Jewish Storytelling Coalition

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Congratulations, Peninnah! on JEWISH STORIES OF LOVE AND MARRIAGE!

A beautiful interview with our Peninnah!

To be able to sit alone with Peninnah Schram, to listen to her tell a story just to you, just for you, is to be transfixed.

Ms. Schram is a small, silver-haired woman, straight-backed, soft-voiced, and clear-eyed. She sits in her Upper West Side apartment, her home for decades, full of artwork and Judaica, a lived-in, personal place, and looks directly at you as she speaks.
There’s magic in the way she tells the story — the rhythm she uses, the way she varies her voice, the way she looks directly at you and responds to you as you react to her.
Although Ms. Schram tells stories that have descended through the oral tradition, she also has written books. (She also has a distinguished academic career; before she retired last year she spent four decades teaching speech and drama at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and in 1995 she won the Covenant award, given to outstanding Jewish educators.) Her most recent book, “Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage,” co-written with Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, is just out, and she loves talking about it.
There are differences between telling stories aloud and reading them, Ms. Schram said, and Jewish culture reveres both. Much of our tradition is oral; the center of religious services on Shabbat, holidays, and Mondays and Thursdays — the point toward which they aim and from which they reverentially retreat, with pomp and velvet and silver and parades — is when the Torah is unscrolled and read aloud. For many centuries many Jews were barely or not at all literate; even when they were able to read in their vernaculars, for much of our history only a small group could read Hebrew. Oral transmission was paramount.
And, of course, we read aloud from other texts as well — the haftarah on Shabbat, the megillot on holidays, the Hagaddah on Passover. The written is transformed into the oral; each retelling is slightly different, filtered through the tropes and melodies and inflections of its teller and the teller’s culture.
“Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage,” like Ms. Schram’s other books, is a compilation of Jewish folk tales from around the world.
The book is divided into three sections. The first looks at biblical and rabbinic love stories, the stories that formed the background understanding of love for centuries of Jews. The second is folktales, still very old but dating from after the rabbinic period. The third is love letters, ranging from one from medieval India to correspondence between Ms. Schram’s own parents, Cantor Samuel E. Manchester and Dora Markman. The fourth is contemporary love stories, and the fifth is instructions on how to write your own love story. (Of course, instructions for finding love are not included. Those instructions, for readers wise enough to recognize them, are in the book’s earlier sections.)
There are many themes from Jewish tales that have made their way around the world, and others, from outside, that have made their way into Jewish stories. “It is hard to trace them, but sometimes you can tell by the ending,” Ms. Schram said. She told one of her favorites, which appears in this book as “The Man and Woman From Sidon.”
For much of our history only a small group could read Hebrew.Oral transmission was paramount.
In the story, which comes from the midrash — Pesikta de Rab Kahana, to be specific — a man and woman who have been married for 10 years, are happy with each other, in fact genuinely love one another and have many material goods — but no children — reluctantly decide to divorce. That way, they figure, either or both can remarry and maybe be blessed with children. Reluctantly but with great resolve, they ask their rabbi for permission to divorce.
You may do so, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said, but only if they end the marriage as they began it, with a celebration. Then the wife could retreat to her father’s house. Puzzled and unhappy but obedient, they comply. Drowning his sorrows, the man drank until he was drunk. Just before he passed out, he told his not-yet-ex-wife, “My beloved, choose anything in my house that you desire and take it with you to your father’s house.”
Once he was dead to the world, his wife instructed her servants to carry him to her father’s house. When he awoke, puzzled, asking why he was there, his wife told him that she had followed his demand. “There is nothing in the world I desire more than you,” she told him.
That story that has traveled and returned to the Jewish world; “what marks it as having come under the Jewish influence or filter” — what marks it as a Jewish story — “is the ending,” she said.
At the end of the story, the couple returns to the rabbi, telling him that they love each other far too much to separate. And then, it concludes, “The rabbi prayed for them, and before long the woman became pregnant and gave birth to a child.”
This story, Ms. Schram said, is a prime example of “the clever young woman” and a “quintessential Jewish love story.” (It might even sound particularly familiar to close readers of this newspaper; in July, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck and his company, National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene, in partnership with Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, put on a one-night-only performance of “Di Goldene Kale.” The golden bride in question was the very smart — albeit adopted, but still it counts — daughter of an innkeeper. And the trope is so powerful that the opera soon will reopen off Broadway, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.)
Ms. Schram came to storytelling through her own parents. She grew up in New London, Connecticut, where her father, the community’s cantor, saw to all its needs, physical and spiritual; also was New London’s mohel, who did circumcisions; its shochet, who was in charge of its ritual slaughter and therefore much of its food, and a composer of classical music.
He also was a storyteller, whose voice, rhythms, and deep passion for the stories of our people formed some of his daughter’s earlier memories. “The stories told, read, and heard in childhood fill the storehouse of memories from which a person can draw the needed wisdom, perhaps many years later,” Ms. Schram wrote. Peninnah’s mother told stories too; while Chazan Manchester’s were more inspirational, Ms. Manchester’s were practical life lessons. She often minded them at the time, Ms. Schram said, “but she was always right, even if I often didn’t realize it until much later.”
Through both her parents, she drew the “nourishment and stimulation that a creative imagination needs,” she said. “Images stay in your mind longer than lessons taught in other ways manage to do.”
Ms. Schram graduated from the University of Connecticut and then from Columbia, and began working in Jewish theater, creating plays for children, teaching college students, and recording books for the Jewish Braille Institute. Soon, she developed her interest in Jewish storytelling into a career, trailblazing a new field into which other storytellers have followed her.
Like her parents and now her own son and daughter, she was married happily, but unlike them she was widowed young. Her daughter, Rebecca, married an Israeli and made aliyah; she is now the mother of three children. Her son, Mordechai, a cantor like his grandfather, and his wife have a son as well.
There are so many stories there! (In fact, Sonia Gordon-Walinsky tells the story of her marriage to Mordechai in visual images in her mother-in-law’s book.)
Sometimes stories can be told without words. Here and on the cover, Penninah Schram’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gordon-Walinsky, draws the very Jewish love story that united her and her husband, Mordechai Schram. (Sonia Gordon-Walinsky, Sukkat Shalom: A Micrographic Love Story, 2014, Ink and paper, 7x5, Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage.)
Sometimes stories can be told without words. Here and on the cover, Peninnah Schram’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gordon-Walinsky, draws the very Jewish love story that united her and her husband, Mordechai Schram. (Sonia Gordon-Walinsky, Sukkat Shalom: A Micrographic Love Story, 2014, Ink and paper, 7×5, Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage.)
In the end, though, despite the lure and very real value of written or drawn or danced or filmed or sung stories, “there is no substitute for a human voice telling a story,” Ms. Schram said.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

