The Chicago storyteller Syd Lieberman tells the tale of the shames from Chelm who was walking down the street one day when a stranger came out of nowhere and punched him so hard that he fell to the ground. “Take that, Yankel!” the man declared.
To his astonishment, the assailant saw the shames begin to chuckle. “What are you laughing about?” he asked, looking down at his victim. “I just knocked you to the ground with one punch!”
“The joke’s on you!” the shames said. “I’m not Yankel!”
We Jews may have a reputation as the People of the Book, but we are also the people of the joke, the pithy anecdote and the cogent argument, that is, the spoken word. In fact, we are blessed with an oral tradition that is even older, and more far-reaching, than is our written one. Maybe that’s why this publication has the word “voices” in its name. Or why our holiest blessing is the Shema, which means “hear.” While most people are familiar with articulate Jewish rabbis, lawyers and comedians, there’s another outlet through which the spoken word can capture hearts, minds and imaginations: storytelling.
According to the dictionary, “storytelling” can mean anything from an amusing activity for toddlers to films, novels or even lies. But ask renowned storytelling coach Doug Lipman for a definition, and he’ll say that the practice involves five key elements: words, imagination, narrative, interaction, and non-verbal communication.
Another way to look at storytelling is as “theater without a net.” While actors usually share the stage with their colleagues, working from memorized scripts that others have written, professional storytellers generally work on their own, sharing a story in their own words, which may well change with every telling. That isn’t to say that reading a book to a child doesn’t count as storytelling. It’s a huge field, containing as many variations as do theater, film or any other art form.
And then there’s Jewish storytelling. The late folklorist Dov Noy, founder of the Israel Folktale Archives at the University of Haifa, said that Jewish stories contain one or more of four elements: Jewish people, places, time (e.g., Shabbat or a holiday) and values. The repertoire of most Jewish storytellers typically contains folktales, biblical or Talmudic stories, personal experience recollections, and/or historical tales.
Jewish storytelling is a growing field, but it’s by no means the new kid on the block. Until the last century, magdim (from the verb l’haggid, meaning “to tell”) traveled from shtetl to shtetl, picking up, embellishing and sharing stories throughout the Pale of Settlement. Similarly badchanim (from the noun for “joke,” b’dicha), were the spoken word equivalent of today’s wedding singers.
Actually, the tradition goes back even further, and is a good deal more illustrious. Some Sages believed that aggadah the non-legal portions of the Talmud commonly known as legends, makes up one of the three equal pillars of Judaism, along with halachah (law) and mishnah (interpretation). The legendary Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hassidism, taught through oral storytelling, as did his greatgrandson Nahman of Bratslav and many of their followers. Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends) is the classic compilation of aggadot, edited about a hundred years ago by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky and still in print today.
So why did the rabbis think that storytelling was so important? Storyteller Gerald Fierst answers the question with a little story.
“When the Dalai Lama wanted to know how a people kept their identity in diaspora,” he said, “he asked Jewish leaders. They told him that stories are bonds. Stories create identity.”
Stories have also proven to be a valuable tool in healthcare, community building, peace work and education. None other than Albert Einstein once remarked: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Said Fierst: “As a culture, we underestimate the power of the spoken word. Words are so omnipresent that we stop listening. But words have power and do not disappear. What we say and think has an effect that slowly changes us and the world around us.”
You don’t have to be an expert to share stories, but it helps to be a pro if you plan to do it in public. Professional Jewish storytellers ply their trade in schools, festivals, synagogues, private homes, and concert halls. Here are a few of the most popular:
Israeli-born Noa Baum is best-known for her full-length storytelling show, “A Land Twice Promised,” which delivers a searing look at the Middle East conflict from the points of view of Noa, a Palestinian friend, and the women’s mothers. Another favorite: “Impossible to Translate But I’ll Try: True-Life Israeli Stories.”
Judith Black not only received the Circle of Excellence award from the National Storytelling Network (NSN), the professional organization of storytelling, but she also has appeared on stages from the Montreal Comedy Festival to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Art Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, and National Public Radio.
Roslyn Bresnick-Perry, author of I Loved My Mother on Saturdays, the award-winning collection of true-life stories from the shtetl and New York, was born in Belarus in 1922. She has been awarded the prestigious NSN Lifetime Achievement award.
Bonnie Greenberg is a co-chair of the 25-year-old Jewish Storytelling Coalition (jewishstorytelling.org). Her tales, often told to guitar or bongo, are rooted in her Appalachian childhood, her life in Israel, and her travels abroad.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Israeli-born founding director of Storahtelling, Inc., and the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul, a New York City-based group dedicated to Jewish teaching through storytelling, ritual theater and performance art.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram is founding director of Reclaiming Judaism and editor-in-chief of Reclaiming Judaism Press, which has published two story anthologies on the topic of mitzvot. Along with Peninnah Schram, she developed the Jewish Spiritual Education (JSE) Maggid-Educator Ordination Program. “Several decades back,” Rabbi Milgram said, “Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi decided to re-introduce a number of ordinations that once existed in Jewish life. One of these was maggid, specifically focused upon the telling of Hassidic stories. For many decades Reb Zalman had urged me, as his shlichhah, to establish a rigorous pan-denominational educator training in the emerging field of Jewish spiritual education.”
Scholar/storyteller Peninnah Schram is a professor at Stern College and the author/editor of numerous collections of Jewish stories. She was recently featured as a storytelling educator at Limmud Boston.
Still think of storytelling as a guilty pleasure? Look no further than Elie Wiesel for justification. “God created man,” the Nobel Prize winner wrote, “because God love stories.”