It’s a Thursday afternoon and the first session of Theater J’s Actor’s Approach to Torah class is starting on Zoom. Participants from the Washington area and beyond pop up on the screen.
The students introduce themselves. Most are retired, several have not studied Torah since Hebrew school and all are interested in theater. The actor in the class’ title is Tyler Herman.
“I confess I’m not a Torah scholar,” Herman says.
This first lesson is called The Origin of Desire and focuses on the story of Adam and Eve. Herman teaches everyone basic theater terms. The class focuses on character analysis and there is some disagreement whether God is a character.
“There is some theological sticky ground here,” Herman says.
Adam Immerwahr is the artistic director of Theater J, which is part of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center. With the theater dark during the coronavirus pandemic, Immerwahr has been searching for ways to bring drama and Judaism to people quarantined at home.
“I think there’s a great power to taking [acting] and applying it to Torah which, of course, is just so rich,” Immerwahr says. “Torah has characters, it has dialogue. It has stories that have beginnings, middles and ends. So if we read it with that lens a little bit, what would we learn?”
There are some Zoom issues. When Herman sends a PDF into the Zoom chat, some students have a hard time downloading the file. At another point, Herman suggests that everyone take themselves off of mute, and suddenly there is more participation.
When Herman discusses the theater terms, a few cameras go black and one person appears to nod off. But then, the class does a table read of the story of Adam and Eve and everyone appears to be engaged.
After the reading, it’s time to analyze the Torah portion through the lens of theater. Herman describes the portion as if it’s a play. When one woman suggests that misogyny is the reason that the serpent appears to Eve and not Adam, Herman says, “We can’t be playing misogyny of the author. We have to play what’s in the text.”
The goal of this first class was to also study the stories of Cain and Abel and Noah. But the Adam and Eve discussion goes on so long that there’s no time for the others. In the next session the class will focus on Abraham and Sarah.
Immerwahr says one of his goals for the class is “to deepen and enrich our students’ Jewish experience through some of the tools of theater. In this moment, when we all have to be socially distant, let’s come together and share a project.”