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Animating the Talmud

Studio G-dcast videos bring together animators and storytellers to put a modern spin on ancient Jewish texts

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Scene from Talmud Tales: The Rise of Yavneh (Courtesy Studio G-dcast)
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Rabbi Eliezer, in his purple robe and flowing gray beard, curls his fists in concentration as he miraculously reverses the direction of a river’s flowing, cerulean water. A paper-cut Moses looks on in surprise as Rabbi Akiva teaches his many students, all colored in yellows and pastels. Rabban Gamliel, sporting a bow tie and monocle, shakes his jowls and wields his gavel as he publicly shames a thin and meek Rabbi Yehoshua.

The Talmud has never looked so good.

Last August, a group of young Jewish artists gathered at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum to write, record, and animate the short films from which these scenes are taken. Over the course of one intensive week, the participating animators and storytellers, many of whom were encountering the Talmud for the first time, brought to life six of the Babylonian Talmud’s best-known tales. Organized by G-dcast, the Jewish nonprofit production company best known for its animations of the Bible, this new initiative, called Studio G-dcast, is out to change the way American Jews approach the Talmud.

Sarah Lefton, G-dcast’s producer and executive director, sees the studio as an experiment in using the tools of animation and filmmaking to teach Jewish texts. “For today’s media-drenched kids, there’s value in trying out this kind of learning as well,” said Lefton. Rendering on screen the Talmud’s sparse and convoluted narratives necessitates close reading—filling in details and interpreting ambiguous passages. “When you’re drawing, you have to get down and dirty with the material,” Lefton added. “It forces you to figure the text out.”

Though the studio is a natural outgrowth of G-dcast’s work animating the Bible, its roots go back further. In 2005, Lefton and writer Matthue Roth, now G-dcast’s editorial director, met in San Francisco. Excited by the then just beginning daf yomi Talmud study cycle, the two decided to produce a daily podcast of each page, to be called Daf Jam. When Lefton presented the idea to Zvi Septimus, a Talmud scholar now teaching at the University of Toronto, he was skeptical. “You haven’t done enough learning even to think about this project,” Lefton recalled him saying. “He said: ‘Try out the idea using the Torah. Keep learning and come back in a few years.’ That’s exactly what we did.”

Seven years later—just as the daf yomi study cycle concluded—and with a two-year grant from the Covenant Foundation in hand, Lefton and Studio G-dcast educators Roth, Septimus, Girls in Trouble musician Alicia Jo Rabins, and animator Jeanne Stern chose the six stories that would be the focus of the first, pilot studio. In addition to being among the Talmud’s best-known narratives, all address the theme of “tradition versus innovation,” one of the central concerns of rabbinic literature.

Twelve animators and storytellers, a religiously and artistically diverse group selected from some 60 applicants, arrived for a grueling week in San Francisco. (Applications for the 2013 session are available now.) After receiving a crash course lecture in Talmud the first day, the participants were divided into six pairs—a nod to the traditional hevruta method of partner learning—and assigned their texts. The remaining long days and nights were devoted to producing the films. “The deadline was super intense,” said participant Judith Prays, an Atlanta-based artist and filmmaker. “The first day you get your partner and your text, and you basically have three days to write, record, and animate.”

The difficulty of fitting the digressive and convoluted Talmudic stories into 4-minute films was also a source of tension. Some groups did not want to use the entire story given to them, instead preferring to focus on one particular episode, while others wanted to cap the stories with a definite ending or lesson. Sepitmus, however, was adamant that the films had to be, first and foremost, accurate reflections of the Talmud’s narratives. “I explained to them that their job is not to say what the story means,” he said. “Their job is to reproduce the rich ambiguities of the original.”

“It was difficult to condense such a long story,” said Sam Grinberg, a student at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, whose film “Talmud Tales” uses a comedic, cartoon style to animate the story of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. “We had to sacrifice some material that we thought would be funny, but in the end we had to make it funny and work at the same time. I’m glad I was pushed as much as I was.”

The best films find a balance between faithfulness to the original and creative adaptation. Prays and Samuel Hayes, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, told the story of the intimate friendship of two Talmudic greats, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. Called “Lonely at the Top: A Bromance,” the film uses simple but moving animation to depict the rabbis’ friendship from their first encounter bathing in a river to the tragic falling out that leads to their deaths. While the Talmud’s version uses an anonymous third-person narrator, the film takes the innovative perspective of the only female character, Reish Lakish’s wife and Yohanan’s sister, telling the story, in rap, to her young son.

Just as impressive is the G-dcast take on the story of the deposition of Rabban Gamliel by members of the rabbinic academy. Animated by Aron Bothman, a student at CalArts Character Animation Program, and MJ Kaufman, a playwright studying at the Yale School of Drama, “Clash of the Scholars”—the last of the six films, which appeared online last week—retells the story as an academic power struggle among university faculty. Using a dark color palette and hand-drawn animation, the film successfully reinterprets the Talmud’s version while retaining the nuances of the original.

“There’s so much space in these stories for interpretation,” Septimus said. “The interpretation can be in characters’ voices, intonation, or visual symbolism. This is the same opportunity you have when you’re reading the Talmud. You can’t change the words, but you can read them any way you want.”

The films are accompanied by a curriculum aimed at high-school-age students that uses the animations as an entry point to explore the Talmud’s narratives in depth.

Shai Secunda, a Talmudist at the Hebrew University and editor of the Talmud Blog, cautioned that the films can give a misleading picture of this central Jewish text. “The vast majority of the Talmud is intricate legal and theological discussions,” Secunda said. “These films are telling the sexiest, most modern and postmodern stories we have, but it’s not what most of the Talmud is.” Watching the films, however, Secunda added, “But it might be useful for bringing people into the Talmud.”

For Prays, Studio G-dcast was not only an introduction to the Talmud but also an opening to new artistic horizons. “There’s a whole Jewish art world that needs Jewish artists,” she said. “That’s my big take-away from this whole experience: The Jewish art world is alive and needs energy put in that direction.”

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Animating the Talmud

Studio G-dcast videos bring together animators and storytellers to put a modern spin on ancient Jewish texts

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