Bringing Psalms to Life

by David Ogul | September 2013 | 1 Comment »

By David Ogul

 

“Tell me you watch me as I lie among the I.V. lines and beeping infusion machines.

You have given so many gifts, and yet, all of this waiting;

The next test, another morsel of news.

What are you doing, Elusive One, while I wait for new cells to grow.”

–Rachel Rosenberg

It’s hard to imagine that a vision of a patient dying of cancer at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center’s Bone Marrow Transplant Unit was flowing through the mind of the man who composed Psalm 90, “a Prayer of Moses,” that starts with the words, “My Lord, you have been an abode for us in all generations.”

But that’s exactly how hospice chaplain Rachel Lopez Rosenberg came to write the poem. It is a conceptualization featured in the Psalms Project, a digital effort combining words and music with animation that seeks to transform how people today view the ancient writings popularly ascribed to King David.

“I saw this project as a great opportunity to reinterpret Psalms, to study Psalms in a creative matter,” says Rosenberg, whose poem was inspired by her experiences as an intern at UC San Francisco’s Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. “Psalm 90 really speaks to me about the suffering that we go through and the fleeting nature of life.”

Rosenberg narrates her version of Psalm 90 in a two-minute video peppered with a George Winston-esque piano piece and accompanied by a dark visual interpretation from Bay Area animator Charlie Corriea, who was named Best Emerging Film Maker at the 2011 Mendocino Film Festival.

It is one of three Psalms that have been produced and placed online as part of the project sponsored by G-dcast. G-dcast, launched on Simchat Torah in 2008, aims to bring the Tanakh to the Internet through what its creator, Sarah Lefton, calls a sort of “Schoolhouse Rock” for Jews. G-dcast has crafted animated segments on Talmud teachings and Torah portions for the past several years, including a classic on Parshat Shemini that includes a catchy tune to teach kids (and easily amused adults) what’s kosher and what isn’t. A sampling of the lyrics: “Bug animals: most bugs are forbidden, there’s a couple you can eat. I ‘aint sure which ones. Some kind of locusts, crickets, grasshoppers. Do you really want to eat–bugs?”

“If it has to do with Jewish texts, we’re on it,” Lefton says. “We’re starting to think about doing a screenplay for the Book of Samuel.”

G-dcast’s goal, the nonprofit’s website says, “Is to give every Jewish child and adult the chance to learn the basics with zero barriers to entry.”

But some G-dcast animations, including episodes on the Talmud, can come across as overly cartoonish. Not so with the Psalms Project. And the work is earning praise from scholars.

“The book of Psalms is a centuries-old book of prayers that continues to have meaning for Jews, Christians and Muslims,” says Rabbi Gail Diamond, who teaches courses on Psalms at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. “Psalms have inspired numerous poems and artistic compositions. This exciting, wonderful, new effort of G-dcast expands the audience for Psalms by bringing new artistic interpretations of these ancient texts. I think it is fantastic.”

“The Psalmists tried to use language to capture their experience of G-d and to address to G-d their challenges and concerns,” Rabbi Diamond continues. “Now the G-dcast artists are using video for the same purpose.”

Lefton says she ultimately would like to have all 150 of the poems interpreted by artists. A $40,000 grant from the Koret Foundation, which in 2011 (the most recent year for which federal tax returns are available) distributed more than $23 million in charitable giving, will cover the cost of producing four.

Psalm 1 was the first to be released. Elijah Aaron, a Berklee College of Music graduate who grew up in a Conservative household, uses the Psalm’s opening line–“Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the path of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful”–as a jumping off point for his interpretation, one that is more traditional than Rosenberg’s in Psalm 90. The animation, on the other hand, employs abstract, geometric imagery to teach about spirituality.

“At first I was not sure I could relate to the images,” says Rabbi Diamond, “but by the end of the video, I was completely moved.”

Sarah Lefton was like a lot of Jewishs children growing up in America in the 1970s. She attended Sunday school at her synagogue, studied at Hebrew school during the week, went off to day camps at the Columbia, S.C., Jewish Community Center, and became a bat mitzvah at 13. She was observant, and, she thought, knowledgeable about her faith.

“But in my 20s, I realized I didn’t really know anything about the basics of our tradition,” she says. “And, sadly, that’s an extremely common story.”

The way she tells it, Lefton was living in New York when she fell in with a more observant group of Jews. Shabbat dinners were filled with discussions about Torah and Talmud. “It was embarrassing to me how I didn’t know what these people were talking about,” Lefton recalls. “I had nothing to say. I didn’t know anything.”

