Ages-Old Jewish Thought Goes Post-Modern

  • by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

    It’s a bit of a no-man’s land for a very 21st century medium, and the Jewish educational and theological communities are noticing.

    The first two entries in a series of animated shorts by video artist Hanan Harchol examining Jewish thought and teachings are now ricocheting through social networking sites, and making the rounds virally through old-fashioned email.

    Here is Repair, the first segment that delves into teshuvah, the Jewish imperative and framework for fixing one’s relationship with others and oneself. Next is Landlord, a short presenting the Jewish perspective on giving and receiving forgiveness.

    It’s no accident that these first two installments, part of a larger series, are debuting now. As Jews worldwide mark the High Holidays, these themes and teachings are central.

    The black-and-white animations depict an Americanized and secular son in conversation and searching debate with his wise kibbutznik father – exchanges and interactions mirroring Harchol’s own experiences. And in the true spirit of animation, they are at times funny and exaggerated in mannerisms, but always true to life and endlessly provocative.

    “The medium is subversive,” said Harchol, 41, who is based in New York and teaches film and video studies there. “When someone watches an animation or cartoon, they are set up to be disarmed. It is one step away from reality. But I can access people’s hearts and minds in a greater way when their guard is down. And I can really get at heavy subjects like these.”

    When the series – Jewish Food for Thought – is complete, it will include about a dozen similarly styled animations presenting the Jewish angle on gratitude, fear, love, humility, and other themes present in Jewish texts and liturgy.

    The objective, Harchol said, is to push Jewish teachings and perspectives on such issues in a very populist way, appealing to Jews across the spectrum of observance and educational settings and helping viewers apply Jewish thought to everyday life.

    “I want to distill these relevant and very human Jewish teachings in a vehicle that is accessible, entertaining, funny, and fresh.”

    Supported by The Covenant Foundation and sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Culture, Jewish Food for Thought includes study guides anchored to each segment. These include texts, discussion points and commentary by Harchol for use in formal and informal settings, or even by a lone viewer with an iPad.

    Framing lessons on a digital platform reachable by anyone, anywhere – and in a way that speaks to young adults who may be developing a Jewish consciousness – is an important trend, said those involved in the project.

    “There is just very, very little out there in the world of Jewish media that is worthwhile and meaningful and educational, that delves into these issues, especially for those who may be on the less observant end of Judaism,” said Rabbi Leora Kaye, Program Director at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, and author of the guides to the series.

    “It is important for us as a community to recognize where and how people are being exposed to materials and how they learn. It’s the reality.”

    In fact, the series speaks to those at varying levels of religious involvement and Jewish education, Harchol said. A rabbi or scholar will draw a straight line to Jewish text, while a day school student will be taken in by the animation as a catalyst for thought, self-examination, and further study.

    “The religious person sees and hears wisdom of the Torah,” he said. “A non-religious person or a non-denominational person or a young student sees it as a study of humanity and gets the wisdom of the Jewish thought and starts a journey.”

    The series as it exists so far is getting wide exposure, having been showcased on National Public Radio and embraced by institutions such as The Fetzer Institute. And beyond the few thousand views on You Tube, Jewish day school teachers are using the animations and study guides in classrooms and some synagogues are using them as part of High Holidays programs and discussion groups.

    Over in Hope Levav’s eighth grade rabbinic literature class at Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn recently, students viewed the first installment, Repair. This led to a multi-day discussion and dialogue about the issues presented, the points of view of father and son, Jewish text, and the applications to students’ own lives.

    “The animations are eye-catching, but not too super-sensory,” said Levav, who is also Middle School Director. “Students are drawn to the animation, but not distracted by it. So the focus is on what is being said, and the dialogue, and the issues that are presented in a very realistic way. The framework of animation is just so perfect.”

    Rabbi Jan Katzew, Director of Lifelong Learning at the Union for Reform Judaism, agreed, and said he saw immense value in the shorts and distributed them to congregations and Jewish educators.

    “I was struck by the medium, and also the nuance, depth, accessibility and level of sophistication, coupled with the immediacy of understanding,” he said. “There is a non-threatening, non-pedantic context for very authentic and relevant messages. The juxtaposition of sophistication and access is rare, and brilliant.”

    As a self-described secular Jew, Harchol was an unlikely driver for the project.

    But in 2009, he participated in Projecting Freedom, a year-long initiative supported by The Covenant Foundation that immersed a group of video artists in study of the Passover Haggadah. Each produced a video short reflecting a personal interpretation of one of its parts.

    The experience, he said, transformed his relationship to Judaism and to his art.

    “A beautiful door opened. I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom that was just sitting, waiting to be mined. This led me to this current project.”

    In the course of creating just the first two segments of the series, Harchol tore through over 50 books on Jewish thought, and consulted with myriad scholars and rabbis as mentors and authorities.

    “I had no idea how immensely exciting this material would be. My hope is that through this, others will similarly begin or continue on their own exploration of ages-old Jewish wisdom and teachings that are so relevant to our lives today.”