The Currency of Belief: Fringe Show Confronts Prayer

“Currency of Belief.” Photo courtesy: Fringe Arts

In a few weeks, Jews worldwide will crowd synagogues to welcome the new year, shaking off tallit, dusty from closets, but still smelling just like Grandpa.

Recently in Philadelphia, a one-woman show at the Fringe Festival used the prayer shawl in a different way. The performer wound it around her head, swung with it on a trapeze, and threw it on the floor.

“The Currency of Belief: Trapeze and Spiritual Comedy” had a surprisingly small amount of trapeze, a little comedy, and a lot of spirituality. Not wholly bad or good, Noa Schnitzer’s solo show at Christ Church Neighborhood House was a strange 50-minute experience.

Rather than an orderly bedtime story, “The Currency of Belief” was a night of dreams, each blending oddly into one another. Schnitzer played multiple characters, from the stooping MC to a snail that could sense thoughts, in a series of disconnected dances, trapeze performances, and shadow puppetry. Interactive throughout, she encouraged the audience to raise their pinkies to show their bodies were warmed up, and to sing a prayer in parts with her.

Whether Schnitzer was midair or on the ground, every piece of the show concerned prayer – what it means to pray, how exactly one prays, and who is allowed to pray.

“Prayer is the currency of belief,” Schnitzer said in the performance, using the same words as in the title. “In prayer, we can give thanks for what is and plant seeds for who we want to be.”

External restrictions on prayer seemed to interest Schnitzer, creator of the work with director Deanna Fleysher. One example was the shadow puppetry, during which Schnitzer narrated the story of an illiterate shepherd. Instead of reading the prayers in synagogue, he decides to play a flute, which the congregation criticizes for its strangeness. But the rabbi calls the shepherd’s prayer the most honest of them all.

In addition to dealing with methods of prayer, “The Currency of Belief” briefly addressed gender roles in Jewish religious practice. Along with the symbolism of a woman using the tallit, a garment traditionally for males, the show also featured a prayer meant only for men to sing, but which Schnitzer taught to the audience.

In a Fringe Fest interview, Schnitzer said that even after she “stopped practicing” Orthodox tradition at the age of 18, old prayers popped into her head and wouldn’t leave. Her show was not so different.

It was not exactly the must-see of the Fringe’s many event opportunities. It was often hard to understand how scenes cohered or who her characters were. The slow-voiced MC only gained a name near the end of the show, when Schnitzer appeared to take her final bow, but really got into a multipersonality argument with the MC and herself. Yes, really.

However weird and mysterious, the tune of “The Currency of Belief” will stick in the mind. The trapeze work was beautiful, especially in the intense first episode, in which Schnitzer swaddled the tallit around her face and flipped herself blindly over a trapeze bar. It brought back some sort of primal awe at flight with her  twisting and slithering securely up in the air. Too bad it took 30 more minutes to see her up there again.

The frequent interactions with the tallit were fascinating. Schnitzer wrote in the program that it “was an object used by the other. It was not offered as part of my [Orthodox] practice.” Often in the show, her actions toward the traditional cloth were highly emotional, showing a mix of anger and longing. She kicked it, wrapped it around her head, and reached desperately for it from the trapeze after letting it go from about twenty feet high.

The show was unsettling and hard to understand. Much of the meaning gleaned from “The Currency of Belief” took hours to gather. But prayer isn’t always easy.


As The Matzo Ball Turns is Turning Out at the Fringe Festival

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is back for another year of experimental performances around the city. Of the dozens of comedies, dramas and tragedies, one musical at the Independence Seaport Museum might affirm your belief in following your dreams — and working part-time at a deli.

Running Sept. 7-10, “As The Matzo Ball Turns” follows a Hollywood story onstage, but has plenty of twists and turns behind the scenes.

Jozef Rothstein (played by Sebastian Paff) embodies the “aspiring” in aspiring actor. He dips his spoon into the chicken soup of Hollywood and just can’t seem to get a taste, especially with the ominous Hollywood Machine blocking his path. While he’s fighting for his shot at the screen, he works at a well-known Los Angeles deli and logs hours at an acting studio with his pal Mary (played by Joanna Ferbrache).

“We see the struggle of falling in love, trying to find his purpose, and I think it really speaks to everyone,” said Sara Viteri, producer and co-director. “No matter what career path you’re choosing, I think we’re all trying to find our place in the sun.”

[Read more…]

The Chevra Provides Art and Community To Philly 20s And 30s Jews

Monte Carlo Masquerade at The Chevra. Photo courtesy: The Chevra

At 20th and Market, go down the road a little bit, and you’ll find an unassuming brown office building called The Chevra. But unlike the nearby bank and coffee shop, The Chevra’s purpose can’t be defined in one word.

In fact, their website does it in about 24: “multimedia venue & social network feat. a lounge, bar, stage, gallery & loft providing social, educational, spiritual, & volunteer experiences for Young Jewish Professionals & Grad Students.”

