Theater Review: “Bad Jews”? Bad Play!

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Although Sofie Yavorsky gives an energetic performance as Daphna Feygenbaum, a Vassar student who is grieving the loss of her grandfather, the play relies on caricatures, not characters.

The overbearing, dominant, kvetchy Jewish woman is alive and well in Joshua Harmon’s comedy, Bad Jews, playing at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio until November 30.

Directed by David Stradley, the play is set in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, immediately following the funeral of the characters’ poppy. We meet Jonah and Liam Haber, their cousin Daphna, and Liam’s stereotypically-blonde girlfriend Melody as they engage in a family squabble about who is to inherit their grandfather’s necklace.

Although Sofie Yavorsky gives an energetic performance as Daphna Feygenbaum, a Vassar student who is grieving the loss of her grandfather, the play relies on caricatures, not characters. Listening to Daphna yell at her cousin Liam, who brings home his shiksa girlfriend Melody, that he is not a real Jew and that he can go ahead and “f*** an ethnic free bush,” did not pack the punch that was presumably intended in this kind of dialogue.

Listening to Liam accuse Daphna of being a purist, even a “Nazi,” who is interested in preserving the integrity of Jewish blood line, when she argues he should not marry a shiksa, sounded like a familiar, schematic and wooden rendition of the old particular-universalist, ethnic-assimilationist debate. We have heard these debates before, and this particular tale of family inheritance, grief and familiar strife adds nothing new to the story in its language.

What does it mean to be a Jew is a perennial question that “Bad Jews” attempts to answer, but is far too in enamored by its easy “shocking” repartee to even being to engage this question in a complex, serious way. A particularly low point is when Melody, an opera major in college, sings an embarrassing version of “Summertime” for Daphna, to cheer her up. It is a cheap moment that goes for an easy laugh that feels out of place in the play.

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If such misogynistic stereotypes of women pass as “brave comedy with tragically high stakes” (The Financial Times), then something is seriously wrong with theater reviewers.

 

Harmon’s writing has neither the comic timing and wit of Neil Simon, nor the intellectual weight of Tom Stoppard. The highlight of the show is perhaps Liam’s use of “Holocaust” as a verb: “Don’t Holocaust me” he warns Daphna.

Other than that, the play has little original writing, little story, and a lot of yelling by a clearly hysterical Jewish woman who is mean, vindictive, and self-righteous. If such misogynistic stereotypes of women pass as “brave comedy with tragically high stakes” (The Financial Times), then something is seriously wrong with theater reviewers.

Bad Jews had its world premiere at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Roundabout Underground in the fall of 2012 and was nominated for three Outer Circle Awards. Sitting through the 90 minute (no intermission) family brawl among young cousins made me long for a good 25-minute episode of Larry David’s creative, quirky, whimsical sitcom, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Cooking (and Laughing) with the Calamari Sisters

Cooking with the Calamari Sisters
Through: May 19, 2013.
At: Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St.
Tickets: $45.
Information: 215-923-0210 or ComcastTIX.

— by Lisa Grunberger

Cooking with the Calamari Sisters has two weeks left of a long run at Society Hill Playhouse, and if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and “Screw the Gym, Pass the Lasagna,” as the Calamari Sisters say and go to this fabulously entertaining show.

This campy, irreverent show stars Jay Falzone as Delphine Calamari, and Stephen Smith as his sister Carmela Calamari. Yes, this is a tour-de-force drag show, complete with audience participation, improvisation, risqué humor, song and dance, and real cooking. From sausage jokes to Jesus jokes, the Calamari Sisters strikes the right balance of campy irreverence and edginess — it’s difficult not to laugh out loud, and laugh you will.

More after the jump.
Created with Dan Lavender, the show comes to Philadelphia after a two year run in Rochester, NY. This over-the-top show pokes fun at food shows like “The Rachael Ray Show” even as it covets a place in the holy grail of the Food Network. Learn about “Antipasta for Anorexics: Dishes Desgined to Block Your Arteries,” and Grandma Minestrone as you watch these tireless, professional drag queens bring the house down in a highly engaging performance that will leave you humming “Volare” as you walk onto 8th Street. “In our family, the only zone is a calzone,” says the Calamari Sisters.  

