Shadow Puppetry: Entertaining while Educating

Original Article Published On The Jewish Ledger

According to a 1,000-year-old Chinese legend, a great emperor was feeling lonely and sad, as his wife had gone on a journey and hadn’t yet returned. He summoned his court magician to locate her and bring her home. The magician, knowing this request was nearly impossible, thought quickly. He found a piece of leather, a knife, a light source and a screen; on-the-spot, he created a shadow puppet show about a wife returning from a journey. The emperor was happy, or at least temporarily distracted and entertained, and the art of shadow puppetry

was born. Shadow puppeteers from China to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, New York City and New Haven have been entertaining audiences ever since.

One of these Shadow puppeteers is Daniel Barash of New Haven, the founder of The Shadow Puppet Workshop; their website can be viewed here:

Through his organization, Barash works with children ranging from pre-kindergarten to 5th grade, conducting one-session puppeteering workshops or multi-session residencies. He also leads family workshops, which allow children and their parents to work together with shadow puppets.

Barash has performed and worked regularly at Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden (including Sukkot and Chanukah programs), at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven (where he created a Noah’s Ark shadow puppet performance with summer campers) and at various Shabbat programs in a range of synagogues.

Barash first learned about shadow puppets at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan while working as a bar and bat mitzvah teacher.

“I was in their Purim play and was fascinated when the directors used shadow puppets when Esther invited Mordechai and Haman to the banquet. I knew that someday, I’d use shadow puppets in my work.”

Barash went on to receive a master’s degree in elementary education from New York University. After gaining experience as part of a theater arts company at NYU, he served as a theater arts specialist in the New York City Public Schools, and for a decade performed a one-man educational theater program for students around the U.S. and in countries like Belarus, India, Laos and Lithuania.

Experiencing the Art From

But it was while working with fifth graders on a folk tales curriculum, Barash remembered the Purim play at B’nai Jeshurun, thought shadow puppets might be useful, and decided to do an experiment.

“First I explained what folk tales are, then I did a show – I still remember – it was a story about How the Big Dipper Got to Be in the Sky,’ and then I asked the students if they wanted to form a puppet company.”

The students were hooked and began writing in teams to write scripts, make puppets, and perform their stories for their classmates.

“The students designed original puppets for their shows, and a light source was projected on their two-dimensional rod puppets, casting shadows on a screen,” Barash recalled. “The audience watched the moving shadow images from the other side of the screen.”

While Barash continues to lead workshops and perform across the country, he works a great deal in Connecticut and in the New Haven area where he has lived for the past seven months. He has worked with institutions like the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, the Foote School, New Haven Public Schools, the New Haven Free Public Library and the ChuanBao Chinese School.

In all of Barash’s workshops participants first watch a traditional shadow puppet performance and then experience the art form themselves by creating their own shadow puppet presentation.

Barash said that his workshops have helped students engage in the study of language arts and social studies, including historical, biographical and multicultural themes. Barash also notes that working with groups of students allows for students of different learning styles and strengths and weaknesses to work effectively together. Barash has many success stories.

“I passed one mother on the street, and she told me that after a recent workshop, her daughter had been designing and performing shadow puppet shows for three straight weeks in her home.”

Barash has also had some amazing success stories working with Jewish organizations and Hebrew School groups.

“One local educator told me that some of her kids who had been turned off to Jewish education were totally engaged by the shadow puppetry workshops,” notes Barash.

Barash has done programs on “350 Years of Jewish Life in America,” immigration in the 1880s and “How We Shaped History” including presentations on the Revolutionary War, The Civil War, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and on biographical figures like Rabbi David Einhorn, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Sydney Perry, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and former long-time director of the Department of Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, called Barash “a genius! He is creative, animated and best of all entertaining while educating. It is a winning combination and the teachers are sure

to be the beneficiaries of both his art and his pedagogy.”

On Sunday, Jan. 16, Barash will have an opportunity to share his work and talents with a large group of Jewish educators at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven as part of The Judith A. Kaye Jewish Educators Annual Conference.

Barash will be teaching a workshop entitled “Shadow Stories: Using Shadow Puppetry to Explore 350 Years in America”. In this hands-on workshop, teachers will first brainstorm the many stories that can be explored using this unique medium. They will then have the opportunity to bring one of these stories to life by creating their own puppets and performing their own shadow puppet play.

Barash is passionate about his work and about its potential use in Jewish education.

“Shadow puppets can be used to explore the richness of our heritage,” notes Barash. “There are so many Jewish stories waiting to be told using this unique performance medium.”

On Sunday, Jan. 16, Daniel Barash will lead a workshop at the Judith A. Kaye Jewish Educators Annual Conference at the JCC in Woodbridge.

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