared,’ the time we took getting up on our feet and playing in different forms [of physical theater, dance, shadow puppetry and performance] with the themes we’re exploring in the show.”

Henne said “hell prepared” is “probably more character-driven and classically plot-trackable” than some of theatre dybbuk’s previous work. Still, the style may be different for those who expect theater experiences to be either extremely realistic — a clear plot with relatable characters — or entirely abstract, where dance and visual art live, Henne said. “Our work lives in that space between, where we have some semblance of the things we recognize but are doing what music or dance does.”

Brad Culver, Tiffany Sweat; Photo by Taso Papadakis

A New Jersey native, Henne has seven generations of Ukrainian rabbis on his father’s side and briefly considered becoming a rabbi before disengaging Jewishly for most of his 20s. But in his 30s, art brought him back. His work with theatre dybbuk is an artistic rabbinic pulpit of sorts, forged in the 21st century. 

“We think of engagement as a line but it may be a circle,” he said. “I started to get these ideas. I pulled from the learning I had when I was younger, combined it with working with scholars and unpacking history to create work. … The act of creation was an act of learning. Learning to create made my learning rich and deep.”

Theatre dybbuk previously created and performed four other original, full-length theatrical pieces, as well as two original short pieces, plus numerous staged readings and community events. It has a number of partnerships and collaborations with sacred spaces, including Valley Beth Shalom.

Theatre dybbuk is a nonprofit supported by a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, with additional support from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. 

If some audience members bristle at the style or content of a show, that’s part of the role art plays in the world, Henne said. “We think of provocation, upset or discomfort as being problematic. But good artistic work should upend our expectations, leave us thrilled or provoked or upset. That’s the way we forward our society. A push forward can sometimes be difficult, exposing the darkness. But we do a disservice to our humanity if we don’t explore and expose the darkness.”

“Hell prepared” is playing at the Philosophical Research Society, 3910 Los Feliz Blvd., the weekends of July 26-28 and Aug. 2-4. For more information, visit theatredybbuk.org. 

$2 million in grants awarded to 8 L.A. groups

Andrea Sonnenberg, co-founder and CEO of Wise Readers to Leaders, is joined by her husband, Glenn Sonnenberg, as she sits among kids taking part in the program, one of the beneficiaries of eight $250,000 grants awarded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. Photo by Max Gerber Photography

Dr. Lawrence D. Platt knows how hard it is to have a child in the military halfway around the world. Just ask him about his son Ari’s experience as a lone soldier, a member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) serving without the nearby support of immediate families.

“My son, a combat officer, served as a lone soldier from 2009 to 2011 and is on reserve if something comes up,” Platt said. “When he was called back to Israel to serve during Operation Protective Edge, my wife and I had a firsthand experience of what families go through when a family member is in harm’s way.”

That experience led Platt to found and co-chair Families of Lone Soldiers Los Angeles (FLS), an organization now seeking to create a local center that would provide social, mental health, educational and financial support to families in similar circumstances.

The organization’s efforts recently received a major boost when it received a $250,000, three-year Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. It was one of eight groups to receive such grants, a total of $2 million, which were announced on Aug. 17.

FLS plans to use the funds to help subsidize programming and fundraising efforts as it operates, for now, as a center without walls at various locations around Los Angeles.

“Uniting these families together who share common interests and issues will certainly prevent the feeling of isolation from the broader Jewish community,” Platt said.

Stuart Steinberg, whose son, Sgt. Max Steinberg, was a lone soldier killed in action in Gaza in July 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, said the grant provides an important opportunity for the FLS program.

“My family’s involvement continues to be a great source of healing for us and an opportunity to help turn our tragedy into something positive,” Steinberg said. “I am excited about the grant because as we promote greater awareness of our work to the Jewish community, we also help establish Max’s legacy within the fabric of our organization and the way he committed to and sacrificed for both the U.S. and Israel.”

Other 2017 recipients of the $250,000 Cutting Edge Grants, each distributed over three or four years, were:

• The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Family Camp Pilot program connecting Jewish camps to Jewish early childhood centers.

• Federation’s Y&S Nazarian Foundation Iranian Young Adult Outreach and Engagement Initiative.

• The Volunteer Engagement Project of the Karsh Family Social Service Center, an auxiliary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

• OneTable, for the Los Angeles launch of its online platform that helps out-of-college millennials anywhere in the U.S. find a Shabbat dinner.

• StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy organization, to create its J.D. Fellowship for Jewish law students in L.A.

• UpStart LA to help Jewish organizations be innovative and increase their impact.

Wise Readers to Leaders for its Tikkun Olam Corps summer literacy and enrichment program

The grant recipients “demonstrate a capacity and leadership to implement an initiative that is unique, sustainable and offers long-term positive impact on our local Jewish community,” said Elana Wien, vice president at the Foundation’s Center for Designed Philanthropy.

“Through this year’s recipient programs,” Wien added, “[the Foundation] is providing significant financial support to efforts that foster engagement and participation in local Jewish life; provide critical human services and assistance to those in need; and serve diverse segments of our community from youth to seniors.”

The Tikkun Olam Corps connects Jewish teens with underserved elementary school students in Los Angeles who come mostly from Latino communities. Andrea Sonnenberg, co-founder and CEO of Wise Readers to Leaders, said the grant will help expand educational opportunities for the teens and their students throughout the year.

Sonnenberg said the Cutting Edge Grant, distributed over four years, will help accelerate the program’s growth and impact. While 300 school children were served in the summer of 2017, Sonnenberg projects more than 500 students and 150 Jewish teens will be served each year by 2020. 

Under the supervision of education, religious, social work and management professionals, Jewish college students serve as teachers in classrooms at several campuses throughout Los Angeles, with Jewish high school students from 10th grade and up acting as assistant teachers.

“We intend to use some of this money to step up our outreach to Jewish teens by setting up booths at high school fairs, have more recruiting sessions before summer and build more campuses across the city,” Sonnenberg said. “The program is not just for those considering teaching careers. It also provides them experience in social work, psychology and other careers involving children. Even if they don’t pursue any of these careers, the Jewish values learned here will serve them throughout their lives.”

The Wise Readers’ Tikkun Olam Corps Program and Families of Lone Soldiers’ Los Angeles center exemplify what the Foundation seeks in in the grant applicants, Wien said.

“Both harness the power of community to meet the needs of underserved populations,” she said. “Collectively, all our Cutting Edge Grants recipients offer transformative ideas for reimagining local Jewish life and touching the broadest possible segments of our community.”