Interview: the Show That Proves That Women are Funny

— by Lisa Grunberger

I had the opportunity to interview Jennifer Childs, Artistic Director of 1812 Productions, Philadelphia’s All Comedy Theatre Company, about her new comedy, which she wrote and directed, It’s My Party: The Women and Comedy Project. It’s My Party began in 2010 with two questions: how do women use comedy and how does the usage change as they age. Through collage, cabaret, and stand-up Childs investigates gender stereotypes that lock women into certain roles, such as the ditz, the vamp, and the old maid.  

In some ways, the play responds to Christopher Hitchens’ provocative comment in a Vanity Fair article years ago, claiming that women aren’t funny. The first act of this compelling show had the audience laughing on the opening night last Wedensday. The all-woman ensemble includes comedic veterans of the Philadelphia theatre. The play incorporates original and devised music by the cast and the musical director Monica Stephenson, and features a set by 1812 Productions’ designer Lance Kniskern.

Full interview after the jump.

It’s My Party: The Women and Comedy Project
Playing at: Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St.
Through: Sunday, May 19.
Tickets: $22 to $38.
Information: 215-592-9560 or 1812 Productions’ website.

Q: Tell me how The Women and Comedy Project came about? What was your process? There are African-American Women, white women, an Asian woman, and a diverse age-range. No Latinas and or Jewish women — how did you make casting decisions and were questions of ethnicity important in your thought process?

JC: I interviewed over 100 women all along the East coast, pulling together anecdotes, stories and personal experiences. I wanted it to be racially and age diverse, but I was more interested in exploring the brains, heart and sous of these women. It would have become a different show if there was one woman representative of each “flavor” or ethnic background.  

Q: How did you arrive at the three act structure of the play?

JC: I could have written a linear 90 minute script, but I gave myself permission to stretch the form and it was very liberating.

Q: Can you briefly describe each act and what you had in mind?

JC: The first act, which I call ‘The Lecture,’ represents the youngest age, say women in their 20s who I found use humor to gain attention. It’s an age when you don’t have your own voice and you use stereotypes and imitations to find your comedic voice.  

The second Act, called ‘The Ritual,’ represents women in their 30s and 40s, when women discover that comedy can save your soul. You can use humor as a weapon to fight and survive.

Q: This is where we hear the women sharing their stories. Were these stories autobiographical or were they a composite or synthesis of the many interviews you did?

JC: They were the actresses’ own stories, that we had “workshopped.”

Q: In the second act, we hear one of the characters tell a story about learning she has breast cancer, which her mother had died of. Was this the actress’s own story, and couldn’t this be seen as potentially not funny? Or as simply “empowering” and therapeutic to share but not necessarily art or theatrically interesting?

JC: It is her own story, and I’m surprised that that’s confusing to people. I was reading about the comedienne Tig Notaro and how she was diagnosed with cancer right after her mom died, and she was so funny. It’s about owning what happens to you and not apologizing for it, and that can be funny.

Q: Tell me about the third act of the play.

JC: The third act, called ‘The Rave,’ is about the oldest age, women in their 70s, and it’s about being audacious. In naming it “the rave” I’m referencing the rave dances, but also the association with stark raving mad and the rave as a rant. By this age, women don’t care anymore. If you want to wear polka-dots, stripes and mismatched shoes, so be it. My daughter is 9 and my mother is in her 70s, and I see similarities in their not caring about what other people think.

Q: How, if at all, do you think about audience?

JC: Comedy is about audience. I think it is extremely important to connect with the audience, which I think of as the last character in the play. The show isn’t finished until there is laughter. Only then is the rhythm complete. I mean, if a joke is told in a forest and no one is there to hear it, is it funny?

Q: One of the characters says “I’m too radiant for irony.” What did you learn during your interviews about women, humor and irony, and how did this get translated into the show?

JC: I was surprised that no woman I interviewed thought she was funny. When I asked them to sing a rap I had written during the auditions — and this was a rap about being smart and beautiful and sexy — the women were tentative. Some feared that people will not like them if they sing a song like this. But this is exactly what the play is exploring — I want women to take ownership of their own goofiness. To find a way to say “this is what I want.”

