Mud and Mashiach

On Thursday, March 22nd, LABALive One will present an evening of subversive art and teachings on this year’s theme, WAR & PEACE. The evening will feature LABA teacher Liel Leibovitz and works-in-progress by LABA Fellows Tal BeeryJess Honovich and Brandon Woolf

Woolf is a theater maker and a scholar of contemporary performance. Here he ruminates on the relationship between a cup of joe and the messianic idea in Judaism.

M: Can we meet up somewhere near the E or 7 trains?
B:  Sure. How about the “coffee roasters” on Jackson?
M: Perfect see you there.
B:  Great!
M: Will be a bit late.
B:  ETA?

I have been thinking a lot about the coffee break. The coffee break as that coveted moment of quiet during an otherwise hectic day. The coffee break as the necessary fuel to keep things moving. The coffee break as a way of killing time before your next appointment. The coffee break as prime procrastination technique. The coffee break as a place of possibility and creation. The coffee break as social space, collective space. The coffee break as a desperate caesura or interruption of the endless flow.

Can we think of life as a series of important events and encounters connected by our much-needed caffeine infusions? Or might we think of life in reverse: as a stream of coffee respites strung together by the other stuff that we do in between? Is the coffee break, in other words, the thing we must do in order to maintain, amidst all that other thinking, working, worrying, scheming (which inevitably infiltrate and inform the break as well)? Or is it the thing itself, the main event, an empty vessel of potentiality? Is it active or passive? Or both? Are we desperately awaiting our next one? Or is the break itself a space of infinite possibility, of calm, collected waiting for whatever will unfold next?

I used to live in Berlin. For non-Berliners who move to Berlin, Berlin itself feels like the ultimate coffee break — at first at least. In Berlin, I also got into the Talmud. For a few years, on Tuesday evenings, I would attend Elad Lapidot’s wonderfully idiosyncratic Talmud study group. Each semester, Elad would select a series of Talmudic texts in order to interrogate a particular theme. My first semester with the group, we focused on five pages in the Talmud that deal with the philosophical-cum-political problem of Jewish messianism. Who or what are we waiting for? What should we do while we wait? Indeed, how must we wait? Is repentance — or even activist intervention — necessary for redemption? Just what must transpire and how far must the geo-political situation degenerate before the coming — or is it the end? Do we even want to be there when it — whatever “it” means — comes?

Rather than mere apocalypse, which I surmise most of us would hope to avoid, the Talmud’s exploration of Jewish messianism contains elements of both dread and solace. Terror and hope are “intertwined” in some complex, irresistible (and neurotic?) mixture to be analyzed, addressed, embodied in the act, process, and public space of waiting. Coming to understand, or perhaps to embrace and therefore to perform, just what this unique form of waiting entails is the task, the challenge, the dare the Talmud poses to us in Tractate Sanhedrin.

Much like the coffee break — or Pause in German — is waiting something we fill with endless activity, or is it indeed a moment of acceptance, of knowing, of pausing? My performance at LABAlive I dares, perhaps quite quixotically, to dip its toes into this muddy terrain. With its movement chorus of dog-faced baristas, Brecht-Weil-esque song-and-dance, Band-Aids, and ensemble of machines performing caffeinated Talmudic exegesis, we meditate together on the existential possibilities and challenges of waiting.