Desperately Seeking the Sacred

Shawn Shafner
October 18, 2012
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In the repurposed suburban box home where my Hebrew school used to meet, I was taught that God is everywhere. But when I looked around that shul, I didn’t find much that brought me closer to the divine, in the sense of authentic experience. That’s not to say that it was completely devoid of experiences. I was moved by the singing of Shalom Rav and the tashlich ritual. I was terrified of one of the boys in my class. I thought deeply about Maimonides’ ladder of tzedaka, depicted by a poster hanging in the hallway that I must have read hundreds of times. But rarely did I encounter the sacred.

Our Conservative temple was not a place where we spent much time as a family. Excepting my attendance at Hebrew school twice a week, we were “High Holiday Jews.” I remember being mortified at how everyone would turn around when the synagogue doors opened and we slunk in, an hour or more after the service had begun. When I complained about this to my mom, she reminded me that the earlier we arrived, the longer we would have to be there. I never again rushed to get ready for services.

Instead, I sought out joy, reverence and higher consciousness by harmonizing in choirs, leaping across the dance floor, and entering a character on stage. I found spirit digging through the dirt in my backyard and grating homegrown zucchini to be baked into bread. My close-knit group of friends became my minion, the coffee berry our fruit of the vine, our siddur incisive questions and long, intense conversations.

By the time I graduated college, I was practicing meditation and reading up on the New Age. The High Holiday services were replaced by contemplative trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It simply made more sense. Why would I waste a lovely day dutifully sitting in pews, surrounded by droning strangers, and mumbling in a language I didn’t understand? There were Monets to be seen.

In 2005, I was named a Spielberg Fellow for Jewish Theater Arts and flew to the Brandeis Bardin Institute for a week-long retreat and training. I was pleased that Judaism had finally gotten me something, even if I had taken to calling myself a Buddhist. In the end, I got more than I bargained for.

I found myself sitting outside in a circle with faculty members Amichai Lau-Lavie, Jon Adam Ross, Naomi Less, Danny Maseng, and my fellow fellows. We were each handed a siddur. Amichai told us to begin leafing through the prayerbook, picking out any word, phrase or line that resonated with us. Naomi and Danny strummed their guitars, and we went around the circle, sharing our selections. It was the most beautiful, heartfelt prayer I had ever said or heard.

I hadn’t known that I could write a prayer. My teachers never told me that all liturgy was written by people, that some of the texts in my Siddur Sim Shalom were penned within the last century. Until then, Judaism looked to me like a box handed down from generation to generation; you either accepted the box in its entirety and passed it on to your children, or rejected the package outright. No one had ever deconstructed the box before. I did not know that Judaism was alive and breathing—that it is, in fact, still evolving—or that I could be empowered to make it my own. For the first time, I wasn’t told to leave my song or movement or earth at the temple gates. I was asked to bring them inside.

Seven years later, I’m still meditating. I also teach Hebrew school and have continued performing and studying Jewish texts with Storahtelling. Looking back on my experience is like hearing the refrain of a popular song; it’s a story of alienation that anyone interested in Jewish continuation has heard many times before.

I was taught to read Hebrew but not to understand it. The translation told me I was praying to God, but we never talked of who or what that was. I was read stories, but was never encouraged to read into them, or to search for human truths in our collective wisdom. Judaism was not practiced regularly in my home and, though I had some positive experiences in shul, I was left with an overwhelming distaste for the dreary service that defined Jewish practice. I did not have the tools needed to make meaning from my experience. If we are to transmit the traditions that have sustained our people on to future generations, how can we ensure that we also pass on the literacy needed to access the divine through them and guarantee their relevance in our lives?

Yet there is no guarantee. While my current liturgical literacy has added immensely to my enjoyment of a traditional service, when looking for an encounter with the divine, I’d still rather go to the Met. I know I’m not alone. People everywhere are desperately seeking out the sacred, struggling to maintain their sanity in a disconnected world. They are pitching tents at music festivals, tilling community garden plots, and breathing into downward dog on yoga mats all across the country. Many synagogues are opening their doors to these alternatives, often with help from initiatives like Synaplex. Living in New York City, I have grown to discover a diverse wealth of Jewish practice, life, community and culture. But these are the exception, not the norm, and the majority of Jews are unaware of their existence.

The summer after my Spielberg Fellowship, I returned to camp as an Artist in Residence, and worked extensively on a series of Storahtelling-style (translation-based, interactive) parsha plays to replace the old standby. They proved so popular with the chanichim that we starting reading Torah on Mondays and Thursdays in addition to Shabbat. When asked to speak to the camp’s board of directors about this work, I modeled one of the scripts with them. The chairman was clearly moved. She said, “I love how engaging it is. It’s so dramatic, and the interaction really made the story relevant. That’s just great for kids.”

And the rest of us? Don’t we get to be engaged? Don’t we deserve to discover our tradition’s relevance, and to make meaning in our own lives from study, prayer and ritual? What would it look like for the temple to open its doors, invite innovation, meet the community where it’s at, and empower them to be collaborators in an ever-changing process?

We are an evolving people. Let’s push our sacred spaces to evolve with us.

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Shawn Shafner is a theatre-maker, educator, and creator of The People's Own Organic Power Project (www.thePOOPproject.org), an arts and education organization that promotes critical conversations about sustainable sanitation for the person, planet and world community. He is the recipient of a 2005 Spielberg Fellowship, and has been creating original ritual theater and educational programs with Storahtelling ever since. Shawn has created and facilitated educational programs for all ages, from early childhood audiences to elderly populations. He is currently artist-in-residence at the JCC Manhattan Preschool, works with underprivileged NYC school students as a teaching artist with Arts for All, and writes curriculum for Think-Build-Live Success, a self-empowerment, life skills and employment preparation program in career colleges. Shawn holds a BFA in Drama from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and has trained as an actor in Russia at the St. Petersburg Theatre Arts Academy, the Institute for Contemporary Art in London, and the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Italy. He spent most of 2008 touring nationally as Pablo in Nickelodeon's The Backyardigans Live!, and his NYC acting credits include performances at Madison Square Garden, Theater Row, Joe's Pub, The Club at La Mama, and Classic Stage Company.

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