LABA: My Favorite Word of This Strange Year

Like you, in the past year I’ve found myself repeating all sorts of strange words: quarantine, coronavirus, contact tracing. Another word has also entered my vocabulary: LABA. I’m still not quite sure what it stands for, but I know what it brings to mind: the warm, eccentric, and fermented community I’ve been grateful to be part of through the pandemic.

The premise of LABA is that traditional Jewish texts can serve as creative muses. In practice, this means a group of writers, dancers, filmmakers, actors, librettists, painters, and puppeteers gathered around a table heavy with whisky and light on formality, discussing how stories of the Torah and Talmud relate to our own work and lives. LABA is not a place to come with polished work and seek applause: our conversations were often personal, pointed, and provocative, in the best way. Our text studies never shied away from the difficult questions.

One particularly poignant session for me focused on the story of Joseph. Of course, Joseph is usually portrayed as a victim-turned-hero, the favored youngest son sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, who saves Egypt from famine after gaining the Pharaoh’s trust. But as we read Joseph’s story one night around the LABA table, pausing after each line for discussion led by our inimitable teacher, Ruby Namdar, a different Joseph emerged from the text. As a child, Joseph taunts his older brothers by reporting dreams in which he rules over them. As a young man, he drives Potiphar’s wife into insanity by evoking sexual desire he does not intend to satisfy. As Pharoah’s aid, Joseph uses the famine crisis to seize and collectivize farmland. As we read these passages, a different Joseph emerged: one with an uncanny skill in ruling over other people. Are these the post-traumatic antics of a tormented youngest child? Or was Joseph’s instinct to rule over others the very reason his brothers rid themselves of him? How does one of the best-known stories of Genesis so elegantly evade interpretation, offering up Joseph as simultaneous victim, sycophant, savior, and tyrant?

None of us sitting around the table saw the story the same way. This is one of the privileges of LABA: encountering Jewish narrative through so many different eyes. Through our text study, and the other Fellows’ end-of-year LABAlive Presentations at the 14th Street Y Theater, we were each able to see how the wide range of creative perspectives in our cohort related ancient Jewish texts to questions of sexuality, memory, family, and tradition. My only advice to the new incoming LABA Fellows is to arrive ready to learn from the diversity of the other Fellows and the dexterity of the texts. And: to have fun.

— LABA Artist Sam Sussman (CHOSE-N, 2021)