Q: The danger is sounding too sincere or sentimental in this approach, right? Too much like Jack Handy’s “deep thoughts.”

JC: It’s a fine line. More and more people employ irony and cynical humor on the stage, but it’s the death of theatre if we presume that you can’t be hurt, that there’s no vulnerability. Part of comedy is precisely this threat of being vulnerable. I see sincerity and openness as being a lot braver than coming up with snarky comments. it was important to me to create something that felt honest and honored the interviewees’ stories.

The Soap Myth Off Broadway: “Unreliable Memories” & the Holocaust

— by Lisa Grunberger

Although I saw it over 48 hours ago, The Soap Myth,  playing in New York City at the Black Box Theatre, through April 22, continues to haunt me. This is the theatre of witness at its best – provocative and  morally ambiguous that raises more questions than it answers.  Playwright Jeff Cohen and director of the National Jewish Theatre, Arnold Mittelman’s The Soap Myth explores the claim that the Nazis made soap out of Jewish bodies.  

More after the jump.
Greg Mullavey is brilliant in the role of Milton Saltzman, a Holocaust survivor who bears personal witness to the production of the alleged soap.    The play explores the “inherent conflict between the eyewitness survivor memories and the evidentiary standards demanded by scholars.”  It explores too what role, if any, Holocaust deniers play in this issue.   To what extent ought the Holocaust deniers, who figure prominently in the play, affect Jewish museum exhibits?  More than you would like to think.

“All history is speculative” says Annie Blumberg, the young journalist (played admirably by Andi Potamkin) reporting on the soap myth for a magazine.   The denier, played brilliantly by Dee Pelletier (who also plays the museum director) gives a disturbing lecture, based on actual facts, delivered to a university audience, where she casts doubt on the number of victims who perished during the Shoah. “Must the Jews be greedy even in this” — referring to her claim that Jews have egregiously exaggerated the number of victims who died.    

In exploring the politics of memory, The Soap Myth asks uncomfortable questions about what constitutes enough evidence to make it into a museum exhibit. When the museum gatekeepers reject Milton’s repeated requests to include the soap in their exhibit, they are effectively denying this survivor’s testimony as purely anecdotal. The dramatic struggle of The Soap Myth is Milton’s attempt to get somebody to listen to his painful story.  

The Soap Myth is presented as part of the National Jewish Theatre Foundation and Holocaust Archive initiative, directed by Arnold Mittelman.  Mittelman is the Former Producing Artistic Director for over two decades of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida.  Mittelman founded the National Jewish Theatre in 2007.   Its mission is to celebrate the “genius, creativity and history of the Jewish people.”   NJT produced the Soul of Gershwin, the Musical Journey of an American Calmer, Sholom Alechem: Laughter Through Tears with Theodore Bikel as author and actor.  Future plans of the NJT include plays and musicals such as: The Rothschilds, Joseph Vass’ Words By, Mark Saltzman’s Rocket City Alabam and Hannah by John Wooten.  

NJT’s latest initiative is to create the first comprehensive research and production oriented around the Holocaust Theatre Archive. According to Mittelman, the NJT is filling an unfortunate void that has occurred by the loss of many professional resident English-speaking Jewish theatres, in major cities, including New York.  

It is worth a ride to NYC to see this provocative, haunting play which will have you thinking about the nature of memory and how a survivor survives these memories for a long time.   The Soap Myth is not to be missed.  

The Soap Myth: Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre in NYC. Click here for tickets.

Remaining Showtimes

  • Special Holocaust Remembrance Day performances, Today, Thursday, April 19, 2012 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM
  • Friday, April 20, 2012, 8:00 PM
  • Saturday, April 21, 2012, 3:00 PM
  • Final performance, Sunday, April 22, 2012, 3:00 PM

Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, New York, NY 10036
Ticket Price: $50-$60; $20 student rush
Ticket Information: 212-352-3101

A Prisoner of Hope

Irish Poet Micheal O’Siadhai’s Response to the Shoah

West Chester University Poetry Conference is an international poetry conference that has been held annually since 1995 at West Chester University, Pennsylvania.  It hosts various panel discussions and poetry craft workshops, which focus primarily on formal poetry and narrative poetry. The conference was founded in 1995 by West Chester professor Michael Peich and poet Dana Gioia with 85 poets and scholars in attendance.  

