Exodus, stage right

When Jonathan Ross walks into a synagogue, he sees more than just a house of worship. “Every synagogue,” he says, “has a bimah, which is a stage. A curtain to open the ark. Choreography, when we get up and down. It’s theater!”

As an actor with the New York-based theater troupe Storahtelling, his view should come as no surprise. For several years, Ross and his fellow Storahtellers have traveled the country bringing a unique approach to Torah study.

Storahtelling comes to the Bay Area next week for a string of performances, including a weekend in residence at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom. For this trip, the company created a retelling of the Jacob’s Ladder story called “Stairway to Heaven.” (No Led Zeppelin jokes, please.)

The productions revive the ancient Jewish tradition of the m’tergeman, or congregational Torah translator.

The term has as its source in the Hebrew word targum, which means translation. During the talmudic period, the m’tergeman would translate the Hebrew Torah into the local vernacular during services. He would also incorporate theatrical elements to help clarify the meaning of the text.

The Babylonian Talmud includes guidelines for the m’tergemen. But, Ross says, since the advent of the rabbi about 2,000 years ago, the function of the m’tergeman faded away.

Until now.

“People spend their time in the synagogue looking down at a book, a siddur” Ross says. “We offer the alternative of hands-free Judaism, not having to worry about translation because you know it is coming. We do it using characters and music.”

Storahtelling was founded in 1999 by Israeli-born Torah teacher Amichai Lau-Levi, who also has an extensive theater background. He saw a need to enrich Torah study with a touch of theatrical flair. Since then, he and his company of 29 actors and musicians have performed at synagogues, Jewish schools and JCCs around the world.

Lau-Levi has taken his thing a step further. Like a Jewish Dame Edna, he occasionally takes on the persona of Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, a flamboyant blond widow of six illustrious rabbis, who shares her wisdom about all matters of metaphysical concern. Hadassah will appear at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco Thursday, Nov. 11, in an event called “Text and the City.”

“We get hired to liven up the Torah service,” says Ross. “The congregation becomes a troupe of participants that engages with the story. We get people to come up for an aliyah for the first time in their lives.”

Ross also likes to point out that not every member of the Storahtelling company is Jewish. “It’s been great for us,” he says, “because we get insights into our stories we wouldn’t normally get.”

The 24-year-old Memphis native grew up in a Conservative home. His love of Judaism grew side by side with a passion for the stage. “Having grown up in a town where there were not a lot of Jews,” he says, “I spent a lot of time trying to stay connected to the Jewish community.”

That includes Storahtelling’s upcoming San Francisco appearances. And for Ross, who knows of the Bay Area’s reputation as a great theater town, it’s a timely move. “This is a legitimate attempt to engage Jews in their ritual environment using theater,” he says. “We’re young Jewish actors and musicians who get to create Jewish theater. With Storahtelling, you get excited about Judaism. It’s a religious experience.”

Storahtelling will conduct multiple workshops and performances throughout the weekend of Nov. 12-14 at Congregation Beth Sholom, 1301 Clement, S.F. Some events require RSVP: (415 )221-8736, ext. 218

Amichai Lau-Levi stars as Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross in “Text and the City,” 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 11, at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. Tickets: $12-15. Information: (415) 292-1200.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.