Everyone says we are The People of the Book. This is true enough, and rather comforting, but we are also The People of the story. From the beginning we have told tales, short tales, of what is and what was and who hated whom and why, who loved whom when perhaps they shouldn’t. (Oh, poor flawed King David). We knitted our stories together into scrolls and scriptures and serious-sounding texts, but we never forgot the characters or the plots. In addition, we had variations in the Midrash, delicious tales of Rebecca falling off her camel and losing her virginity on a prickly bush, or Abraham smashing his father’s idols. We have stories of magic prophets, fables of marauding Cossacks and tales of jealous sisters, each with something the other didn’t have.
When it came time to live and write in a secular world, Jews traced their endangered, beautiful, complicated lives in stories that accompanied them on their migrations, exiles, returns. They wrote stories through tragedy and success, across oceans and through the blasts of war. These stories are not so much heroic or nationalistic, they are illustrations of small human error, or humor, or great fortitude, or loss or wit that outwits fate. This is where Jewish history truly lives and breathes.
So in the next months the Forward will feature some musings on the Jewish stories that show us most clearly who we are, who we were, what happened, who is at fault and, sometimes, why. Yes, the stories I have chosen are famous, artful, brilliant, but I didn’t choose them for that. I chose them because each tells us something important, something we need to know about ourselves, our history, our most personal hopes and failures.
I know that Job tells us that God’s voice was in the wind. But what we tell God is in our stories, and if, perhaps, he can’t hear us, we can at least hear each other.
Tomorrow, Anne Roiphe writes about the modern lessons of Bernard Malamud’s classic story “The Magic Barrel.”
This article, part of a 12-part series, is sponsored by the Posen Foundation.