Once Upon a Time — Once Again

A Storytelling Revival Brings the Oral Tradition Back Into Homes, Schools and Communities — and the Hearts of Children

By Eric Marx

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
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Professional storyteller Roslyn Bresnick-Perry read a story about lighting Chanukah candles to 12 sets of eager ears several weeks before Chanukah. In her story, she and her mischievous cousin Zisel nearly burn down the family barn while conducting a menorah-lighting ceremony using a hollowed-out potato, a string smeared with chicken fat, three matches and a rusty knife.

But her listeners weren’t children readying themselves for nap time. They were teachers gathered around a table at a Hebrew-school teachers’ conference in Scarsdale, N.Y., to learn how to introduce holiday storytelling into their classrooms.

After finishing the story, Perry had each of the teachers delve into their own holiday traditions, prodding them to tell their own family stories. One spoke of opening the door for Elijah during Passover. Another recalled the delight of finding the afikomen. A third proudly recounted his father’s attempts at founding their community’s first synagogue.

After going around the room, Perry, 81, began to tell the story of her childhood in a Belarus shtetl. “Autumn is a wonderful time of year in the shtetl,” Perry said. “It’s full of excitement with so many holidays: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot and Simchat Torah. That time of the year is very busy for grown-ups, but it’s busy for children as well. Since all the older people are working, preparing for the holidays so that they should not shame the holy days by not having a clean house, or new clothes or the right kinds of foods, they send the children on all kinds of errands. They send them to bring this, or take that, or help carry, or go into, or creep under, or watch out or get out of the way. Children do lots of work that is hardly noticed by the older people. They think they just play all the time!”

When Perry asked how many of the teachers talk about the shtetl in their classrooms, no one responded. Only a few were familiar with the Workmen’s Circle, the Jewish fraternal group that helped Perry and her family resettle in this country in the late 1920s.

“Jews are not only a religion; they’re a culture,” said Perry, gently scolding the teachers — some freshly graduated from college, others 30-year veterans — before moving on to another story. For Perry, storytelling is an essential part of cultural transmission, a primary way to combine imagination and history in a medium children find not only compelling, but delightful too.

The teachers’ energy and enthusiasm feed Perry’s optimism about the prospects for bringing storytelling into the heart of classroom curricula and for the significant growth of the storyteller community.

Indeed, storytelling is making a comeback in the United States as it begins to move out of school libraries and assembly halls and into classrooms, storytellers say. A crucial part of 19th-century life in America, folklore is once again becoming a vehicle for maintaining and perpetuating national, ethnic and religious identity — as well as ties to Jewish history and religious observance.

But some worry that despite discussions about a storytelling revival — in classrooms, homes and society at large — incredible challenges still lie on the road ahead. Corinne Stavish, co-chair of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education’s storytelling network, pointed to the fact that the oral tradition has pretty much disappeared from our everyday lives, replaced by television, computers and books. With it went the link that kept many connected to the worlds of their forebears — like the shtetl, as Perry said.

“We’re not hearing Jewish stories” anymore, said Stavish, noting that Jewish storytellers have become surrogates for what used to occur naturally in the home, in the corner bakery and on the front porches of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. “We’re getting them now from professional storytellers.” Stavish has a point. Instead of stories arising organically or being passed down orally from one generation to the next, storytelling has become institutionalized. But few see this as a bad thing.

Indeed, many states have their own storytelling festivals, and scores of regional storytelling guilds and support groups are training hundreds of storytellers, many of whom see storytelling as a career path. Leading the way is the 3,000-member National Storytelling Network, a national association for storytellers that holds annual conferences, throws festivals and publishes Storytelling Magazine.

Before one can reacquaint this generation with folklore, one has to teach children how to find story in their own lives and imaginations, professional storyteller Lisa Lipkin writes in “Bringing the Story Home: The Complete Guide for Parents.”

For Lipkin, that means starting in the home by telling stories about ordinary objects found on the dinner table, then progressing to personal history and, ultimately, Jewish folklore.

Stavish has similar views about the proper progression in learning about storytelling: Start with the familiar and then move on to Judaism’s collective narratives. “So,” she said, “if I asked you, ‘Tell me about Chanukah as a child,’ you would tell me your specific story, but we also both respond to the cultural story, the folk story of the Maccabee victory for freedom.”

Stavish said that folk tales breathe life into biblical characters, helping children better understand their stories and spurring their imaginations.

“The biblical is the superstructure of where the folk tale comes down,” Stavish said. “We get Moses as a character, but we don’t get a lot of information about Moses’ early life, and so that’s developed in folk or midrashic imagination. But first the structure is the biblical.”

Storytelling can thus become a pathway back into a larger Jewish community.

“A lot of the networks in the educational and institutional levels are seeing the ways that storytelling can be incorporated to reach out, especially to people who didn’t grow up speaking the language of Jewish prayer, who weren’t familiar with all the observances,” said storyteller and author Nina Jaffe, a member of the graduate faculty of the Bank Street College of Education. “But people can always respond to a story, and it allows them a pathway into the tradition that they hadn’t thought of before.”

Today, there are more than 80 universities in the United States offering undergraduate and graduate storytelling coursework, including Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.

“The general storytelling revival has become a part of our educational system; perhaps this is its novelty,” suggested Dan Ben-Amos, a professor of folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. “Jewish storytellers follow a general trend.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s prevalent, but it has a presence,” Stavish said of specifically Jewish storytelling curricula. Storytelling is no longer relegated to the library or the occasional visit by a professional storyteller. It’s used to re-enact Jewish history, biblical texts and language learning. It’s incorporated into the curriculum.

“I do think that there is a positive trend, and that there are more people spending a lot of time in schools,” said Nancy Kavanaugh, executive director of the National Storytelling Network. “But it’s also considered art and is one of the first things to go” when budgets are cut.

Still, Jaffe said that she is hopeful that the next generation of teachers will help storytelling spread in the schools.

Like Lipkin, Jaffe introduces her students to their own stories, moves on to their family traditions and then progresses to “classic” folklore. “The students begin to see that the world of storytelling that they have access to as educators is wide,” says Jaffe. “They no longer have to feel they’re lacking because they didn’t grow up hearing folk tales.”

By personalizing stories from within and stepping away from the written text, Perry told the teachers in her class, students will experience the language on a deeper, more intuitive level.

“Have faith,” she told them as they begin constructing their familial stories. “Those children will absolutely understand you. Once you have their attention they’re going to listen. They’re going to listen like crazy.”

Eric Marx is a writer living in New York City.

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