By Marissa Maier
On Friday evening, Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, the oldest synagogue on Long Island, was bathed in a soft glow. Standing on stage behind a beautifully latticed white mantle, actor/religious scholar/yogi Marcus Freed led the members of the congregation in an a capella version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Above: Yogi/actor/religious scholar Marcus Freed shows off his stuff at Temple Adas Israel.
Freed waved his hands in a come hither motion and the cozy room hummed with the sound of 50 voices singing the chorus. “Hallelujah, Hallelujah,” they chimed. It was only the start of the weekend celebrating Rabbi Leon Morris’ permanent and year-round appointment at the Temple — though he has served the congregation for the last 10 years — but it was already off to a magical start.
“This was a weekend celebration of Jewish life and learning to mark this transition of our synagogue. It is about having a resident rabbi, and a full service year-round synagogue,” Rabbi Morris remarked, of the historic 120-year-old temple. “I wanted to usher in this exciting future for us.”
“A Weekend of Jewish Life and Learning at Temple Adas Israel” kicked off on Friday with Freed’s one man show, “Performance of Solomon: King, poet and lover,” a creative imagining of the historical figure’s life and relationship to his 700 wives. The following morning Freed treated an audience to “When Spielberg met Moses: A dramatic exploration of the Parsha,” and later the same day he revealed “The Secret to a Jewish Future: Food for thought” in which he examined stories and presented interactive texts. On Sunday morning, Freed highlighted his unique blend of Judaism and yogic studies with “Bibliyoga” which combines yoga with portions of the Torah.
The weekend of learning which focused on Jewish identity, said Rabbi Morris, culminated in a keynote talk with eminent intellectual Rabbi David Ellenson. Ellenson, the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where Rabbi Morris once studied and worked, spoke on “Israel and the Diaspora: The Quest for a Modern Definition of Jewish Peoplehood.”
“A mix is what we want the synagogue to be,” explained Rabbi Morris of last weekend’s roster. “There was a cultural component. There was a playful component. I think in a lot of ways it modeled what a well-rounded synagogue should offer. It is emblematic of my own vision of the congregation reaching people in different ways.”
Freed most certainly offered the entertainment of the weekend, although he also provided some thought provoking moments in his work. His performance on Friday, “Solomon,” which is just one of four works Freed has crafted on Biblical characters, was sprinkled with comedy and humorous cultural references. From Shakespeare to Guns & Roses lyrics to Austin Powers tag line “Yeah, baby,” Freed performed his robust interpretation of Solomon’s life, complete with a back flip on a 10-foot wide stage and various yogic feats.
“This isn’t the Torah you studied in Sunday school,” remarked active congregation member Barbara Freedman. She has seen the same show many times before, but noted on Friday that she was inspired to take a second look at the ancient texts that depict Solomon’s exploits in building the first temple and catering to his 700 wives and 300 concubines.
“No one in the Hebrew Bible is someone you want your kids to grow up to be like,” joked Rabbi Morris, of the Bible’s more scandalous figures, though this Biblical fodder appears to become the meat of a great story.
“The Biblical stories provide the best vehicle for answering the questions about life: Solomon about relationships, David about ambition, Saul about happiness and Elijah about fervor,” explained Freed. “They provide the framework.”
On Sunday, Freed highlighted the physical aspect of his particular blend of faith, theatrics and yoga with a “Bibliyoga” class on Sunday. Rabbi Morris was among many who twisted like a pretzel while Freed shared his kosher sutras.
“He has developed this way of bringing Jewish ideas and teaching into the practice of yoga,” said Rabbi Morris. “People chant shalom instead of om.”
The more cerebral portion of the weekend was later on Sunday evening. The focus of Rabbi Ellenson’s talk was how Jewish identity plays out in diaspora in Israel. Given recent events in Israel, noted Rabbi Morris, Rabbi Ellenson’s subject couldn’t have been more topical. Rabbi Morris explained that a bill recently made the rounds in Jewish Parliament which, boiled down to its simplest premise, examines who has the authority to convert people to Judaism. The bill has seemingly pitted orthodox Jews, who were pushing the legislation, against “everyone else in the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Morris. Ellenson’s talk included references to contemporary texts relating to his subject matter and a question and answer session.
Rabbi Morris called the weekend a rediscovery of the tradition of the synagogue, which should be a house of assembly, study and prayer.
“There are a lot of ways to be a good Jew,” Rabbi Morris noted. “I want people to be able to find a place for themselves inside the synagogue.”