Judaism at play
Back to Basics series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
In a study of murderers and drunk driving felons at the infamous Huntsville, Texas prison, Dr. Stuart Brown noted the striking absence of play in every one of their life stories.
Intrigued, Brown created the National Institute for Play to fund scientific research on the power of play. After years of study, researchers have concluded that play is a universal human need, from birth to death, and has the power to radically impact how we think, feel, and act in our everyday lives.
We seem to be hardwired to respond in significant ways to play, even beyond the brain’s mirror neurons that give us the capacity for empathy.
“Play lights up the brain like nothing else,” Brown explains, reflecting on brain imaging studies. Research suggests that play simultaneously activates diverse structures in the brain, fostering the ability to recognize novelty and use it to adapt; increases the willingness to explore; and enhances the ability to create and think outside the box in ways not apparent without play.
Based on her extensive research with bonobos, primatologist Isabel Behncke interprets the significance of play: “Play suspends reality and trains our brains to explore multiple different worlds safely. It is foundational to trust, learning expectations, creating relationships, developing positive emotions, and increasing creativity and resilience.”
She further concludes that in play, we find the evolutionary roots of laughter, dance, and ritual.
Why ritual? Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, describes play as “taking an ordinary place or ordinary time and finding something extraordinary about it,” and creating an activity around it that’s fun and gives a positive experience.
Thus described, play sounds a lot like ritual, or at least ritual done well: from harvest to Thanksgiving, from day of birth to birthday party, from marriage union to wedding.
Both play and ritual transform the real world of objects, roles, and actions into a symbolic one, making cultural ideas concrete. Familiar examples are capture the flag or flag football, battlefield games that re-enact real-life war strategies.
Baseball is another example. Social commentator Jacques Barzun suggests that baseball “once expressed the unification of America, the teamwork involved.” Everyone working cooperatively and efficiently in business and industry “was like the making of a double play…”
Of course, play and ritual aren’t limited to the secular world. A Passover Seder transforms a family dinner into a celebration of history. A blessing transforms ordinary wine into a symbol of joy and gratitude. A mezuzah transforms an ordinary doorway into a touchstone of Jewish identity.
Furthermore, the significance of ritual is identical to that of play — try substituting “ritual” for “play” in Behncke’s earlier description.
Some Jewish rituals are obviously playful, while others are more intellectually or spiritually playful. But from the Bible onward, Judaism has always been at play. Here’s an “abecedary” sampling.
Acrostics, playful compositions that abound in Psalms and prayers, are fun to compose and fun to read. Adon Olam has more tunes than any other Jewish song — play during prayer.
Bedikat chametz is the tradition of a nighttime treasure hunt through the house for stray bits of leaven just prior to Passover. Brakhot (blessings) are a Jewish version of I Spy: after all, their purpose is to get us to see something extraordinary about the everyday.
Challah-making is like edible string games. The garb of the kohanim, the Temple priests in the Bible is echoed today in dressing up the Torah.
Dreidels are spinning tops used to tell the Chanukah story. Elijah is a folklore superhero. Israeli folk dancing appears at every celebration and even during prayer. Gematria involves playing with Hebrew letters and numbers like code to discover hidden messages.
The Chanukiyah, the Chanukah menorah, legitimizes “playing with fire” as part of a historical dramatization of the Maccabees. Havdalah involves sensorial play, star gazing, and playing with fire.
Hebrew inspires play by its very structure of root letters and numerical equivalents. Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, includes nature identification and sorting activities.
Midrash is imaginative biblical storytelling. Pilpul is masterful textual play through analysis or debate.
The holiday of Purim is about dress-up and role-playing, storytelling, parades, and carnivals. Rosh Hashanah involves wind instruments and food play. The Seder weaves interactive storytelling with food play, singing, and an afikoman treasure-hunt.
Simchat Torah includes parades and flag-waving. Sukkot is about fort-building, camping, and more parades. Tu B’shevat, from seeds to trees, is a gardener’s delight. Tzedakah becomes I Spy for needy recipients and lost coins to donate.
Too often as adults we view Judaism as unapproachable, a demanding intellectual and spiritual enterprise tolerable only in small doses, if at all.
But what if we were to see Judaism as it was designed, as a smorgasbord of play-filled activities for engaging with the world, the Divine, big ideas, and other people?
What if we could see these play-filled activities as preparation for exploration and adaptation, as tools for enhancing our emotions, creativity, and resilience?
What if we could see that the answer to Jewish survival is actually found in its play-filled design? What if we were able to see Judaism at play?
Literature to share
3 Falafels in My Pita: A Counting Book of Israel by Maya Friedman. With its bright, cartoon-like images of Israeli places and culture, this simple one-to-10 counting book is sure to delight the preschooler or kindergarten child. Have on hand a snorkel mask or perhaps even a batch of falafel, and this board book is a perfect way to introduce Israel to the young child.
The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro. Hidden images. A disappearing aunt. A visit from the First Lady. Shapiro’s novel, populated by historical and fictional characters, drops readers right into the middle of a mystery and surprisingly, politics from its first pages. I loved Shapiro’s earlier book, The Art Forger, and this second novel is equally engaging. Perfect for those who love art, historical fiction, and simply a wonderful read.