Interfaith Bibliodrama in Israel

18 Jan

by Yael Unterman

Photo courtesy of Peta Pellach

I grew up in the UK but have lived in Israel for the past twenty-two years. One reason I like  living in Israel is because that is where a lot of the interesting Jewish action takes place – or at least where it ought to take place – making Israel the center of Jewish religion and culture that the likes of Ahad Haam wished it to be. In reality though, the Diaspora, in the form of Limmud and many other original initiatives, is a close contender at times! Indeed, the following piece describes a new movement within Jewish education that has its roots in the Diaspora but is slowly establishing a presence in Israel.

For all of my adult life I have been involved in teaching Jewish texts – Torah, Talmud, commentaries, Hassidut, and so forth. For me, this constitutes a wonderful, profound activity that connects Jews to their sources and to one another. It is a tremendous feeling when the texts give up their mysteries to one’s probing eye, and it makes me delighted to be a Jew.

My involvement with the sources, however, took a fascinating and unexpected turn when, back in the year 2000, I encountered a technique called Bibliodrama, invented by Dr. Peter Pitzele of the US. Pitzele, who is trained in the methods of therapeutic theater and has a Ph.D. in literature, imported techniques from psychodrama and combined them with his refined literary sensitivities to create a new experiential method for studying Torah stories. The technique shifts us from left-brain (i.e. analytical) to right-brain (i.e. imaginative) territory, through asking questions to the group members directly as if they were characters in the text.

Rather than try to explain further, let me give you a snippet as an example:

The facilitator asks the group: So Cain, why did you decide to bring an offering to God? Your mother and father never brought any offerings, so where did this idea come from?

After a moment of thought, one participant might answer: I had heard my parents talking about God and I wanted to speak to God also.

Another participant says: I wanted to give a gift to someone to say thank you for all the abundance I’ve received.

A third person suggests: I want to see if I can get us back into the Garden of Eden –  it sounds like such an amazing place. Maybe I can change God’s mind with a bribe.

A fourth adds: Yes, they wrongfully took fruit, so I am giving back fruit!

And so on and so forth.

The character deepens as people hear one another and speak their interpretations; and thus a form of spontaneous midrash is created. It is always different with every new group of people. It is often playful, profound, surprising, and enlightening, and brings the ancient text to life right before our very eyes.

For me, my first experience of Bibliodrama was love at first sight. I subsequently read Pitzele’s book, Scripture Windows, containing instructions on how to run Bibliodrama, and began to do it whenever and wherever I could. I have been privileged to take it around the world (often alongside my solo show, ‘After Eden,’ a follow-on to Bibliodrama on the Cain and Abel story), and to train teachers to use it in schools. It has proven popular with religious and secular, Israeli and non-Israeli groups. Admittedly, it is not for everyone: strong intellectuals and people of a yeshivish background do not always take to it well.

The truth is that I would love to see this technique introduced into Tanach classes in Israeli high schools, in order to make the Tanach relevant, exciting and alive, instead of the rather boring class that I fear it often is. However, after a few useless fumbles in that direction I decided to wait for an opening and some heavenly help in that direction (I’m still open, if anyone reading this wants to pursue that direction with me).

Heaven, however, seemed to have other plans. In February 2011, a different project hurtled out of the blue straight into my lap, when I received a surprise invitation from a woman named Maria, who is connected to a theatre in Poland. She invited me to join an EU-funded initiative to advance “Bibliodrama as a Multi-Cultural way of Learning for Adults.” I joined forces with the Elijah Interfaith Institution, and together we became the Israeli partner in the project, which also includes partners from Iceland, Turkey, Hungary and Poland.

