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Welcome to Radzyn

Local man finds a new way to tell sort-of old stories

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Michael Weber wrote and Joel Golombeck illustrated the new online fictional world called Radzyn.

It is 1889 in Radzyn, a small town hidden deep in a Polish forest. There, Mottel the musician tries to find a few zlotys for Shabbat.

It is 1933 in Radzyn, a small town hidden deep in a Polish forest. There, the rebbe warns about lost children for whom nobody will hunt and who never will be found.

Radzyn, as it unfolds in 1889, is home to a collection of chasidim who at first glance embody the timeless archetypes who seem to replace real people in such mythic towns.

But it is also 2014 in the United States. The story of Radzyn, which will jump from era to era, from character to character, and eventually from the web and mobile devices to other media as well, has just begun to unfold. It will follow the form and conventions of Jewish folktales, but it is being devised to speak most clearly to its own generation.

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Michael Weber

“We believe that the Jewish folktale is singular, unique, and powerful,” Michael Weber said. Mr. Weber, 28, now lives on the Upper West Side, but he grew up in Teaneck, where his parents still live, and he graduated from the Yavneh Academy and the Frisch School, both in Paramus, before going on to the University of Maryland.

“They are a very interesting combination of Jewish humor, Jewish perspectives, and Torah,” he continued.

Veering from the conventional definition of a folktale as a piece of folk art that cannot be attributed to a particular writer but instead to a group, and as a work that has changed over time and from place to place, instead Mr. Weber broadened it to include author-written stories with folkloric themes. “I think the Torah aspect ranges from someone like I.L. Peretz,” the 19th century Yiddish writer, “who was not interested in the Torah aspect at all, to someone like Reb Shlomo, who was trying to relate to Jewish tradition in a mystical way, to someone like Rebbe Nachman” – the 18th-century mystic Nachman of Bratzlov, founder of the Breslov chasidim – “who was telling Torah truly in story form.”

But, Mr. Weber continued, “the folktale really hasn’t been approached in a new way since Reb Shlomo” – Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, that is – “in the 1960s and ’70s. The struggles that people were going through in the ’60s were different than the ones we are going through in the Internet age.

“A new generation has to absorb these stories, and we think that there is an opportunity to approach them in a new way.

“It is still beautiful and compelling and rich, but the story, the characters, and the plot can be re-imagined in a way that we millennials are used to reading plots and approaching characters. We have different reading habits and different literary expectations.”

His generation, Mr. Weber continued, is used to such fiction as “Games of Thrones” and “The Hunger Games.” They do not feel comfortable with characters who are archetypical but lack depth, he said. Therefore, “we are taking a lot of the tropes, like the holy street sweeper and the poor Yid collecting rubles before Shabbes, and we are delving into the characters. What do they really feel? We take it in our own direction, in a way that we think resonates better for readers who are more used to going into characters’ depths, into seeing the 3-D version.

“My experience with Jewish stories has been that they are very deep, but you only see the characters for a few pages, so you can’t go into them deeply.”

To change that, Mr. Weber and his creative partner, Joel Golombeck, also 28, have created the world of Radzyn, which he said, is “a fantasy Jewish folktale about a chasidic shtetl that survived the Holocaust, and the generations of spiritual legacy that inspired it.”

As much as a cliché the idea of Jewish journey generally has become, it seems so true when applied to Mr. Weber’s life story that the term itself is refreshed.

When Mr. Weber was a child, his parents belonged to Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. “I kind of grew up Conservative, but all four of us kids went to an Orthodox school, so it was a very open environment,” he said. “We are now all over the place religiously. We have been given an open landscape to discover and explore.”

From Beth Sholom, the family moved to the Teaneck Jewish Center, which then was more or less Conservadox – it since has become unequivocally Orthodox – and then Mr. Weber went to Congregation Beth Aaron, then as now Orthodox. He spent a year in Israel in Mevaseret before college. Now, he davens at the Kasnetz shtiebel on the Upper West Side. “I was always very religiously minded, but I didn’t really feel like I found my place until I discovered chasidus,” he said. “In Israel, and even more in college, and even more after college, I knew what I liked, but I didn’t know what it was called.” Then he found it – and that passion is relevant because it is reflected in Radzyn. Love of chassidut animates the town.

“I have seen the products that modern Orthodox yeshivas produce,” Mr. Weber said. “It seems that there is a failure at some level with what they’re producing, whether it’s the relationship to ourselves, or to Judaism, or to our community. There is a lack of commitment on some level.

“I think that the chasidic message resonates more with this generation than the modern Orthodox experience does. What I am trying to do is embed chasidic thought in the story itself, and share that with the community.”

Of course, as much as Radzyn lovingly displays centuries-old Jewish tradition, it uses brand-new technology to do so.

His partner, Mr. Golombeck, Mr. Weber said, “is the founder and creative director of Rocket Chair media, a digital storytelling studio that explores new ways to read in the digital age. Their mission is to find new ways to tell stories that don’t need to be paginated. Now a lot of the ebooks that we read are paginated, in book form. You turn the pages digitally, like you do in a book. What Rocket Chair does is figure out how we can tell stories in ways that are native to phones, tablets, or web experiences.”

Mr. Weber’s own background took him from a college major in science and a job in finance to marketing in tech startups. He is a writer as well, and when his last startup job ended, about six months ago, he decided to devote most of his time to writing. “That’s when Radzyn was born,” he said. “I have the writing and the tech design and marketing approach. It’s not just thinking about it as a story, but about how it will be prepared and how it will be consumed.

“Joel is very much the same way. He is an artist, he graduated with a degree in fine arts from the Steinhardt School” – that’s at NYU – “and went on to Parsons” – the school of design – “in digital reading experiences, specifically for the tablet. So he approaches Radzyn as an artist, but also in a very technical way.” Mr. Golombeck does all the art for the project, as well as its technical back end. Mr. Weber handles both writing and marketing.

So far, the pair has released the prologue and introduction. The next part, due out on May 18, will tell a related story. All the stories will be connected to the main narrative, but “the vision we have is that it will be like an good television episode. You can watch any good episode on its own and enjoy it, even though it will be a little hard to understand all of it.

“We want each story to be a singular folk tale, but if it is consumed as part of Radzyn it will be an even better experience. Uninitiated readers should still be able to enjoy it.”

He also assures readers that he and Mr. Golombeck plan to introduce some women and their stories to what is now an almost entirely male world. Radzyn will continue to expand, he said.

To read the unfolding story of Radzyn, go to www.radzynstories.com. The website offers readers the opportunity to sign up for email alerting them to each new episode.

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