Are You a Jewish Storyteller?

You’re Jewish. You’re a storyteller. But is that enough? What does it mean to be a “Jewish storyteller”? It means loving Judaism. It means wrestling with Jewish stories. It means teaching and learning and research. It means honoring sources. It means being a resource to the Jewish community.

A Love of Judaism

“It’s easy for someone to pick up a Jewish story and tell it,” said Jewish storyteller Joel ben Izzy. But “unless that story really gets under the skin, (you) don’t really become a Jewish storyteller.”

Joel’s recounts many of the stories that have gotten under his skin in his recently published memoir, The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness (Algonquin Books, 2003). In it, he recounts those stories that helped him make meaning of the strange twist his own story took, when he awoke from a surgical procedure to discover he could no longer speak.

Now, after many adventures, culminating in the return of his voice, he recounts how years ago, after watching a magical performance by Robin Williamson, a Celtic storyteller, Joel discovered that he too wanted to be a British storyteller.

“That lasted five minutes,” Joel said.

Joel discovered that being a Jewish storyteller was part of his quest, a way of searching for meaning as a Jew. He explores and tells many stories, but “the Jewish stories are where I live.”

Jewish storyteller Peninnah Schram grew up hearing Jewish stories from her mother, a Yiddishist, and her father, a cantor. “Judaism resonates in my entire being,” Peninnah said. Peninnah began professionally telling Jewish stories when she was asked to record some for the Jewish Braille Institute.

The Jewish stories “all started bubbling up in me,” Peninnah said. She began teaching Jewish storytelling at the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan, and later established the Jewish Storytelling Center there.

We are Jewish, so Jewish stories are our stories. As lovers of Judaism, the value of our stories arise not only from their content, but also from the spirit in which we tell them. The stories we tell are sacred, and layered with new meanings that we discover with each telling.

As Jews, and as tellers of Jewish stories, we are given the opportunity to see these stories as our own, the responsibility to care for them, and the duty to wrestle with their message.

Wrestling with Jewish Stories

“Ever since Jacob wrestled with the angel and changed his name, we have been a God wrestling people,” Joel said. “We Jewish people wrestle with our stories.”

Some stories from our tradition are confusing. Some are disturbing. Must we tell the “rest” of the Purim story: that the Jewish people were saved from Haman’s plan of genocide and in turn killed more than 75,000 of their enemies? Must we examine how Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi killed the men of Shechem to avenge their sister Dinah’s rape?

These stories are part of our own. To be a Jew, and a Jewish storyteller, means to be one who struggles with these stories. By studying the Torah and the Midrashim, and by learning from knowledgeable teachers, we gain the necessary tools for our struggle.

Teaching, Learning, and Research

“(We’re not) just memorizing and reciting (stories) for entertainment, but for learning and teaching,” said Peninnah, a drama and speech professor at Stern College, and founder of the Jewish Storytelling Network within the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education. “We always have to work on knowing more.”

An author of several books about Jewish storytelling, and a performer at storytelling festivals throughout the U.S., Peninnah studies the culture and language background of the stories she tells.

Her stories, from Sephardic, Babylonian, Yemenite, and Ashkenazic traditions, teach the lore of different Jewish communities. Her repertoire includes stories about the folk heroes of these Jewish cultures: Joha, Elijah and Herschel of Ostropol.

Peninnah incorporates Ladino, Hebrew, and Yiddish words into her tales, suggesting that other Jewish storytellers learn words from different Jewish languages to heighten the listeners’ connection to the story as well as their sensory response.

Many Jewish stories have origins in the lands where Jewish people once lived, and many story motifs arise in different cultures. But Peninnah reminds Jewish storytellers to ask: “What is the Jewish variant?”

“There has to be a Jewish message,” Peninnah said. That’s what makes a Jewish story Jewish.

Do you want to become a Jewish storyteller? Then follow Rabbi Hillel’s counsel, Peninnah said… “Go out and study.”

By learning from storytelling rabbis, receiving mentoring from Jewish storytellers, taking classes about Judaism, and attending Jewish lifecycle events, she said we accumulate knowledge about Judaism that springs to life in our stories.

Peninnah recommends reading as an important source of Jewish learning. Eli Yassif’s The Hebrew Folktale, Howard Schwartz’s Reimagining the Bible: Storytelling of the Rabbis, and Dan Ben Amos’s single volume of Bin Gorion’s Mimekor Yisrael are a few of the books she suggested.

Honoring Sources

It’s work to research the sources of our stories. It takes effort to get permission from the source of the stories we tell. But it’s worth the effort. Storytellers and authors appreciate the time we take to ask for permission.

It’s important that our listeners know where a story originates, be it the Torah, Midrash, or a fellow teller.

“If we all give our sources for Torah insights and stories we will hasten the coming of the Messiah,” Peninnah said, paraphrasing the Talmud (Megillah 15a).

Serving as a Resource to the Jewish community

We love Judaism, we wrestle with our stories, we teach, learn and research, and we honor our sources. We have become a resource to our Jewish community. By teaching about Jewish storytelling to Jewish educators, beginning storytellers, and our fellow Jews, we provide a “generosity of spirit (and) an attitude of sharing” within our community, Joel said. Who knows better about sharing than we, the Jewish storytellers?

“In the beginning…”