Leon Vinokur, Jon Erlbaum and Aryeh Shalom came up with the idea for The Chevra in 2002. According to Vinokur, their goal was to unite a variety of programming for young Jewish adults within one building. “We wanted to do something that was substantive and sophisticated and fun, social, and that had a really big lev, had a really big heart,” said Vinokur, who is The Chevra’s chief operating officer. [Read more…]

Social Group Brings Together Local 20s and 30s Jews

JPSP’s Eagles vs Cowboys Watch Party. Photo courtesy: JPSP Facebook page.

After college, Jews returning to the Philadelphia area are typically set on finding a job and home of their own. But in their 20s and 30s, they might not be as determined or abled to jump back into the Jewish community– too old to go to youth groups, but too young for programming aimed at parents and empty-nesters.

This was the problem confronting Elizabeth Stone in spring 2014. In response, alongside three other members of Maple Glen’s Congregation Beth Or, she helped found Jewish Professionals of Suburban Philadelphia (JPSP). The organization holds social events with Jewish twists across the counties surrounding Philadelphia.

[Read more…]

Philadelphia DA Candidates Pound the Pavement in Search of Votes

The general election for Philadelphia’s district attorney is still a few months away, but the candidates agree that summer is no time to get complacent.

Beth Grossman, the Republican candidate, who spent over 21 years as an assistant district attorney, is filling her calendar with events all over the city. Larry Krasner, her Democratic challenger, who is a civil rights lawyer, wants to knock on the door of every marginalized voter he can before Election Day on Nov. 7. [Read more…]

What Kinds of Jewish Jokes Are Okay to Laugh At?

Two old guys sharing a New York apartment panic about their rent going up and host a show centered around comedians and a tuna sandwich inside a deli. Ever read a sentence more Jewish? Oh, Hello, a Broadway show featuring this plot, just made it to Netflix. Watching it from a Jewish lens, I struggled between discomfort and uncontrollable laughter. [Read more…]

Getting Involved in the Jewish LGBTQ Community in Philly

June is Pride Month, which celebrates those who are homosexual, bisexual, transgender and queer, and recognizes their historical struggle for equal rights. Locally, many people rocked rainbow colors at the Philly Pride Parade, including members of the Philadelphia Jewish LGBTQ community. For Jews looking for LGBTQ activities and information beyond the parade, there are a number of communal resources available year-round.

pRiSm is an LGBTQ social group within Congregation Rodeph Shalom that is also involved in activism. In addition to marching in this year’s parade, the group hosted its second annual Pride Shabbat dinner. Among the speakers was Amber Hikes,  executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Throughout the year, pRiSm provides “people of all gender and sexual identities” in “Philadelphia and the greater Delaware Valley’s GLBT Jewish community” with a space for community, education and activism, according to the group’s website.

J.Proud and Spectrum Philly, two other groups that cater to Philadelphia’s queer Jews, cosponsored pRiSm’s Pride Shabbat.

J.Proud is a group within Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Greater Philadelphia. In addition to hosting Passover seders for the LGBTQ community, J.Proud also held an educational conference last fall in conjunction with Congregation Kol Ami on inclusiveness for transgender and non-binary (people who don’t identify with a specific gender) Jews. On its website, J.Proud offers an extensive list of Jewish LGBTQ resources, including social services, congregations, schools and other useful information.

Spectrum Philly is geared specifically to LGBTQ Jews in their 20s and 30s, offering a range of social activities, such as parties, Shabbat dinners and opportunities to attend cultural events. in fact, on June 29, Spectrum is holding a happy hour meet-up at Toasted Walnut Bar and Kitchen.

Finally, for those who are not quite ready to join a group, but who would like to learn more about Jewish-American LGBT history, the Tumblr page called LGBT Stories: A Collecting Project might be a good resource. This page was created by Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History in 2014, and was followed a year later by an exhibit called “The Pursuit of Happiness: Jewish Voices for LGBT Rights.” Although the installation, which featured artifacts from a series of gay protests in the 60s, is over, the LGBT Stories page remains. The site acts as both a resource for curious readers and an opportunity for Jewish LGBT Americans to share their stories.

pRiSm, J.Proud, Spectrum Philly and the NMAJH Tumblr page are only a sampling of the resources available in the Jewish LGBTQ community in Philadelphia — but they are good places to start for those interested in getting more involved.

Vigil for Detained Immigrant Jonatan Palacios Draws Crowd to Haverford Station

by Victoria Alfred-Levow

Last Thursday, at a vigil for detained immigrant Jonatan Palacios, speakers addressed a crowd of about 275 protesters at the Haverford Train Station.

Residents of Haverford and beyond applauded speakers at the vigil.

Residents of Haverford and beyond applauded speakers at the vigil.

“We stand united in the belief that these kinds of policies that led to Jonatan’s arrest rip apart the fabric of our community,” said Amanda Levinson, a leader of the Havertown-Area Community Action Network (H-CAN), which organized the vigil. [Read more…]