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How to Bring Sacred Stories to Life

How to Bring Sacred Stories to Life

Microphone at the front of a large room; background of photo is blurred

Even though the Jewish people are known as the “People of the Book,” sometimes our sacred stories can seem virtually inaccessible to us. We might read them in ritual settings such as Shabbat or holiday services. We might parody them in Purim-spiels and ask questions about them at our Passover seders. But connecting to these collective stories on a deeper, more personal level can be a challenge.

As a rabbi, overcoming this challenge is the focus of my professional life. I have dedicated my career to translating the ancient wisdom of our Jewish tradition into a message that is compelling for a modern audience. I teach classes, give impassioned sermons, and capitalize on every potential moment that might provide a connection to the collective Jewish narrative.

At times, though, even all that isn’t enough.

Sometimes, we have to make the story come alive. That’s when I draw on my experience in the performing arts.

For the past decade, I have been experimenting with ways to use my skills as an actress to create dramatic interpretations of sacred texts. This approach, which I first learned about in a training session with Storahtelling many years ago, uses dramatic renditions to unlock the meaning of the text in a unique way.

Think about how devoted we are to the alternative universes created in our favorite plays, movies, and television series. Think about how, for fans, the characters’ stories continue beyond the boundaries of their scripted moments, and how exciting it is when artists transform familiar narratives by reimagining them through the perspective of a different character.

Let’s look at an example from American culture. L. Frank Baum’s original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was transformed into the iconic 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” While the novel was successful, the movie brought the story to life in a new and exciting way. The story continued to be reimagined in the 1978 classic “The Wiz,” which recasts the main characters as African-Americans and sets the story in Harlem. In the Broadway smash hit, “Wicked,” we are introduced to a new layer of this classic story, told through the eyes of the Wicked Witch. In every iteration, the beloved narrative maintains some essential elements, but also stretches beyond its original perspective to reveal deeper meaning.

That’s precisely what I hope to accomplish when I write and perform dramatic interpretations of our sacred stories at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, NY, where I have performed several different dramatic interpretations as part of our worship services in recent months. The first, last spring, was on the Shabbat when we read the double portion – and one of the most difficult to relate to – Tazria-M’tzora.

Focused mostly on ritual purity and diagnosing tzara’at, a skin disease commonly mistranslated as leprosy, the concepts in the portion are largely foreign to a modern audience. I approached this challenge by interpreting these concepts through the eyes of the biblical character Miriam. Although Miriam is not mentioned in Tazria-M’tzora, we know from elsewhere in the Torah that she is stricken with tzara’at. By giving a concrete identity to someone afflicted with tzara’at, we are better able to relate to the text.

By embodying the character of Miriam, I could explore the feelings of isolation and loneliness that often accompany a serious illness. I could describe the painful process of being separated from the community and the complex procedure of reintegration, the transformative effect of healing, and the comfort of ritual, making a once enigmatic text deeply personal and relatable.

Let’s take a look at one more narrative – the story of Cain and his brother, Abel. Most of us are familiar with the original plot. Cain, jealous of his brother, kills Abel and then is cursed to wander for the rest of his life. Because the Torah text focuses on the two brothers, we don’t know how this violent event affected others. What if we retold this story from Adam’s perspective? Or Eve’s? What if we heard the tale from Cain’s wife or Abel’s widow? How might these different perspectives help us connect with and learn from this familiar narrative in a new way?

Dramatic renditions reach out toward these seemingly distant stories and plant them squarely in the present. They reveal that, ultimately, our texts are describing universal human experiences that transcend time and space. They demonstrate that our sacred stories are more than the black letters on the page. Rather, the stories come alive in the white space in and around the letters. It’s that area on the page that beckons us to use our imaginations to transport ourselves into the narrative of our ancestors.

Rabbi Jessica Lenza is the director of religious school engagement at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, NY. Ordained by Hebrew College, she is passionate about music and enjoys singing, as well as playing guitar, ukulele, and djembe. Visit her website to learn more about her and listen to her music.

Rabbi Jessica Lenza
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