Experimental arts spark new Berkeley project

It’s been nearly three years since the final curtain fell on Jewish Theatre San Francisco, known for decades as A Traveling Jewish Theatre. Now Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and dance master Bruce Bierman plan to bring Jewish theater back to the Bay Area through Open Tent Shul of the Arts and an afterschool program for kids.

Bruce Bierman performs in front of Contemporary Jewish Museum

“There is no other shul in the area that focuses [solely] on the arts,” says Bierman, who co-founded the experimental arts program with Gottlieb, a Jewish Renewal rabbi, as an alternative way of worship. Both live in Berkeley, where Open Tent Shul is based. The plan is to provide lifecycle events as well as b’nai mitzvah classes.

“Often, traditional liturgy doesn’t speak to artists and people who are marginalized by the community,” Gottlieb says. “The arts enable a very profound opportunity to enjoy traditional and contemporary Jewish expression in visual and performing arts.”

Open Tent Shul, whose goal is arts-based Jewish education, now involves around 10 families from around the Bay Area, according to Bierman. This fall, it is launching ArtSparks, an afterschool Jewish arts program for ages 9 and up.

The program, which runs Oct. 20 to Dec. 8, is designed to pass down “the rich legacy of Jewish arts” to the next generation, Bierman says.

Open Tent Shul, he adds, prides itself on being LGBTQ friendly. It offers an open space for Jews, friends and allies to practice Judaism through artistic expression.

It began hosting events in April. Events have included Passover Unplugged, Broadway Passover Sing-along and Klezmer Shabbat at such venues as the Subterranean Arthouse, Chochmat HaLev and Indian Rock Park, all in Berkeley.

Bierman and Gottlieb, who was ordained in the early ’70s, met 15 years ago at KlezmerQuerque in New Mexico. Gottlieb, whose background is also in theater, has collaborated with Joseph Chaiken and Joseph Papp in New York. Bierman is also a theater artist, playwright and arts educator.

Bumping into each other again a couple of years ago at the former Bel Forno café in Berkeley, they became friends and began working together.

“Lynn is a puppeteer,” recalls Bierman, “so we started talking about the intersection of Judaism and art and decided to start something.”

ArtSparks, the afterschool workshop series, will focus on the art of Jewish storytelling in various formats. Students can choose to participate in a theater troupe, a klezmer band or shadow puppet theater. The teachers are shadow puppeteer Daniel Barash, klezmer musician David Rosenfeld, Gottlieb and Bierman.

These workshops will culminate in a Dec. 14 production, “Hanooka Fiesta D’Oro,” at Chochmat HaLev, where the workshops will be held.

The performance will be based on Alexander the Great and “the wisdom he learned from the people he conquered,” Gottlieb said.

What’s next for Open Shul of the Arts? “We hope to continue to grow and evolve. Since there isn’t any specific Jewish theater group, we want to nourish it,” Gottlieb adds.

ArtSparks programs run from 4 to 5:45 p.m. Mondays, Oct. 20 to Dec. 8, at Chochmat HaLev, 2215 Prince St., Berkeley. $175-$250. or the Open Shul of the Arts page on Facebook