On June 9th, Former poet Laureate Robert Pinsky was interviewed by Dana Gioia.  Pinsky emphasized the visceral nature of poetry, stating, “like dancing or singing, I produce it even when reading silently – it’s physical.”   Pinsky spoke of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Long Branch, New Jersey and how, despite the beauty of the cantorial singing, he grew bored sitting through three hours of praying on Shabbat.   If we are to start with The Sounds of Poetry, the title of his 1998 prose collection, we need look no further than Irish poet Micheal O’ Siadhail, whose 2002 poetry book, The Gossamer Wall, is composed of a sequence of poems about the Holocaust.

More after the jump.
Michael O’Siadhail (pronounced, mee-hawl o’sheel) is an Irish poet who has published ten collections of poetry. He was awarded an Irish American Cultural Institute prize for poetry in 1982 and in 1998 the Marten Toonder prize for Literature.  He has given poetry readings and broadcast extensively in Ireland, Britain, Europe and North America. He has been a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin and a professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Among his many academic works are Learning Irish and Modern Irish.

At the West Chester Poetry Conference, I spent over an hour with O’Siadhail speaking about poetry, writing, language, history, bearing witness, Judaism, Ireland, teaching – and I must say being in his presence, I felt I was in the company of a man who lives poetry and language viscerally in his body, through his body.  To spend just a few minutes in the company of O’Siadhail, is to spend time with a poet who embodies Pinsky’s dictum that poetry is physical.   A tall, intense man in his 60s, O’Siadhail exudes a nervous energy and was generous with his responses to my questions.  I was, at times,  overwhelmed by the spark – the daimon — of language that erupts from him – for it seems to come, as does his poetry, from a place of unabashed necessity.   Micheal O’Siadhail does not only write poetry, he lives and breathes poetry with his every word.

In The Gossamer Wall, which takes its title from Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, O’Siadhail has written a 124 page book filled with elegantly structured poems on the many facets of the Holocaust, inspired by testimonies such as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, and Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life. O’Siadhail spent over four years immersed in the literature of the Holocaust (which he lists in his extensive acknowledgments) researching his subject.  When I first came across O’Siadhail’s work, I thought – what voice could an Irish man contribute to post-Holocaust literature.  

LG: How did you, an Irish man, come to write The Gossamer Wall: Poems in Witness to the Holocaust?  

MO: There are two levels – visceral and intellectual – which inspired my to write about the Holocaust.  Intellectually,  my youth was overshadowed by writers such as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Bertolt Brecht, and Harold Pinter who were pessimistic and had lost faith in humanity.  I came from the other side.  During my youth in the 1950s I was searching for a celebratory note.  As a goy, I understand that you could feel that I’m muscling in on your suffering!  

On the visceral level, I had seen a survivor’s tattoo, a friend of mine – and this struck me deeply.  I also read Etty Hillesum’s memoir, An Interrupted Life – an account of her last years in Amsterdam before being sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Finally, there was an incident in Norway where I had studied as a student.  When I returned to meet a friend, I got off the train to be accosted by a group of drunken Neo-Nazis who began to heckle me.  I realized this could happen again.

LG: In The Irish Times, Patsy McGarry, writes The Gossamer Wall “is an exceptional achievement, evidence of the poet’s wounded fascination before such human evil and testifying to a painstaking labour of something akin to outraged love for all those who suffered.” The German critic Theodor Adorno famously said “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  Clearly, you don’t agree.  How did you need become embittered by your immersion in this literature?

MO: I am a prisoner of hope.  I wouldn’t let the Nazis have the last word.  I also identify very closely with the Jewish people. When I was on tour with the book, and visited many synagogues to speak about the book, I was very well received by the Jewish community. Happiness is, in the end, a decision. I’m not a grey person either.  If I were to give into despair, I knew I would become suicidal. And my wife was worried about my immersion into these dark realms.  So I took up sailing on the weekends as an antidote.