Lefton was left with the realization that traditional efforts at helping Judaism flourish among the young were lacking.

“The Internet is the missing piece. Birthright, day school, all of those are okay. But guess where teenagers and young adults go to get their information? The Internet. We decided to use the Internet to provide that information in an entertaining manner.”

Lefton was familiar with the intricacies of the digital age; she once earned her living building websites. In 2006 she put together a pilot episode on Parshat Balak. Crude as it was, “I went around for two years showing it to people at conferences I would attend.” It was at The Conversation, a project of The Jewish Week that is held annually in New York, where Lefton hit the proverbial pay dirt. Folks at the conference who saw the video set up a meeting between Lefton and a philanthropist in San Francisco. “She cut me off after 30 seconds. She says, ‘I get it. How much do you need?’”

Lefton came away with a commitment of $175,000 that would enable her to produce animated segments for the entire Torah. “They were very low-budget, two-minute films,” Lefton says. “They were really simple.”

But they were a hit. G-dcast has attracted some 1.3 million visitors. But “visitors” can be misleading term; it includes views that actually are seen by hundreds of kids at a Jewish day school or Hillel group.

The Psalms Project, not to be confused with a Christian-led effort using the same name, evolved through discussions with the Koret Foundation. “We’ve been wanting to work on Psalms for a while. It lends itself beautifully to this arts, music, culture thing that everyone can relate to.”

Jeremy Shuback began working as a G-dcast producer in November of 2012. He learned during his first week on the job that he would be leading the Psalms Project, which would launch as a competition open to young artists around the country who would be asked to submit their interpretations of what are among the most well-known writings in the Hebrew Bible. He had to set up contest rules, line up the animators, publicize the endeavor, find qualified judges and lay out a production schedule.

“It was very challenging,” he says. “Very challenging, but very exciting.”

It wasn’t any easier for the artists. “I think the biggest challenge comes with Psalms that are very familiar to the audience,” Rabbi Diamond says. “I would guess that many viewers already have their own particular view of Psalm 23, their own internal image or sense of the meaning “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Psalm 23 was the work that Jewish folk musician Ariel Root Wolpe chose. Her interpretation is entitled “The Valley” and is accompanied by a wistful tune on the acoustic guitar interrupted briefly by a spoken word performance by Romanian-born friend Mariangela Mihai. Wolpe wrote the piece in memory of her beloved grandfather, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe of Temple Har Zion near Philadelphia.

“I wanted to express in a contemporary way the mourning and angst that I felt,” Wolpe says. “It was sort of my contemporary way of saying Kaddish.”

Wolpe, in fact, crafted the tune a year before the Psalms Project competition opened this past winter. She wrote the chords while singing the Kaddish. “But it’s such a holy prayer. It didn’t feel right to have it accompanied by music.” She rectified that by crafting lyrics underscoring her sense of loss. “Ease my beloved soul, ease my beloved soul,” she sings. “God, if I am to suffer, at least tell me why.”

She says the Psalms Project was a stroke of genius. Psalms, Wolpe says, “are some of the most emotionally accessible writings for me. Poetry that is filled with imagery and emotion. It’s the most human part of the Tanakh for me.”

Rachel Rosenberg would agree. Her interpretation of Psalm 90 is unlike any other submission seen by Shuback. It won the contest’s grand prize, earning Rosenberg a $1,000 award.

“Psalms are very comforting and very helpful in times of crisis,” Rosenberg says. But though they can allow you to explore dark topics, “they don’t leave you in despair.”

Rosenberg says she avoided an interpretation of Ashrei (Psalm 145) or the Psalms of Praise (Hallel) recited on Rosh Chodesh “because I don’t know if we can reinvent praise. But we can reinvent despair.”

Her work created a challenge for Shuback. He knew he had to find an animator that was not in the mold of a typical G-dcast illustrator.

“How do you animate a poem about cancer,” Shuback asks. “Cartoonish figures were not the answer there.” After a lengthy search, he came up with Charlie Corriea, whose dark, but brilliant, illustrations are a perfect match for Rosenberg’s words.

“Is this how you teach me to number my days? Knower of Secrets, return me to myself. These hands. This ring. They want to honor your name.”

“It is,” Shuback says, “unlike anything G-dcast has done in the past.”

Rosenberg says the response to her work has been moving. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback. A lot of people say it makes them cry. But the highest compliment I’ve received is from people who say that after they’ve seen the video, they went back and read Psalm 90. And that’s really the point.”

 

For more information about the Psalms Project or other programs of G-dcast, visit www.g-dcast.com.

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