Parashat Pinchas The DAWN of a New Era
David Katznelson, a member of the San Francisco 06 Wexner Heritage group, is also a member of the Reboot program and is the founder of the Birdman Recording Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will never forget the breakfast I had seven years ago at Nate ‘n Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills with fellow Wexner Alum Rachel Levin, and not just because Milton Berle was sitting at the table next to us. The conversation we had affected me deeply. Rachel is the associate Director at the Righteous Persons Foundation and had just read an article about how the holiday of Hanukah, a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, had become the most practiced holiday by American Jews thanks to a group of young Jewish leaders who called themselves the American Hebrews. In the early 20th century, they decided to try and weave the relatively obscure holiday into the life fabric of the growing American Jewish community and were more successful than they could have ever imagined.
Our conversation turned to Shavuot: how could such an important, celebratory, and meaningful holiday be such an enigma for most Jews in general, but young Jews in particular? Once an anchor of the Jewish year, for many Shavuot was not even an afterthought now. I had just finished helping Julie Hermelin (another Wexner Alum) with her Vodka Latka event, which was a huge success, and from it had gained insight as to the hunger many young adult Jews had for ritual and meaningful experiences.
The biggest irony was Shavuot had the aspects in its core that seem to fit perfectly with what this generation was craving. What they needed was a type of Shavuot celebration that they could identify with and make their own: held in the right venue with the right programming with a deeply reverential core. It was then that the idea came to reinvent and reinsert this formerly critical holiday back into the lives of the Jewish community as a whole (note: I realize that the synagogue-attending community has never ceased to celebrate the holiday).
I have always been a big fan of traditions and the rituals surrounding them. My childhood memories are mostly of family gatherings and celebrations. These daily/weekly/monthly/ yearly events carried with them some sort of meaning, whether overt or more mysterious. To me, engaging in ritual empowers the moments framed by the ritual to become something extraordinary…to become something memorable.
The Reboot organization, which Rachel helped create, is based on an essay called The Great Awakening by Jonathan Sarna in which he sets out a belief that Jewish identity, community, and meaning change from generation to generation and it is the duty of each generation to make meaning on their terms.
Reboot’s specialty is to build creative teams around projects that can do this for our generation. Inspired, I started thinking more and more about Shavuot and how to engage those who were unaware of it.
Fellow Rebooter and artist Amy Tobin expressed interest in further discussions, and we teamed up to try and create a Shavuot ritual for the modern young adult Jew. The result was a multi-media celebration of the holiday titled DAWN. The fact that the DAWN event must go all night was the easy part: the new generation of adults that we were trying to appeal to had spent the last decade intentionally staying up at all-night events. It was already part of their culture.
And for the content of the programming: that was the interesting part. Traditionally, Shavuot is about all-night study and conversation—Tikkun Leyl Shavuot—to prepare the self for the dawn and the giving of the Torah. What if preparation meant simply engaging in Jewish thought and culture? What if the themes of The Book of Ruth (which is so integral to the holiday) and the ideas behind the gift of the Torah were explored by artists and by the best scholars of the day? And what if every type of practiced art form had a place to simultaneously engage both Jews and non-Jews in some sort of one-time ritual experience under the umbrella of the bigger ritual of Shavuot?
Amy and I produced the first DAWN, and for three years (joined also by Anne Cook) held the event on a shoestring budget showcasing new films, new scores to old films, and rarely seen shorts. We also showcased music from artists like electronic music pioneer Gershon Kingsley, current Jewish DJ and genre-masher So-Called and Grammy-nominated Jazz guitarist John Schott—with Schott performing an 8-hour piece written specifically for the holiday. We welcomed any local Jewish organization that wanted to lead discussions, and were embraced by Temple Emanuel, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. My favorite moment of the first three DAWN events was leading a discussion at 3:30 am on the meaning behind ritual for a group of roughly 60 people—all completely engaged in the conversation—90% who had never celebrated Shavuot.
When I realized that Shavuot 2008 was falling on the weekend that the new Contemporary Jewish Museum was opening, it was obvious that DAWN had to be a part of it. When the museum and the Jim Joseph Foundation agreed with me, it seemed the first real chance to spread the word of this event and this holiday to a mass group of unsuspecting and unaware Jews and non-Jews. The programming was better and more star-studded than ever (while maintaining the core issues of the holiday): a conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer, a sketch-based hour on the Book of Ruth featuring Six Feet Under producer and writer Jill Solloway and TV star Josh Radnor, scholar Josh Kuhn explaining Jewish history through vinyl album covers, rabbis representing the major temples in San Francisco all engaging the participants in interesting discussions. Thirty–five hundred people packed into the museum that night, and over one thousand were turned away: a Jewish program where the demand outstripped the supply. Young people are hungering for such programming.
What I loved the most was seeing Shavuot being talked about in secular periodicals like USA Today and The San Francisco Chronicle. The city was buzzing about this event and the holiday seemed to be more present on the collective mind: people would ask one another if they were going to the Shavuot event…people were finding out about the holiday.
I have even bigger ideas for the next DAWN event and now have many more people to talk to about them. I am encouraged to begin looking at other Jewish holidays and rituals and organizing more large- scaled powerfully-programmed meaningful events around them, making San Francisco my hometown and host to the third largest population of Jews in America…one of the most vibrant Jewish city’s in North America. Then, we can begin to spread it…