LG: I see you have read Philip Hallie’s, book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, about the Holocaust.  He was immersed in the archives and read about the operations done on children and he became suicidal.  Le Chambon was a remarkable community of French Huguenots who provided shelter to approximately four thousand Jews, many of them children, during the war. You devote an entire sequence of poems to telling the story of Le Chambon. Pastor Trocme was a pacifist who led the community’s movement of resistance.  

In the poem “Pastor Trocme”, you paint a portrait of the pastor in a small village in France called Le Chambon:

Death, death, death, his sigh on arrival,
‘I’m entrusted with helping a tiny village die.’
Through the ashen stonewalls of a presbytery
deep slanted windows ration their sunlight
on a Basque style tablecloth.  Yellow, red, black.

Can you discuss the tone of the poems in this volume?

MO: I wanted to strike a factual tone in The Gossamer Wall.  To discuss another man’s wounds is a very delicate thing.  I wanted to avoid histrionics, to tell the story with a flat voice.  This story does not need embellishment.  I employed a zig-zag internal rhyme scheme between the lines to create unity.   I wanted to get out of the way of the poems as much as possible.

LG: Are you a man of faith?

MO: I am a practicing Catholic.   But this is, in a sense, a sect of Judaism!  I love the Psalms and the Song of Songs, and I say the Amidah, the main Jewish prayer, daily.  

LG: It is evident you have a love affair with language and culture.

MO: I was trained as a linguist and can read in 10 languages, including Japanese.  How can a poet not love and celebrate language?  

LG: I find a lot of hope in the formal nature of the poems, particularly the sonnet sequence in the middle section on the camps called Figures.   The writer Sander Gilman said, “the language damaged in the Holocaust was the universal language of humanity, not merely the language of the Jews.”   Although some people might protest that writing about the Holocaust can aestheticize the experience of suffering, that the Shoah is untranslatable into language, I feel you have managed to bear witness in your formal poems.  

MO: Thank you.  I am, as I said, a prisoner of hope.  I have the madness of devotion too which costs nothing less than one’s life, if taken seriously.   I was fortunate that over 20 years ago, I was able to retire from teaching and devote myself full-time to writing.   After this book, I wrote a long erotic sequence called Love Life, about my 35-year relationship, a sustained romance, with my wife.  

LG: Contrary to Adorno’s bleak statement about not being able to write poetry after the Holocaust, Edward Jabes said we must write poetry but “with wounded words”.   This seems to be more along the lines of your project here in The Gossamer Wall.

MO: Yes, I’m holding up a community.  Hope involves other people.

LG: In your poem “Waking” you write:

No closure.  No Babel’s towering interview;
with each fugitive testimony to begin anew.

Memory a frequent waking out of forgetfulness;
Dissonant cries of silence refuse to quiesce.

The West Chester Poetry Conference allowed me to re-visit critical questions about poetry, community and bearing witness. Who will bear witness for the witness is a critical question we must, as Jews, and as citizens of the world, continue to ask ourselves. From Jewish poet Robert Pinsky to Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail I was a willing prisoner of hope celebrating language, culture and memory this spring.    

New Arts and Culture Editor!

Lisa GrunbergerI am honored to join the Jewish Voice as the new Arts and Culture Editor.  I welcome you to send me any news you might have regarding the vibrant arts and culture scene here in Philadelphia.  If you have books to review, theatre productions, music, museum exhibits please feel free to contact me at art@pjvoice.com

I moved to Philadelphia from Manhattan four years ago to work at Temple University where I am an Assistant Professor in English. I teach creative writing in poetry and literature.   I grew up in Long Island and always dreamed of moving to New York City, but to quote short story writer, Anne Beattie, “I became disenchanted with New York when I realized that I felt as if I had accomplished something when I picked up the laundry, and got the Times and a quart of milk.”   In Philadelphia, it’s just easier to get things done — a walkable, beautiful city brimming with culture and art.  

From the Israeli film festival to the new Jewish Museum, from the World Cafe to the Kimmel Center, I feel fortunate to call Philadelphia my home.  

Lisa Grunberger is the author of an illustrated humor book, Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie’s Adventures of Love, Loss and the Lotus Position (Newmarket Press, 2009) which she has adapted into a musical (stay tuned!).  She teaches yoga and writing classes in Philadelphia.  

