Canadian dispatches from Israel at wartime: Lauren Stein explains how her improv classes became a balm for war-weary souls

The CJN is publishing dispatches from Canadians currently in Israel. Submissions can be sent for consideration to Lila Sarick at [email protected].

Two days after the massacre on Oct. 7, my regular Monday night class was scheduled to resume after the break for the holidays. I didn’t know whether it would be in bad taste to continue. Do people even want improv at a time like this?

“Please run your Monday night class,” one of my students begged me. “I need it!”

So I put it out to my group. I posted in our chat: “Tomorrow night I will offer our class as usual, as a chance to have fun, release stress, and be together. There may be issues with busses or roads, I don’t know. Please let me know whether you are interested in joining or not.”

I got answers like: “I’m a bit unsure about coming. It depends on the situation tomorrow,” and “I just saw my son off to Gaza. Not sure how I feel about improv tomorrow.” Some were out of the country, or in another part of the country. One student was attending a funeral at the time of our class.

Half of our regulars showed up. And they were so grateful they did. Over time, more returned. They said things like, “I didn’t realize that I hadn’t laughed since the war started. And I needed to!” And, “This was an oasis, nourishment for my soul.”

In Jerusalem, I begin my classes with a round of gratitudes. After the war started, this took on a bigger significance. Many of us had been so focused on things that are terrible, some of us had forgotten to notice the good things, or that they even existed. Or we felt guilty for having good moments, or even for being alive when we lost so many souls recently. But being able to remember, in community, that there are wonderful things around us, and that even in tragedy we have things to be grateful for, shifted our perspective.

I often ask if anyone has boundaries for our class. In addition to usual things like, “Please don’t touch me,” one student added, “I have a boundary that no rocket fall within an 18-km radius of our class.”

In class this Monday night, someone requested that there be no murder in any scenes. She qualified, no gruesome murder; something gentle and painless would be okay. Another student added that for him, he requests no murder at all. So when we did scenes where I called out genres, and one that seemed fitting was Murder Mystery, I instead said, “Mystery! As in – everything is a mystery!” They went on to ask questions and collect clues about absolutely anything around them.

Our first class emphasized light-hearted games like Tree Nut Squirrel, 5 Things, and 4 Corners (modified with 5 players.) We did a complete play of La Ronde, exploring the small town of Georgetown, Anywhere, where the occult bookshop is run by a sinister proprietor, the wealthy woman who lives at the opera house goes to the soup kitchen, and one of the town’s only Jewish residents has a moral dilemma when she discovers that the Girl Guide cookies she’s selling as her bat mitzvah project are not kosher.

In subsequent classes, we made up words and their definitions; we made up products and created commercials for them; we invented yoga positions and Sanskrit-gibberish names for them and their English meaning (including one called Bomb Shelter Asana).

We played countless scenes, including one where a boy in a bathtub was asked to get up, and declined, saying, “My rubber ducky has to defeat the army first.” We also did deliberately bad improv, which is easy and hard at the same time, but also very freeing and very fun.

A scene from Lauren Stein’s improv class. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Stein)

After I heard that the soldiers request that every night at 8 p.m. we all say the Shema with them, when our class ends at 8 p.m., I ask everyone to cover their eyes and say the first pasuk (verse) of the Shema. Last night one student pointed out that it’s because of our soldiers that we are able to stand here, safely.

Even though I’m not planning a Shabbaton or retreat as I had before, I have been getting requests for more improv. I’ve now started a Tuesday night class with another community. And I was just informed that the regular improv teacher at a clinic for youth at risk has been called up for duty, but improv is still needed here on the home front.

So the things I learned in my three years of training in expressive arts therapy are true: Art is needed even more when tragedy strikes. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity for mental health and morale. For us to go on, when we need to go on.

The oasis of relief and laughter, the two hours of stepping away from thinking about the situation and creating make-believe worlds where war doesn’t exist, is a balm to the soul.

At our closing circle, two days after the massacre, someone said, “I learned that it’s possible to change my emotions by changing what I focus on, and that I don’t have to feel bad all the time.”

A quote came to me from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge. But the main thing is not to make yourself afraid at all.” As soon as I thought it, a counter-thought struck me: But he hasn’t lived through what we just lived through! And then I realized: Rabbi Nachman lived in Russia at a time when pogroms and the murder of Jews were common. He also suffered from depression, and lost four children, as well as his wife. So it’s not coming from an easy life when he says, “Gevalt! Never give up hope! There is no despair.”

When one of my students said, “I feel guilty for feeling happy,” I pointed out that it is a Hasidic philosophy (and Reb Nachman quote) that “It is a mitzvah (obligation) to be b’simcha (happy).” In addition to all other emotions, which are perfectly valid, it is incumbent upon us to have faith and feel a deep sense of joy.

Lauren Stein teaches improv theatre with Olam Hafooch Improv in Nachlaot, Jerusalem. She writes and speaks at Laurentina.substack.com