It is with great sadness that we inform you of the death of Larry Schwartz, loving husband of Cherie Karo Schwartz. She writes:

Shalom dear friends and family of my heart,
I wish I could have spoken with all of you, but time and energy prevent this now.
It is with my heart breaking that I let you know that Larry died yesterday, November 22nd, at 5:36 PM.
It all came so fast, in less than a day, yet Larry’s passing was such a peaceful, calm, sacred time, filled with peace. He had a clarity, a presence and dignity that belied all he had been through since the attack three months ago that left him in such a traumatic brain and functioning loss.  
It was  a peaceful miracle.
I want you all to know what blessings you were in his life, from family, neighbors, friends, co-workers, dance partners, neighbors, and so many more.

Here is the information so you will know.
Thank you from my heart for making Larry’s life more joyful , fulfilling, funny, strong, supported, and all.
Larry passed away peacefully last night, November 22nd, at the Aspen Siesta nursing home.  In addition to his loving wife Cherie, who never left his side, Larry was surrounded by loving friends and neighbors. 

Larry is survived by his lifelong friend, partner and wife,  Cherie Karo Schwartz, his daughter-in-law, Robyn Mayer, and grandchildren Zakaria, Lucy and Aaron Schwartz.  To his great sorrow Larry was preceded in death by both of his children, Ronda Schwartz z”l, and Daran Schwartz, z”l.

Larry was born in New York City and raised in New York and California.  He obtained his masters degree from MIT, and went on to obtain a PhD from UCLA.  Larry, an Aerospace Engineer, became Chief Scientist and Top Fellow for Hughes, which became Raytheon, for 43 years.  Larry loved his work and he was magnificent at it, creating software for the gigantic white satellite dishes at Buckley AFB by DIA.

Larry was a true renaissance man:  he designed the house that he and Cherie lived in, Cherie’s wedding ring and dress.  He ran a marathon at the age of 42, and had his bar mitzvah at B’nai Havurah seven years ago.  Larry was a wonderful artist, drawing and painting.  He loved Greece, Greek dancing and all forms of travel.

Larry’s most salient quality was always giving people joy through his amazing mind, beamish smile and incredibly pun-ish-ing sense of humor.  Larry was always loving ,  kind zeisen neshamah.  He will be missed.

Contributions in Larry’s memory may be made to B’nai Havurah, where Larry and Cherie have belonged for three decades, or to the Alzheimer’s Association. 
Larry had Alzheimer’s for many years, and yet enjoyed full, joyful life. 

Zichrono livracha – may Larry’s memory be for a blessing always.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

And we remember...

A dear member of our storytelling community, Roslyn Bresnick Perry, has passed. Those cards that everyone sent meant the world. Here is a tender note from Gerry Fierst, who was very close to Ros:

August 7, 2015
"Our dear friend Roslyn Bresnick Perry died this afternoon at 12:45. She would be 93 tomorrow. Sitting by her bedside, I had asked her son Robert if the birthday card that had been signed at the NSN Conference had arrived. He went to check the mailbox. As he returned, Roz died. So the last mail she received were the wishes and blessings of her storytelling friends and colleagues. The newsletter from the Whitney Center where Roz lived had one of her poems on its back cover today.

The last verse goes:

So Many Words
Oh, gods of my childhood devotion, don't let me forget
Don't let me forget the words
Love, friendship, laughter, joy, wonder, gratefulness.

