On November 6, students, academics, professional storytellers and members of the public gathered at the Yeshiva University Museum to share tales rich with tradition, personal meaning and religious discovery during “Folktales of Israel: A Festival of Jewish Storytelling Honoring Professor Peninnah Schram,” an event organized by YU’s Center for Israel Studies.
“So much of the story of the Jewish people is feeling and sharing the warmth of our tradition,” said Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel. “People like Peninnah Schram, who has been here with us at Stern College for 42 years, work to ensure that true communication does not become a lost art, but continues to involve words, heart and soul.”
Co-sponsored by Stern College for Women, the YU Museum and the American Zionist Movement, the conference featured storytelling legends such as Dr. Dan Ben-Amos, professor of folklore and Near Eastern studies at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of the major series Folktales of the Jews; Rabbi Saul Berman, professor of Jewish studies at Stern College and an inaugural fellow of the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at New York University Law School; and Ellen Frankel, former CEO and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society.
In addition to keynote lectures that considered the significance and role of storytelling in Jewish education and tradition, performances explored tales which ran the gamut from a legend about the staff of Elijah to a young woman’s emotional first journey to the Western Wall. Schram’s colleagues and former students also spoke about her influence in their own development as storytellers.
“Jewish tradition, being part of the oral world literature, contains the jewels and the core of oral traditions the world over,” said Ben-Amos. “In that sense, storytellers like Peninnah are drawing upon a tradition that is dynamic, classical and an influence on world literature. It’s a real pleasure to celebrate the contribution Peninnah has made in oral and written storytelling—she is a pioneer in the field.”
“Folktales are an essential part of Judaism because of the way we tell ourselves about our past determining our future,” said Dr. Steven Fine, director of the Center for Israel Studies. “Bringing this element of the mesorah [transmission of tradition] to life is what YU is all about.”
For Yaelle Frohlich, a former student of Schram’s at Stern College who is currently pursuing a master’s degree at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, the festival was an opportunity to celebrate a mentor and to delve deeper into a field that has fascinated her since childhood. “I came as a fan of Professor Schram’s, but also because I have a special love of Jewish folklore,” said Frohlich. “The chance to hear about it from an academic perspective was too good to miss.”
The festival culminated with a heartfelt performance from Schram herself, as she shared the complex relationship of her grandparents, parents and children to Israel in a piece called, “Five Generations Rooted in Israel.” She was also presented with an honorary volume of collected folktales, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning. Published by Reclaiming Judaism Press and dedicated to Schram, the book contains 60 original stories by professional storytellers, members of the rabbinate, and others.
“This is better than an Oscar,” said Schram, who is a recipient of the Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Education and the National Storytelling Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “An Oscar stays behind glass but this book is a living document with never-before-told stories centered around mitzvot—you can dive right in.”
She added: “It’s up to each of us to take these stories in our rich Jewish repertoire and transmit them the next generation. We must wear the mantle of responsibility to perpetuate the Jewish oral tradition.”