My dad sat to my left. Next to him was the charismatic, theatrical Bruce Bierman, whom I last encountered when he was leading a deliciously off-the-wall queer Song of Songs seder earlier this year. Across the table was the wry Sara Felder, whom I saw two years ago doing a fantastic bit of juggling while reciting “The Jabberwocky” in Yiddish.
On stage, Rabbi Josh Ladon was explaining a Jewish text on inebriation. In front of me, four glasses of wine. And all around, 130 people ready for a night of Jewish wine, Jewish text and Jewish art.
I was at the JCC East Bay in Berkeley for a Nov. 23 event called DRUNK. I didn’t quite get there, but it was a good time.
DRUNK was the launch event for LABA East Bay, an outgrowth of a New York City program that brings Jewish artists of all kinds into contact with Jewish texts, in the hopes of generating new pieces of fresh, unusual art and culture. The theme of the first year of the Bay Area program is “humor.” The inaugural crop of 10 LABA East Bay fellows includes performers, poets, a novelist, a playwright, a choreographer and more.
The event was divided into four segments: Each began with winemaker Jonathan Hajdu of Berkeley’s kosher Covenant Winery explaining one of the wines in front of us. Then Ladon, who meets regularly with the fellows for text study, explained a text relating to Jews and wine — one biblical, one midrashic, one mystical and one Hasidic. Two of the fellows then performed works related to the evening’s theme.
“This is going to be like the best seder you’ve ever been to — drinking, text, but no matzah at the end,” Ladon said at the beginning. Wine and text are both ways to open us up, he said. They can provoke joy, “but sometimes we also see something dark, a little spooky, in them.”
The room was set up like a cabaret, with tables all over. The first performer, poet Jake Marmer, read two science fiction pieces. “More of my poems are about inebriation than I thought,” he said. While he recited his poems, a jazz duo of clarinet and guitar backed him up. One poem extolled the wonders of the purple rocks on his home planet; they were “great listeners.” But here on Earth, all he has to talk to is his scotch, he said, before taking a sip of scotch.
From there, the evening took all kinds of artistic turns. In a scene by writer Dan Schifrin, whose work recently has turned toward theater, a woman goes to Zabar’s to buy a bottle of wine from Shechinah (the feminine aspect of God). The wine, of course, is called Zohar, vintage 1286 (a reference to the essential Jewish mystical text).
Felder juggled while telling a funny, touching story about fireworks and love poetry and dancing with a cup of tequila on her head. Choreographer Marika Brussel presented an in-progress piece of contemporary ballet titled “Besotted,” performed by Nina Pearlman (who is not one of the fellows). Novelist Sarah Stone read a passage from her book “Hungry Ghost Theater.” And so on.
Some of these artists — Felder, Marmer, Schifrin — are known entities in the Jewish community. Others, Ladon told me after the event, “came out of nowhere, and really surprised us.”
And certainly there are more goodies to come. We didn’t even get anything from Kiki Lipsett, who for several years has written and directed a raucous, politically satirical Purim shpiel in the East Bay. I can’t wait to see what she and the other fellows have in store. Judging by what we saw at DRUNK, the work that results from LABA will not be literal or straightforward or kitschy.
The event was serious in intent, but the tone wasn’t. “Good evening. I’m Moses de Leon, author of the Zohar,” Schifrin said as he announced intermission. “As it says in the Talmud, Tractate Baba Ghanoush, these and those are the prices of the raffle tickets.”
The texts were well chosen by Ladon, who is the West Coast director of education for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. The first text, Song of Songs 7:10, was sensual: “Your mouth is like choicest wine. Let it flow to my beloved as new wine gliding over the lips of sleepers.” Later in the evening, he showed us a dark text from Midrash Tanhuma, in which Noah encounters Satan (not the devil; in Jewish tradition, he’s just a troublesome interlocutor) while planting the first vineyard after the flood. This difficult text has Satan slaughtering a lamb, lion, pig and monkey in the vineyard and watering the soil with their blood, a metaphor for the animalistic way an intoxicated person may behave.
I have one complaint about the way the event was framed: Multiple times, organizers noted that LABA’s text study isn’t religious, referring to it as “nontheological” and “freewheeling.” Many in this East Bay crowd were people I knew, and none are uncomfortable with the relationship between art and culture and religion. You don’t have to pretend that text study isn’t a religious pursuit just to be hip. And you don’t have to be hip to be culturally relevant. I didn’t understand all of the art I saw, but what I understood that night was relevant, and meaningful, an act of bringing Torah into the world.
When you study a Jewish text and create new meaning out of it, you engage in the most central practice in the Jewish religion.
The final act was by Bierman, a loud man in a long black velvet garment. He began with a hearty “l’chaim!” and proclaimed: “This is the experimental theater portion of the evening.”
He exhorted all of us to stand and put our arms around each other as he taught simple Hasidic dance moves. Even my reserved father was up and dancing. Things degenerated from there. Klezmer music played loudly over the speakers, as Bierman kept talking and drinking and got everyone doing a “Hasidic conga line,” which soon careened out the door into a courtyard filled with breezy night air.