The Storyteller

As a volunteer leader of Seders in small Jewish communities in a former Communist country, I usually devote my introductory remarks to quickly explain why we have come together. I don’t turn to a Biblical pasuk, a Talmudic sugya or some other learned source.

I tell a story.

I tell about a successful filmmaker I met several years ago, son of a Jewish, Romanian-born father who had outlived both Nazism and Communism. The filmmaker, who grew up hearing stories of persecution and narrow escapes, who flouted the restrictions of totalitarian rule, who finally escaped Romania to preserve his artistic integrity, who proudly raised his children as Jews, sacrificed his precious time to meet with me when I spent a few days in Paris, his adopted home.

Why, I asked, did someone of his renown and influence carve out a few hours for me, hardly a close friend, a writer unknown in his circles?

“I remember where I came from,” he answered—he remembered his modest roots, his father’s deprivations, his earlier days of struggle.

That’s what I tell at my Seders. “We’re here to remember where we came from.” We all came out of Egypt. “In every generation a person is obligated to see himself . . . ”

For an audience more steeped in secular culture than in Yiddishkeit, no recitation of Chazal could deliver the message as forcefully.

As a journalist, I deal in stories. As a frum Jew who frequently has the opportunity to deliver a devar Torah, I have found that for some people—especially those who don’t have a lomdishe background—personal stories are often of equal, immeasurable worth.

Stories are not just entertainment, diversion. They’re chinuch, mussar, chizuk. If we’re privy to a story, it’s for a Divine purpose.

The key is not just telling a story; it’s also finding a story. It’s keeping one’s ears and eyes—and heart—open to whatever happens, to what we or someone else experience. It’s bringing inside us what’s out there. It’s living life actively. A Jewish hospice in Brooklyn encourages people with end-stage diseases to share their life stories with loved ones as a form of bonding and catharsis.

If part of the reason for so many mitzvot, like keeping kosher and eschewing lashon hara, is to make us consider each act we do, what goes in our mouths and what comes out, stories play the same role—they force us to pay attention.

A day without a story, without something memorable that touches me, is an incomplete day. If a tree falls in a forest and no one tells about it, so what?

One day I found a dollar on the streets of Manhattan. It’s for tzedakah, I thought. I took an early-morning subway to work the next day. A bedraggled woman came up to me and asked for spare change; I gave her the dollar. It’s the only time I’ve encountered a beggar in my nearly fifteen years of pre-dawn Queens-to-Manhattan subway rides.

Clear hashgachah pratit, I thought.

I told everyone the story.

If I didn’t, then why did I find the dollar?

If we don’t share part of ourselves like this, where does the personal connection come from?

If I were a teacher, I would ask my students to find a story every day.

While Jewish tradition honors story-telling and its maggidim, the story-teller traditionally takes second-place to the talmid chacham.

Today, in a generation of Tweets and short attention spans, stories are increasingly recognized as a valuable tool for education and outreach. Witness the growing popularity of frum story books.

Stories—of gedolim and plain people, of things that happened to us and things that happened to others—“touch us in a way nothing else can,” Rabbi Yechiel Spero, author of the Touched by a Story series, writes. “They can touch our neshamos and reach places within ourselves we did not even know were there.”

I see this in Passaic, whose Orthodox New Jersey community I once called home. Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, of Congregation Ahavas Israel, regularly e-mails to a growing list of subscribers “The Short Vort,” pithy stories—often self-critical, invariably inspirational—from his own life. Ruchama and Yisroel Feuerman, both writers, sponsor evenings of story-sharing in their home.

At the start of the second half of my Seders each year, to contemporize the Pesach message, I don a different kippa, a large white knitted one. I tell how I received it as a gift when I led a Seder in Serbia, from a woman who was raised as a non-Jew. She discovered her Jewish identity from her dying mother, joined the Jewish community and took up kippa-making as her expression of Yiddishkeit; she offered me one as an expression of thanks.

But that’s another story.

Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the Jewish Week in New York.

Illustration:Ann Koffsky


This article was featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Jewish Action.