HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Sound, Camera, Web! Animating the Parsha

by Interview with Sarah Lefton, Founder of "G-dcast" Issue: iSchool

Tell us about your background—how did you go from “nice Jewish girl” to “producer/director of ‘G-dcast’”?

Well, I went to NYU to study film and interactive media. That led me to work in the advertising world for six years, creating web sites and videos for entertainment brands and celebrities. I didn’t love what I was doing all the time, but I learned a ton. Later, I took my marketing skills and went to work as the Outreach Director for Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp just outside Yosemite National Park. Although I was very involved in the community already—belonging to a synagogue, going to a lot of events, volunteering—working as a “professional Jew” really opened my eyes to a lot of ways in which my professional skills could make the Jewish world a better place.

Describe how you came up with the idea for “G-dcast.”

As someone who didn’t grow up with much of a Jewish education, who has learned a lot about Jewish practice as an adult, sometimes stories from the Torah and midrash and everyday minhag strike me as wildly foreign, or funny, or strange. It is precisely this point of view—feeling like a stranger sometimes to the tradition—that helps me to make work for people who didn’t grow up with a strong Jewish education.

I love learning from all kinds of sources—teachers, books and definitely from friends with wild stories. I heard a story once about a man about to go into surgery pondering what the best thing would be to do about his amputated limb. It went sort of like this:

My uncle was in the hospital for a diabetes-related leg amputation. As he was prepped for surgery, a nurse asked, “What shall we do with the limb?”

What?! he cried. What should I do?! Play softball with it? Compost it in my garden? Build a coffee table out of it?

The nurse explained that she knew my uncle was Jewish, and that sometimes, Jews want their limbs preserved to be buried with the rest of the body when the time comes….so that when the messiah comes, the body can be resurrected fully intact.

When I heard this story, first I thought, “What?!” And then, I immediately thought, “I have to make an animated film about this.” It just sounded like a cartoon to me! I did some research about amputation and the body in Jewish tradition and learned a lot from classical sources as well as some modern responsa. I realized that my funny animated film could be a film that you could actually learn something from, sort of an animated documentary about halacha, rabbinics and minhag. This became increasingly exciting to me as an avid documentary-goer and ravenously interested Jewish learner.

One thing led to another, and the “G-dcast” project was born. I recruited an animator, and together, we realized that teaching Jewish ideas through funny little films was a solid idea on a number of levels—as education and as entertainment; we decided to start with stories from the Torah. We’d still like to make films like the one about the leg!

What did it take to get the funding and team together to make your dream a reality?

This was the hard part. I love making films. I hate asking people for money.

The team came together easily. I am blessed to know and work with many, many creative people. I collaborated with a talented animator friend and a brilliant writer who I’ve known for many, many years. We had always dreamt of making a project together, and in fact had been brainstorming about doing an online Talmud project when the “G-dcast” idea started to come together.

I ended up personally putting the money out to make a pilot, and we got that done as a sort of proof of concept. I took that episode, Parshat Balak, to conferences, parties, networking events – anywhere that someone influential might see it. Eventually, the right shidduch was made to the right wonderful funder who believed in the concept, added her wisdom to our ideas and sent us on our way to make our first season. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time developing a professional, forward-looking business plan, writing follow-on grants and learning from my more established peers in the social entrepreneurship world.

How does an “episode” get made? How many people work on it? How expensive and complicated is the technology behind it?

Our first “season” is a full cycle of Parshat Hashavua cartoons, and they all worked according to the same process.

First, we identified a guest writer/narrator who we thought would do an amazing job telling the story. For instance, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner was a wonderful choice for Bereshit; because he’s a mystic and a master teacher, he was able to give a beautiful explanation of the elusive story of Creation that delights people young and old. Using the same logic, we selected a furniture designer to talk about the design of the mishkan in Parshat Terumah, and an artist to sing an episode about the design of the objects inside it. We try to make magical matches whenever we can.

The contributors write a short dvar Torah, with the guidance of our editor Matthue Roth, and then we record them in a professional studio. We take their audio track, and start animating according to their words. We start with a moving storyboard, called an animatic, and fill in the details as we go along. The four people on the animation team work a lot with me on creative ways to interpret the transcripts. Finally, we create a companion curriculum guide for teachers, encode the whole thing into a web-friendly format and post it online each Sunday night!

Do you have a favorite episode?

Oh, definitely Parshat Shemini. This is a musical episode, written and performed by Dan Saks of the indie Sephardic rock band DeLeon. It starts out with the terrible deaths of Nadav and Avihu, but ends up with a rollicking romp through the laws of kashrut. You cannot help but get it stuck in your head, and the animation is so much fun too!

Is there someone you especially wish would narrate a parsha for “G-dcast”?

The most common requests we get from the audience are always for famous Jews in entertainment. People write in asking for dvar Torahs from Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman and Adam Sandler all the time! I would love to have Matisyahu write a song for us, and I’m really dreaming of working with Natalie Portman, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), and Daniel Jacob Radcliffe, who plays Harry Potter.