The Odd Couple of Kabul: Two Jews Walk Into a War

In playwright Seth Rozin’s dramatic comedy, Two Jews Walk into a War, two middle-aged Afghani Jews exchange schtick and tsuris over their being the two last Jews of Kabul following the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001.  The two men — Ishaq and Zeblyan — hate each other – but agree to work together to write a new torah in order to find a rabbi who will convert a couple of Afghan women to Judaism so the procreation of Jewish babies ma proceed.  This is a delightful farce masterfully acted by Tom Teti and John Pietrowski, directed by James Glassman and currently playing at Interact Theatre (2030 Sansom Street).

More after the jump.

Rozin explains that “It started out as an existential comedy, then moved to more of a vaudeville comedy, and finally toward a drama.  I did not anticipate where the play ended up.”  The playbill comes with some notes on Jewish text and ritual in the play.  In one of the more poignant scenes Ishaq  mimes wrapping tefillin because all the tefillin has been absconded by the Taliban.  Judaism survives despite all the obstacles.  

“As with most of my plays, I use factual events, situations and characters as a launching pad to explore some larger theme or answer a larger question,”  Rozin explains.  When I asked Rozin what kind of research he did to prepare to write the play he said, “I had never read the Torah, so when I decided that was going to be the key to the story I needed to read at least some of it.  I focused my research on the Book of Leviticus, which includes all the laws, and read a number of interpretations of the controversial sections (lesbians, spilling seed, etc.).”   You must go see this amusing, irreverent play which, in its final scene, goes beyond light comedic fare to reach a well-earned dramatic end.  The play goes beyond a borsch-belt type schtick which makes it easily accessible and enters into another realm altogether in the final scene.  

Playwright and founder of Interact Theatre asks the following question in Two Jews: “Why are so many people whose circumstances are so terrible, and whose families have endured the same suffering for generations, so devout in their belief in a higher power?  Why wouldn’t their faith have weakened, as opposed to strengthened, as a result of their suffering?  The answer came to me in the writing of Two Jews: in the absence of such strongly held faith, they would have nothing; they might as well give up.  I never understood that.”  

On Sunday May 1, Dr. Hanoch Guy, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Temple University, will lead a post-performance discussion of Two Jews Walk Into a War.

Two Jews Walk Into a War.  On the Mainstage of The Adrienne through Mother’s Day, May 8, 2011.
2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia (215) 568-8079.   http://www.interacttheatre.org…

Yoga and Writing: The Play’s the Thing

— Dr. Lisa Grunberger

What does yoga mean? It comes from the Sanskrit root yuj (pronounce it backwards!) which means to unite or yolk. “But when you crack an egg you break the yoke so it’s really the opposite,” said a little girl at the Children’s Yoga class I was teaching at Limmud Philly 2011 held at the Gershman Y. This might be a tough crowd I thought, when a little boy chimed in: “Or maybe there’s more than one meaning.”

I’ve been teaching yoga for ten years, and “playing” yoga with children always returns me to the uninhibited imaginative world that unites the world of children and yoga.

Sunday was a rainy day in Philadelphia. All my classes begin with sun salutations so we turned to the window that faces Broad Street and we greeted the sun: “Good afternoon sun!” I explained how yoga teaches us to connect with the natural world. “Maybe if we really focus the sun will come out!” “That would be cool,” one boy said.

More after the jump.
What holiday do we dress up and play different roles? “Purim,” they all shouted. What’s the connection between yoga and Purim? We celebrate how Persian Jews were saved from extermination through Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai’s sechel. What better captures the yogic state of mind then dressing up in costumes to change your habitual appearance? In yoga, we wear the locust mask, the lion mask, the frog mask, as we move in and out of poses.

One of my favorite poses is vrksasana or tree pose. After I taught the kids the basic alignment and reminded them to use their “bunny breathing” (rapid inhalations and exhalations through their nose) I asked: what kind of tree are you? We went around in a circle that transformed into a magical forest of trees: “I’m an apple tree! I’m a family tree!” A shy girl said, “I’m a Japanese Maple, like the one in my backyard.” I’m a “love my
Mommy and Bubby and Zayde tree!”