Thus, October 2011 marked my initiation into the world of interfaith Bibliodrama (I had only ever done such a thing once before), with the launch of our local interfaith group. In November 2011 we traveled to Poland to meet our partners and train in Bibliodrama (further details can be found on the blog by Peta Pellach, who works for Elijah). Our trainer was a Hungarian named Peter Varga, who hails from a different school of Bibliodrama a Christian-based school which derives its techniques strongly from psychodrama and spends less time looking at the text than we do. (Peta and I are getting the impression that Jews are more in tune with Pitzele-type Bibliodrama, as they are more used to text and interpretation and to midrashic ways of thinking.) Upcoming trips for the project include a Bibliodramatic intercultural encounter for twenty people in Iceland in June 2012 and, in 2013, meetings in Budapest and Istanbul and a Bibliodrama conference in Krakow.

For me, this was the first meaningful encounter with European non-Jews, and it proved a highly positive experience of sharing, laughter and acceptance. Though aware that I was thinking in a rather provincial Israeli-Jewish fashion, I confess that beforehand I had felt rather intimidated by the trip to a country where millions of Jews had died so horribly, in a continent where one sometimes gets the impression from the media that everyone hates Israel. I felt comfortable both as a Jew and as an Israeli, though it was truly shocking to discover that our trip from the airport to our hotel was going to take us past Auschwitz. Jews do not normally just casually drive by Auschwitz, as we did.

Our local interfaith group for Christians, Muslims and Jews takes place bi-monthly at the Yedidya synagogue. Setting dates is not always easy, as there are so many different holidays to account for. Running Bibliodramas on texts from other faiths is a step out of my comfort zone but the participants, hailing from the Congo, Uganda, Scotland, Slovakia and other countries, are amazing, and we are all learning new things together. I chose to ease them in with a neutral story, Hansel and Gretel, which turned out to work extremely well, and then moved on to some legends of great people such as St. Clare, Rumi and Shams, and Rabbi Akiva and his wife. We are now about to hit the “hard-core” texts, and see what that brings. As a person who believes in the value of encounter with the other but shies away from the political, I am happy to reach out and create ties with people of other faiths sharing our country and our beloved city of Jerusalem. Now we just have to find a few more Muslims – why are they so hard to find in Jerusalem?

There is much more to do with Bibliodrama in the Jewish world. This is such a different and powerful way to connect Jews with their texts, suitable to our generation’s Zeitgeist; that is, the search for personal meaning, relevance and growth. A few of us are doing a bit in the center of Israel and in the north, and I have just discovered someone in the south doing something similar. There is also a Facebook page in Hebrew. But it all feels like a drop in the ocean. I would like to see the day arrive where Bibliodrama is done regularly, alongside and complementary to traditional learning, in every Jewish school in the world, and in particular in every Israeli school where I think it is sorely needed.

Yael Unterman is one of Israel’s leading Bibliodrama experts and the author of Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar. See for more details.


2 Responses to “Interfaith Bibliodrama in Israel”

  1. anitasilvert January 19, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    I have been facilitating Bibliodramas for years, and I agree, after being trained by Peter. I love this; it never gets old, because each time you visit a text with a new group, it’s altogether new. Bibliodrama is an outstanding technique for getting a disparate group of people to talk and share. My work with Christian groups supports your observation about Jews being a little more willing to question the text; it’s much more a part of the Jewish study tradition. But it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it! One reason this technique works so well is that it removes language barriers (skill in Hebrew, for example) level of Biblical training, etc. It also can bridge age adn stage divisions. I’ve been amazed at how easily even young or teenage children bridge the genders and take on roles of opposite genders.
    Good luck on getting more B’drama into the Israeli schools. I am in the Chicago area – happy to work with any group/congregation/etc in the area. I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing.

  2. traveltwinpicks99 January 24, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    I recall my childhood days in Israel with great fondness but would constantly fall asleep during Bible Lessons due to language difficulties or should I say a lack of enthusiasm on behalf of the teacher. I studies after school with a Bible Teacher whom taught us to vividly imagine the stories and adapt to modern life although he didn’t use Bibliotherapy the idea of giving Bibliotherapy as an elective subject entices me to hope I could one day enlist my children in a school which offers such a class. Keep up the work and branch out to other suburbs in Israel.

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