Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Learning from Asher Lev

Or: A pretendin' febrengin

I’m not a good self promoter, but Hashem looks out for me. I’ve been really fortunate to come by cool jobs just by knowing nice people who recommend me. When the Cleveland Playhouse was looking for a Rabbinic consultant for their production of “My Name is Asher Lev”, the trail of their search eventually led to me. Man, am I lucky. Its been a blast. So far I’ve met with the director once, and then had two meetings with her and her cast

I always enjoy getting a look behind the scenes at how things work. (for example I’ve taken opportunities to do so in the NYPD and the IDF, but much less literally) What I didn’t realize was how fascinating it would be to get to know these artists. I found that they have a crucial element in common with the Hasidim that they will be playing. 

I was amazed by their pure curiosity. The questions that they had about Judaism in general and Hasidut in particular were certainly designed to better inform their performances. But it went beyond that. They were clearly deeply curious about other people and how they think, feel and live. I suppose that one of the joys of their craft is inhabiting those personas and seeing through the eyes of the other. I was amazed at how fascinated they are by Jewish ideas and practices beyond those that directly relate to this particular play. 

What really stands out is their menschluchkeit. They are, if anything, too concerned about treating Jews and Judaism with respect and dignity. I keep having to reassure them that their performance won’t offend or raise the ire Jews in the audience. (in some parts of the community it might, but that isn’t a problem that can’t be resolved. Luckily, I doubt that those who would be offended will see the play)

These qualities, deep curiosity, love, and respect for other individuals is also very Hassidic in nature. A nice formulation of this value appears in another Potok novel, “The Chosen”, through the voice of Rabbi Saunders. He says, “A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul… The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks...” (emphasis mine)

I have found it fascinating that the cast and crew of this play share this approach to life. Although they come to it from a culture very different from Hasidut, it has elevated my soul to find itself at this point of commonality. 

Boy, I can’t wait to see the play! 

Postscript: The play was great. I had the honor of participating in a "Talkback" discussion after a performance, and also led a Pre-Show Talk before another performance.
The Talkback was at the performance we took my whole high school to. They had a great time, and it was a real group culture bonding experience. They still do impressions of the cast, and loved it when an audience member asked me in front of hundreds of people, "So what do you Jews think about Jesus, anyway?"
Also, the director, Laura Kepley, posted the following on the Cleveland Playhouse blog:

And most invaluably, this production is very fortunate to have Rabbi Michael Unterberg, a graduate of Yeshiva University and a teacher at Fuchs Mizrachi School, serving as a consultant illuminating and contextualizing the Hasidic worldview for us. Each day of rehearsals brings more questions, such as “What does the bringing the moshiach into the world mean for these characters?”, “What would the image of a crucifixion mean to a Russian Jew?”, “What exactly is the afternoon prayer?”, and “How do my tzitzit show if I tuck in my shirt?” From the mystical to the mundane, Michael patiently answers our daily “Ask the Rabbi” emails, and comes into rehearsals to watch our work. 

Seriously, how lovely is she? Also, here are some pictures:

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