But in the non-entertainment world, we have a lot of people we’d like to work with too! I think it would be incredible to work with people who don’t get a lot of recognition on a daily basis in the community—the people who grow our food, who advocate for the poor. I’d like to record some much older people, and I’m also curious about the idea of working with some very young writers. Finally, we would like to include more international voices—particularly from Europe and South America.

How many people watch each episode?

It varies hugely from week to week. Some of our contributing narrators have a lot of fans out there, and so naturally, their stuff gets a lot more views than other people’s. We had a few hundred thousand people tune in this year, which is pretty exciting considering we did zero advertising.

But it’s hard to say how many people are watching each episode. I could count “hits” out to you, but they don’t mean a lot because so many people watch our videos in embedded browsers via YouTube, or on Facebook…and also we know that a lot of “hits” aren’t one person watching a short, but could represent teachers showing the episodes to a classroom of 20 students.

What kinds of reactions have you received? Tell us about some of the more interesting feedback.

People love the site. It operates for some of them like a Cliff’s Notes to the parsha. Watching the video makes it easier for them to read the original text. For other people, it’s a fun and relaxing way to end the week. They already know a lot about the Torah portion, maybe, but we offer them a nice new spin on it that they hadn’t thought of before, and an introduction to an interesting new voice in the Jewish world that perhaps they hadn’t heard from before. Still other people use it as a tool in a classroom setting, or as a way to get their own kids excited about Shabbat. I know parents of kids as young as three who have found some of the episodes entertaining for their kids!

The most surprising feedback I’ve gotten, honestly, has been from the non-Jews who watch the episodes. I have heard repeatedly from Christians that “Jews have so much to teach us about the Old Testament,” and that this website is an amazing resource for them. I have also heard from prospective converts that it is a great way for them to sink their teeth into the Torah for the first time, and to hear from many different types of Jews.

My personal favorite piece of feedback came from an anonymous Hasidic Jewish viewer, who wrote in to tell me that although this content is considered “totally forbidden” in his community, he tunes in every week. He wished us kol hakavod on a great job. I was beside myself when I received this email, because we have worked so hard to be a website that is inclusive, and speaks to all different types of Jews—from different places in the world, on the observance spectrum, and of different backgrounds.

Now that “G-dcast” is into Season 2, what are your plans for it moving forward?

Our big audacious goal is to animate the entire Tanakh in five years. We finished the Torah last season, and we are working now on putting together Nevi’im (Prophets). It’s hard to know what to do first, because we hear from so many parents and teachers about their priorities—how great it would be for them to have a film about the Book of Ruth, for instance.

Right now, we’re preparing for the Prophets films by looking at the texts again, and thinking through how to best accomplish the storytelling, which is rich and complex and very visual. We have a lot to do—write, cast, animate and produce these new episodes—so the new episodes probably won’t go live before the early Fall. In the interim, we are producing a few holiday specials. For instance we just posted a Chanukah episode that we’re extremely proud of, and we hope to have something ready for Pesach and Shavuot, a holiday with which many Jews don’t have a strong relationship.

We have some outrageously huge plans for the long-term future. Let’s just say there’s plenty in the tradition to keep us busy for years to come.

What advice do you have for schools as they integrate technology with Jewish study and creativity?

I want to quote my beloved mentor Red Burns, who chairs the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU where I learned everything I ever needed to know about new media in her words, on one foot:

“Technology does not tell stories. Great authors tell stories."

If you find yourself using technology in your classroom just to use the technology, I think you’re wasting your time. All the SMART Boards in the world are useless if there’s nothing worth watching on them.

Will the Internet magically transform Jewish education for the better, or be just another channel through which some kids learn and other kids slide through the cracks, bored and disconnected? I think that it’s up to teachers, and how they use the materials available to them. There certainly is more out there than ever before, thanks to the wired world and all the people posting things out there to share with each other. But can we sort through it?

If you find great stories and teaching materials, whether they be on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube,
G-dcast.com, or elsewhere, then that’s worth stumbling through the wires and the connections and the disk drives and such. I would just urge teachers to keep focusing on their educational goals and the outcomes they’d like to see for their students. If our cartoons help you spark a conversation, then great! If they don’t, then stick to what does…be that chevruta study, DVD clips or field trips. There’s probably a place for all of it in your curriculum. Jewish learning and connections are about people and stories and digging deeper into them as learning partners, year after year.

The technology is just another tool we can use to do that work. Don’t get too hung up on it.

Sarah Lefton is the executive director and producer of “G-dcast,” an animated Jewish series on the web at www.g-dcast.com. She can be reached at sarahlefton@gmail.com.

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iSchool

Schools need strategic leadership to select from the onslaught of new technological offerings and to keep the rudder always pointed toward effective education. This issue provides both perspectives that can inform leadership strategy and information about some of the directions and initiatives employing current technology to strengthen education.

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