Jonas, the Midrash and G-d in Bibliodrama
After I had read the last issue of the journal Textraum announcing as the special focus on “G-d in Bibliodrama” for the next issue, I began to ponder and make notes about ethics, g-d and inclusiveness in Bibliodrama (in German: Bibliolog). But then, Jonas got in the way. This is what happened:
I had been invited by a Jewish-Christian study group: Zipporah, Moses’s wife in Torah and Midrash. A Christian-Jewish Bibliodrama. It was a rainy, cold, dark winter evening. I arrive 50 minutes early at the local Jewish community center located a little outside of town. Nobody responds when I ring the doorbell even though lights are on inside the building. My anger increases as I stand there, freezing, and I’m annoyed that Jewish community centers have to be protected like maximum-security units. After quite a while, an astonished concierge lets me in. “The security staff always comes just before the event,” she tells me.
A little later, the gentleman responsible for the event comes and shows me the room: a gigantic community hall with chairs for about 120 people. The rear area is clear; at the front, a platform about a meter high and 40 meters square has been set up. A table is in the middle, probably meant for me. The lighting is glaring: all-or-nothing fluorescent lights. A mixing console is set up in the center in front of the podium, big enough to fill a factory floor with sound. I look for the cordless microphone I had asked for in advance. Nothing doing. There’s only a mike with a 15-meter cable.
I sat down on the edge of the podium by the mixing console to consider how to deal with this setup. The first people trickle in and take their seats. Some of them seem to know each other. Sunk in my thoughts, I hear a loud voice, “Hello, I’m Jonas.” He mentions his last name, too, which I’ve forgotten. I can tell by his slightly rocking movements, his gait and his way of speaking that, according to the usual standards, he would be considered mentally disabled. I say hello to him as well. He sits down in the third row, about three meters away from me. “I think Jewish is great,” he continues, just as loudly as before. “This evening, there’s a lot of Jewish here. It was in the paper. That’s why I’m here.” Of course: Christian-Jewish Bibliodrama, Christian-Jewish working group and Jewish community center.
The reactions of the other people present oscillate between surprise, embarrassment, awkward looking aside, shuffling of feet and amusement. “I was in Berlin three weeks ago,“ Jonas continues. “With my residential group and Klaus and Anne. It was great. I was in the Jewish Museum, too. I liked it a lot.” “And what else did you see?” I ask. “The Reichstag. The dome was huge. We walked all around there. A politician talked with us.” “And what impressed you most?” I continue. “The Holocaust Memorial.” The word is difficult for him to say, and some people wince as they hear how he pronounces it. “And what exactly,” I dug deeper. “The dark stones. Big ones and little ones. I went in. The sun was shining. But everything was so sad, really sad.” I say, “Our story this evening also begins with something really sad. Now I’ll welcome the other people, and then we’ll all begin together.”
About 25 people are scattered across the room. “Good evening. My name is Iris Weiss, and this evening, I would like to discover an almost unknown figure from the Bible with you: Zipporah. Since we will be doing so together and I won’t be giving a lecture, I would like for us to sit down in a circle at the back of the room. Jonas looks a bit unsettled. I take him along to the back of the room. The circle turns out as an oval. Jonas is seated on my left. The distance to the next chair is three meters, and then everyone is sitting unusually close to one another. I explain how a Bibliodrama works, that I will also use texts from the Midrash with which the audience will be unfamiliar, that everyone is invited to participate, and that nothing anyone says can be wrong.
I tell the story of Moses’s birth, his flight to Midian, arrive at the well of Midian and ask Moses what’s on his mind and in his heart.
-I’m tired and weary. Finally, a well where I can rest.
– What’s my residence status here? If local people turn up here, do I have to be careful, or will they be friendly to me?
– If Pharao has put a price on my head and bounty hunters come here, will extradition proceedings be initiated?
– Water at last – at last, something to drink.
– I haven’t spoken with a soul for days.
– I feel so uprooted. Egypt is far away, I’ve left it behind me. And now?
I tell the story of Zipporah and her sisters who come to the well every day to water the animals, but are always pushed aside by the shepherds. Moses is sitting beside the well and sees this happen. “Moses, what do you think of that?”
-“Nasty. That’s really nasty. They mustn’t do that.” Jonas joins the conversation for the first time.
– I think it’s unbearable.
– I’m in a difficult situation. What will happen to me if I intervene. I need helpers in this country … other voices believe.
The Bibliodrama is going well. And now I could introduce a Midrash. Will it mean anything to Jonas? Should I or shouldn’t I? I decide I should and tell the story of Jethro. “The Midrash recounts: When Jethro agrees to his daughter Zipporah’s marriage to Moses, he does so under one condition. Half of Moses and Zipporah’s children would have to be raised as Midianites, the other half following Moses’s tradition. You are Moses. Moses, how would it work if the children in one family are to be raised in very different ways, one group very differently from the other?”
“Ah well, it’s not as bad as it looks,” says Jonas, with a dismissive gesture.
– By the time it happens, maybe my father-in-law will have forgotten all about it.
– Who knows what the situation will be like then.
– Then, in my situation, I suppose I’ll have to agree to it.
– Strange ideas he seems to have, and: how does he think it might work? other people comment.
Gershom (a sojourner there) and Eliezer (my G-d is my helper) come into play, too. After a few more roles, when almost an hour has passed, I want to conclude the Bibliodrama, begin de-roling and then read the text aloud once again. Then, I hear a voice next to me, “Can’t I be the midrash? Midrash is such a nice name.” “Yes, sure, you can be the midrash,” I respond and think, oh no, now the Bibliodrama is going to run off the rails. But since I’m almost finished by now, I hope it won’t get too bad. And while I frantically try to think, seeking an approach for how to continue, it all suddenly dawns on me: He thinks that “midrash” is a person – and he wants to be that person now, however he might imagine him or her to be. This evening, he heard a lot of names that presumably were new to him: Zipporah, Jethro, Midian, Gershom, Eliezer. Time and again during the Bibliodrama, I referred to material from traditional and modern midrashic sources, introducing it with the words: “… and the midrash recounts.” And just as Klaus or Anne recount something in his residential group, this evening, it’s “Midrash” recounting a story.
He looks at me intensely and full of expectation. “Now you’re the midrash. Every name has a meaning. Just as Zipporah means bird, or Jonas …”. “Jonas means dove,” he says, like a shot. “Yes, exactly. And Midrash is the discoverer, the researcher, who looks at things very closely and is always seeking anew. You can seek in books. And you can also seek in your heart.” He listens attentively and nods. “Close your eyes, Midrash,” I encourage him, “and look in your heart. When you think about the story of Moses, Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer, what would you like to tell them, Midrash?” He is silent for a moment. Everyone else is still, too. In moments like these, it’s a kind of breathless silence. And Midrash says in a clear voice, with solemn earnestness, “I wish the family all the best. It doesn’t matter what they might experience. They should always know that someone is protecting them.” Thank you, Midrash.
Afterwards, we spoke about the Bibliodrama. I answered questions. Individual participants approached me and asked this or that question. When I wanted to say good-bye to Jonas and looked around for him, he was gone – just as suddenly as he had arrived.
Iris Weiss lives in Berlin and is a trainer in Netzwerk Bibliolog. (European Bibliodrama Network).