The Bible Players, also known as Andrew Davies and Aaron Friedman, love Jewish teachings for their rich stories, interpretations and values. They also love comedy and understand its effectiveness as a method of engagement, and they bring that surprising combination to their performances.
“It all started on a rainy day,” when they worked at Camp Ramah, recalled Friedman, 32, stand-up comedian and artistic director. The camp director asked Friedman and Davies to quickly devise an activity that could entertain 200 campers indoors and keep attention away from the gray weather.
“We wracked our brains, wrote scenes, came up with some Jewish [improvisational] games, and that started the whole ball rolling,” said Friedman. The campers had a great time, and the Jewish comedy duo received repeat requests for material, so they knew they were on to something.
Officially begun in 2011, the Bible Players now tour about twice a week to different synagogues, Jewish day schools and organizations around the country representing all Jewish denominations and even at some churches.
“The goal of the show is to use theater and improv to live out the Jewish values,” explained Davis, 30, artistic director and trained in improvisational comedy. “We want to make everyone laugh, have a good time, and we love the stories and values that we grew up with, so if we can make people laugh and learn about those values at the same time — that’s the idea.”
Davies and Friedman grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and met at Akiva Academy, now known as Barrack Hebrew Academy, while in a production of “The Music Man,” and have been friends and collaborators ever since. Now they live in New York City and work hard to keep their performances fresh, often using pop culture references, and they cleverly infuse ancient Jewish stories with modern-day relevance.
“There’s an amalgam of thousands of years of Jewish learning” to draw from, said Friedman, who marvels at how his double major in creative writing and Jewish philosophy is
relevant to his “real job.”
The Bible Players’ shows might include a Jewish tale sung in rap style, musical “Mitzvah Moments,” dancing, singing and always lots of hands-on participation, which they consider key for the enjoyment of the audience, but also to allow the Jewish content and values to take root. Most of the audience participation comes through improvisational games.
Davies said that mastering improvisation, which he’s practiced for over a decade, transformed many aspects of his personal life and saw that it worked to teach Torah stories and values as well.
“You have to be a great listener,” said Davies. In improv “you need to hear what someone is saying and add on to it. … You have to say, ‘Yes, and …’ but a lot of time [in life] we spend saying, ‘No, no thanks, I’m not interested.’
“But improv forces you to say yes, jump in and build stories,” he continued. “It’s a community, and you have to work together with others” to make it happen.
Rabbi Stuart Seltzer, director of congregational education at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, has invited the Bible Players to perform multiple times, including a performance for a family Shabbat weekend Nov. 15.
“They provide a methodology that integrates the arts and Torah study to reach students on their level, in a different way,” said Seltzer. “The language of biblical text is difficult, so they unpack it in a way the kids can understand.”
A interactive story the pair share with audiences is called “Kindness at the Well” in which they combine three biblical stories that start at a well — Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Moses and Tsipora — who all meet and become partners because of acts of kindness performed at a well. It creates lots of fun and physical comedy for the audience, said Davies, and the message is “even though [today] we don’t meet people at a well, we still form relationships through those acts of kindness.”
“Luckily, Andrew and I are both very immature for our age,” said Friedman laughing, in reference to the constantly updated pop-culture references in their material. “We do keep aware of what kids are watching, write parody songs of what songs are popular. … It’s how you stay relevant.”
Davies and Friedman hear comments such as, “These guys make Torah cool,” and “I hated coming to Hebrew school but my kids love coming to your shows.” On return engagements, in anticipation of their arrival they’ve been met by groups of kids delivering their latest Bible story learned with rap, emulating the Bible Players’ methods. In addition to Chizuk Amuno, they’ve performed at Johns Hopkins Hillel and Temple Beth Ami Hebrew School in Rockville.
Seltzer said he likens the Bible Players’ performances as another lens through which kids can experience Jewish holidays, texts and values. He added that through the arts, students can ask themselves deep questions and find their own interpretations.
“I think [what we do is] important because I really want to make Jewish kids proud of our culture and our heritage and the stories we’ve inherited and have been passed down for so many generations,” said Davies. “I love passing down that tradition.”