How I Jew

Franny Silverman
November 6, 2012
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In early October I had the great pleasure of co-officiating at the marriage of my high school prom date to his perfect beloved. It was a brisk fall day and the wedding party poured out in patterns of black and white from the colorful chuppah woven from photographs that canopied over our heads.  As the friend who leads seders and makes Jewish theater and teaches Hebrew school, I was representing the Jewish side half of the pair while my Christian doppleganger, a playwright cum Director of Education at a downtown progressive church, represented the Christian camp.

I presided over the signing of the Ketubah, the circling, the seven blessings; he led the Lord’s Prayer and the lighting of the Unity Candle.  Together we welcomed the guests and together we announced them husband and husband in the state of New York.

This is an example of Jewish work that I do.
This is how I Jew.

The Hebrew word for work is avodah. At Passover, Jews recall our ancestors’ enslavement with the words, avadim hayeenu – we were slaves – the Hebrew for slaves, coming from the same root as that of work.  And yet, biblically, the word avodah is used to describe the ritual work of the Levites taking care of The Temple – holy service. Though much of the “Jewish avodah,” that I do is paid, which feels contrary to my contemporary notion of service, there is something about this definition that feels like the better fit.  More service than career, more practice than job. As my resume grew, over time, I’ve arrived at a place where the work I accept serves me, as a human being, and gives me an opportunity to serve others.  Yes, I am considered a Jewish professional, but all of my professional training is actually in the theatre, and I still consider that my career.  And, no, I don’t have a “day-job”.

There are those who would be quick to call the example of avodah offered at the top of this post as more is more akin to avodah zarah (idolatry or foreign worship – essentially a big no-no) than to avodah. And yet the experience of blessing the marriage of two men, one Italian-Catholic and one Jewish, felt like some of the holiest work I could ever have the privilege of doing.

An old friend recently came to a Yom Kippur family service I was leading in her city and as we walked to her car, she called to me over the roof, “It’s funny that this is your job since you’re not really religious.”

I laughed and told her that I’m used to people assuming I am “religious,” not the other way around.  I teach religious school, I speak Hebrew, I tutor students in Hebrew and Judaics and prepare them for their b’nai mitzvot, I officiate weddings and b’nai mitzvot, I make Jewish theatre and train clergy and educators in alternative methods of Jewish education.  It’s logical for people to ask if I’m a rabbi or cantor, or apologize for the bacon cheeseburger they’re ordering at lunch or the electricity they’re using on Shabbat.  The assumption is that because I work in the Jewish world, I am “very Jewish.”  Which many people don’t know how to comprehend in a way other than religious.

This friend, however, knew me best as an angsty artsy teen who cut Hebrew school to go to rehearsal even when there was no rehearsal to go to.  In contrast to the majority people who assume my Jewish work to be the natural extension of my personal religious observance, she saw it as an odd juxtaposition, and inquired about my Jekyll and Hyde life.

And I told her: this is how I Jew.

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Franny Silverman is a Brooklyn-based actor, theatre-maker and educator. She is a co-founder of warner|shaw, and received Indiana University’s Jewish Studies Program’s 2012 Paul Artist-in-Residence for warner|shaw’s The Latvia Project. Franny has created and performed numerous new work for stage and ritual settings around the country as a founding company member of both Storahtelling and Northwoods Ramah Theatre. Performances with other companies include Brave New World Rep, The Culture Project, Estrogenius, Terranova Collective, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Epic Theatre, Passage Theatre Co, the Ontological-Hysteric, Little Lord, CUNY Grad Center, New Worlds Theater Project, NY Fringe Festival and Jewish Plays Project. Franny’s interactive seder installation,UnSeder|DisOrder, was presented by Chashama’s “Process is Fundamental” and she is the director of Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s song-cycle Mayim Rabim/Great Waters (BRICLab, PS122, Wexner Center, Chicago Cultural Center). Franny is the Director of Youth Education at Brooklyn's progressive synagogue, Kolot Chayeinu. She is also a new mom to Sunhillow Belle.

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