by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
San Francisco – November 16, 2012 – The ancient Talmud is getting some 21st century treatment.
Here at the Contemporary Jewish Museum recently, young animators and storytellers – many with little or no exposure to the deep, varying levels of Talmudic study – dove into text, considered interpretations, and engaged in debate.
Then they trekked to a nearby recording studio to lay down soundtracks for lively, thought-provoking and inarguably unique animations expressing their take on selected portions.
A tall order for sure for the dozen participants, ages 19 to 28, who gathered unacquainted with each other for a six-day intensive of a degree few said they had previously experienced, as Talmud study merged with a digital art form toward an unpredictable outcome.
“We are teaching media literacy at the same time that we are teaching Jewish literacy,” said Sarah Lefton, who as executive director of G-dcast created a platform for teaching Torah through dozens of narrative animations used by Jewish educators.
Extending this to the Talmud, though, is a new thrust with its own opportunities and challenges, but one that emerged this year as Studio G-dcast, an initiative funded with a grant from The Covenant Foundation.
“We are traversing new ground now with Talmud, and also in engaging a new class of talent to study, create and share their interpretations,” Lefton said.
Of 60 applicants for this pilot year, 12 made it in, all of them students from across the spectrum of creative study – from cartooning and art direction, to playwriting and graphic design – and Judaic immersion and observance. From these, six pairings, or chevrutas, were assigned to study a selected Talmud portion and produce an animation capturing their interpretation.
The six Talmud portions were selected for exhibiting how tradition and innovation may co-exist, a metaphor for the initiative itself, said Zvi Septimus, a G-dcast educator, Talmud scholar and fellow at the University of Toronto.
“One of the central talking points of Jewish history is the tension between tradition and innovation, between preservation and development. So we chose stories that negotiated that, and which could be adaptable to a three-minute video, even though the Talmud isn’t written for that sort of consumption.”
Beginning this month, the six animations are rolling out on the G-dcast website, along with curricula, for use by Jewish educators, families and individuals seeking a digital portal into the thousands-year-old tradition of Talmudic scholarship.
The obvious wild card here was the sheer diverseness of the participants, reflected in mixed levels of Jewish identity and familiarity with Jewish texts. And the breadth of experience in animation, storytelling and other creative skills necessary to design and produce animation also varied.
“Letting go of the controls and launching work we didn’t make all on our own makes me nervous and excited at the same time,” Lefton said. “But the whole process is meant to be playful and invigorating, offer a new approach to contemporary Jewish education and encourage Jewish literacy in a new form.”
In fact, it is that very dynamic nature of the Studio G-dcast initiative, and the opportunity it presented to enhance and express their Judaism through creative channels, that appealed to participants, many said.
“It is incredibly empowering to be combining two areas of my life – Judaism and the arts – that are often distinct,” said 25-year-old Judith Prays of Long Beach, CA, who studied film at UCLA and described a very secular upbringing by parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union.
“This very experience is raising my standards and expectations, not only for my own art, but also for how Judaism can inform and influence and maximize it. I see proof that the Jewish world is alive and active and innovative – and seeing this inspires me and shows me there is interest for fresh approaches to Jewish texts.”
Prays teamed up with Samuel Hayes, 22, an animator in San Francisco who is fresh out of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Their three-minute film, Lonely at the Top: A Bromance, is a hip-hop-inspired interpretation of a Talmud story about two great authorities of Jewish law, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish.
At the conclusion of their one-week residency at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, participants exhibited their works-in-progress to community members as a preview of the final, on-line versions.
“These are not simple topics to explore, interpret and portray visually, especially in the format of a short film,” said Ralph Guggenheim, a founder of Pixar and now CEO of Alligator Planet in San Francisco, which creates animation and film projects globally.
“For these Studio G-dcast participants, who are not terribly experienced in animation, to immerse themselves in Talmud and to produce these entertaining and provocative segments in such a short amount of time is stunning and impressive.”
Others who saw the preview said they are inspired to dig deeper.
“There are certain Jewish things like Torah tropes that I know really well, and there are certain Jewish things, like Talmud, that I am clueless about,” said San Francisco resident Ruth Weisberg. “This G-dcast project makes me think about what I am missing by choosing to remain illiterate in Talmud. I am not sure that I will all of a sudden find a chevruta, but it will still make me think.”
The Studio G-dcast project is an evolutionary step for G-dcast, which was named to the 2012-13 Slingshot list of the most innovative and impactful Jewish non-profits. Its new media products have traditionally been produced in-house and distributed through its website.
But Studio G-dcast reflects a tweak to that model as the organization begins to hold creative workshops in classrooms and also engages young new media types to learn about Judaism by exercising their skills in a Jewish setting.
“The goal is to give young artists a chance to practice their craft in a Jewish space, and to give us a chance to share our process with new talent. It is a two-way street,” Lefton said.