“You are all amazing. When I ask grown-up yoga students what kind of tree they are, they aren’t as creative as you all.”

“Why, what happens to grown-ups. Ms. Lisa? Are you a grown-up?”

“She’s a yoga-grown-up.”

After cow pose, cat stretch, lion roar, and downward dog pose, we needed a rest, so we sat in a circle in seated cross-legged pose holding hands. Everyone closed their eyes. “Listen to the music of your breath. This is called pranayama in Sanskrit. Can everyone say Sanskrit? Breathe in and out through your nose so it tickles a little.”

The room was strangely quiet and parents who sat at the periphery of the circle seemed stunned in wonder at this silence with sixteen kids in the room.

I often wonder what happens when creativity becomes “grown-up” after a certain age. Teaching yoga and poetry writing to children, I have found that until the age of about 12 or 13, they are spontaneous, gifted and natural yoginis and poets. I have never encountered ‘yoga block’ in a yoga-kids class. Maybe I could unite how to “play” yoga with kids with a course on how to “play” writing with adults?

This is precisely the approach to a class I taught later that afternoon called “Facing the Blank Page, Facing the Yoga Mat.” When we move our bodies on the yoga mat we are taking risks and leaps of rejuvenation. When we are writing, our minds make leaps of imagination. I explained that the Jewish tradition sees the breath and speech as a privileged vehicle for creative expression.

When I wrote my humor book, Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie’s Adventures in Love, Loss and the Lotus Position, I was practicing a lot of yoga. My mother, a feisty Israeli who had passed away years ago, came to me one day while I was in headstand pose: “For this you got a Ph.D. — to stand on your head?” And so my character Ruthie was born! It was through practicing yoga that this voice came to me. I am suggesting an intimate connection between yoga and writing that is well worth exploring.

At Limmud, one woman shared that she had suffered from writer’s block her entire life. “I recently took a long train trip. I just know I have stories to tell inside me, but I’m blocked; they just won’t come out.” I felt her frustration in my own body. It was time to shut the lights and begin the meditation exercises.

After 15 minutes I invited students to open their eyes, take pen in hand and begin to move their hands across the page. “Write about a body part. Give it a voice. If you’re writing about your liver, name it. Is it kvetching? What about it’s neighbor? The only rule here is to keep your pen moving. Even if you’re stuck writing ‘I’m stuck and I hate this class I should have gone to the challah-making workshop or the Dead Sea Scrolls one. Oy. I wish she would stop talking. I wish it wasn’t raining.'”

I’m moved by how brave students are in yoga and writing workshops, pushing themselves to take risks, and get out of their comfort zone. I turned on the lights and invited students to share some of their work. The woman who had expressed such frustration with writer’s block volunteered to go first. Her face was a relaxed glow. She shared a beautiful story describing a train station in clear, vivid language. I could feel her joy, as could others. She had used her writer’s block as a yoga block and found the support to tell her story.

It returned me to my yoga kids, who are gifted with this spontaneous, inhibited joy of discovery. It made me want to rename tree pose, Hillel’s Pose. It seems as if Rabbi Hillel was a great yogi himself. He stood on one foot while explaining the whole of Judaism to a skeptic: “that which you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go study it.” Hillel was being spontaneous and playful in the face of life’s greatest questions. The Torah is called a “Tree of Life”. “Nu,” maybe the Torah is asking, “What kind of tree are you?” I’m a flexible Jewish bamboo!


Author of the illustrated humor book, Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie’s Adventures in Love, Loss and the Lotus Position (Newmarket Press, 2009), Dr. Lisa Grunberger is an Assistant Professor in English at Temple University. If you are interested in her Yoga of Writing Workshop, Facing the Blank Page, Facing the Yoga Mat, you can contact her at art@pjvoice.com. She is available for Yoga Kids Birthday Parties, & adult yoga classes in Philadelphia. She is also available to speak at JCCs, Hadassahs and synagogues about life as a Jewish writer, scholar of religion and literature, and her interesting background as the only daughter of an Israeli mother and a Viennese Father to whom she dedicates Yiddish Yoga. You can call: (646) 369-2350.