What if immersing yourself in Jewish texts could be as intoxicating as a night of debauchery — or as stimulating as taking in an artistic masterpiece?
Intense study of ancient Jewish literature doesn’t have to be a puritanical experience. This is the premise of DRUNK, an annual secular seder consisting of live performances, text study and four courses of wine.
At the entrance to the dimly lit, cavernous room where DRUNK took place, we were greeted with schnapps and champagne. The tables surrounding the catwalk-esque stage were decked out with all sorts of delicacies — crab apples, radishes, white and red wines, pretzels, brie, manchego, chevre, and apricot jam. Billy Joel was playing softly, then later The Killers.
The crowd consisted of your quintessential East Village types — lots of crisp collared shirts and expensive-looking sweaters, but also lots of bright scarves.
If you closed your eyes and listened to the conversations taking place around you in Hebrew, you could just as well have been in Tel Aviv — but opening your eyes to see folks decked out in dark designer duds was all it took to remind you that this was assuredly NYC.
Thankfully, I’d come prepared. A few weeks before the event, esteemed Israeli author Ruby Namdar, LABA’s resident scholar, told me that DRUNK did not attract your usual synagogue crowd. “We have a very suspiciously high presence of hip, good-looking people — young, which is very very rare, as you know, in Jewish learning. And we have a diverse audience. It’s racially diverse, it’s ethnically diverse.”
It was certainly a far cry from my typical nights of Talmudic learning. In college, I spent many evenings in our Hillel building’s Beit Midrash studying Talmud, Torah, and various commentaries. But there was always a clear separation between the serious learning taking place within the hallowed space and the socializing conducted outside. Perhaps this is why the rawness and intimacy of DRUNK particularly spoke to me. No one was trying to force a moralistic interpretation into the texts, or into the art — as Namdar told me, “For us, studying Jewish texts is a feast. It’s something we do out of pleasure and love and joy and it’s a hedonistic pursuit, it’s not a moralistic pursuit.”
And hedonistic it was indeed.
The first wine was a sparkling Argentinian white, light and sweet like summer rain. The sommelier made a blessing over his full non-kosher glass (there were kosher alternatives available for those who asked), which somehow felt especially Jewish. We sipped it in the dark as we took in the first performance, a dramatic poem about the first time the author showed another person his naked body. An unclothed actor who resembled him interpreted, and mid-poem, they began to wrestle. It reminded me of Jacob’s biblical tousle with the angel, which resulted in his name being changed to Israel, our namesake — he who wrestles with God.
Things only escalated from there — and quickly.
The performance was immediately followed by a study of a text from Sanhedrin, led by Namdar.
“Chant with me. There was no apple in Eden! That is the European artistry from the cult of Mary!”
The second wine, a Lebanese white, smelled of lychees. It contained 13(!) % alcohol — perhaps a fitting companion for the harrowing story that followed about racism, death, and fighting in Pyongyang, where the “air smelled like shit and organs.”
The next biblical text described the rape (or castration) of Noah, read in Hebrew while a sexual assault trial and knives danced upon a brightly lit screen.
“Dark things are not learned in the world,” said Namdar, “but inside our own minds.”
Wine often unlocks something within us usually trapped far out of reach; an evanescent mindset emerged quite unexpectedly, if not pleasantly, somewhere between the 1st and 4th glasses.
We often like to think we’re above the primordial, the chemical — but as of yet, it isn’t so. In excess, wine torments the body, mind and soul. But when consumed in proper amounts, a secret garden inside the self is also nourished; even the most experienced of drinkers often forget this until they emerge, slightly inebriated, feet slightly dusty, head pleasantly light, soul gently floating above the normal plane. Like a dream, wine overpowers the consciousness— and is just as ephemeral as last night’s terror. When combined with the sweetness of Jewish texts, the starkness of art personified and the rawness of our ancestral fire, something entirely more than the sum of the disparate parts is forged— a Lilith from the fire, an Israel from the ashes.
“Often we think of Jewish learning as a very sober experience,” said Namdar. “I like the more ecstatic and more intoxicating elements of Jewish learning. As I said, part of the aesthetics is the fact that it gets you high. The beauty and the tension within the texts, the images, the searing quality of the images, they work on us like mind altering substances. And therefore I find that it’s a great combination.”
The third wine tasted like velvet feels — soily, dangerous.
“Satan was born from the dregs of the wine — so keep your cups full at all times!”
The fourth wine tasted of rotten grapes — okay, apricots. White peaches. A lime to your nose. The sun. Time for more radishes. And cheese.
The most beautiful part of the evening, for me, was a reimagined dance to Ha Dodi Li, the traditional Jewish folk song and text from Song of Solomon. Two women, dressed alike, recorded a series of percussive sounds that wove themselves into a pulsing beat as they danced intimately around the stage.
The evening ended in absolute silliness (as most great nights of Jewish fellowship should and do, in my experience). Women in ridiculous wigs and a shirtless man lip synced to Gogol Bordello’s “Alcohol.”
The whole experience was a constant oscillation between solemn and silly, sacred and secular, purity and evil, beautiful and profane.
As my mind struggled to absorb the complex texts, performances, and tastes, the famous Jewish saying of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav came to mind — “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”
In these trying times, perhaps it’s time to take our Judaism a little more seriously — by taking ourselves a little less seriously.
I, for one, can drink to that.
LABA’s next performance, OTHER: ONE, will be held at the 14th Street Y on February 9.