See you the next time around, my sweet Roz. May you be borne on angels' wings."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Not such good news, but there's one thing we can do...

This was written by Carol Birch and just arrived via Peninnah and Corinne:

Dear Storytelling Friends,

If you have not yet heard, Roz seems to be nearing the end of this journey. Roz cannot hear the phone ringing beside her bed, and she cannot communicate on the computer. If someone calls when a relative or friend is visiting, they can help her with the phone, though she finds it frustrating trying to find the words she wants to say. It is best to send a card or visit, though she is sleeping a great deal. Her 93rd birthday is Aug 8th. She has terminal lung cancer that has spread to her spine and liver.

From my visits, I would say that as ever, Roz is courageous, willing to shrug or smile in the face of difficult times, and given to focusing on what is sweet.

Her address is

Roslyn Bresnick-Perry
Whitney Center 
200 Leeder Hill Road  
Hamden CT  06517

Saturday, May 16, 2015

This week, the storytelling community lost one of its most beloved storytellers, Syd Lieberman. Corinne Stavish has written a beautiful tribute about Syd. Their friendship goes back to the days when they studied together and launched their storytelling lives. Thank you, Corinne, for expressing the feelings and admiration for Syd that so many of us have in our hearts:

In Yiddish, "lieb" means love, and, true to his name, Syd Lieberman embodied that word. It was his currency as a storyteller, teacher, husband, parent, grandfather, friend, and human being. Syd was a man of love. From the moment he entered the storytelling world, he warmed our hearts, lifted our spirits, and expanded our humanity. Whether he swaggered in his “Italian T-shirt,” or became his daughter’s hero by driving impossible distances to rescue her bunny, or battled the Long Island Expressway to get furniture for his son, we knew he would triumph. He had to—he was our hero as well.

Syd taught us all, our own community of “Irregulars,” that our foibles make us more human as well as more humane. He showed us that magic and miracle were in the small, everyday events, the “gold we need to mine.”  It was the commonality of his stories that reached us, that made us look for what was better in ourselves, because Syd showcased it. He understood that stories have no boundaries; hence, he could take us to Mars or back to our revolutionary roots. Syd has no boundaries either; therefore, he is forever with us, in our hearts…or maybe, just maybe, in a high corner of the Library Tent in Jonesborough during festival time…listening, laughing, and always loving. What a loss!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

 New Book may be a GREAT choice for Mother's Day gifts:

Storyteller Peninnah Schram's essay, "My Journey into My Name," has been included in a recently published book, At My Pace: Ordinary Women Tell Their Extraordinary Stories," Collected and Edited by Jill Ebstein. The book was published by SizedRight Marketing and is available as a book or a kindle through Amazon and the website,

At My Pace is a collection of thirty-six essays that expands the conversation about the many roads women choose. Some women drive the autobahn, full speed ahead; others prefer a journey full of twists and turns, yield signs and rest stops; still others find a u-turn along the way and switch directions entirely.

Peninnah's essay explores her journey how, as a young mother suddenly widowed, she discovers her inner strength through her name. She also introduces the various Elijahs the Prophet who appeared in her life to open doors for her that, in turn, led her to become an academic and a storyteller.


A poet who cares for her ailing father;

A pioneering sports reporter who finds meaning in adopting her Chinese daughter;

A graphic designer whose life implodes during the dot com bust;

An educator who celebrates her choice to be single;

A mom with young children who has fallen off the corporate ladder...

At My Pace is a book about ordinary women who share their extraordinary stories, celebrating our individual choices with refreshing candor and wisdom.  Their stories will inspire, amuse and maybe even guide you.

Monday, April 27, 2015

From Our Portland Oregon Colleagues!

Hello JSC community,
I am delighted to be one of three featured tellers for this weekend's event:

Tell It Like It Is: Portland’s Jewish Storytelling Festival

Shaarie Torah is pleased to host Tell It Like It Is: Portland’s Jewish Storytelling Festival this upcoming May 2 & 3 with featured Storytellers: Maggid Cassandra Sagan, Sacred Storyteller Brian Rohr and Musician/Teller Eric Stern of Vagabond Opera.  The Jewish Federation of Portland is co-sponsoring.

This Festival will bring together classical and maggid-style storytelling, The Moth-style personal narrative with Emcee Boaz Frankel, storytelling workshops for those who want to learn the art, and even events for kids with Devorah Spilman. The Festival culminates in a performance by the magnificent Bohemian cabaret ensemble Vagabond Opera.
More information at:

Thanks and many blessings,

-Brian Rohr

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Invitation to anyone interested in the upcoming institute at East
Tennessee State University.

Traditional Storytelling and the Creative Mind
Guest Instructor: Shonaleigh Cumbers
“STOR 5830-010”

DATES: July 6-10, 2015
“Traditional stories are as relevant today as they have ever been: they are
humanity's most supple, sophisticated and incisive resources for uniting the
heart, mind, and senses.”
ABOUT SHONALEIGH: Shonaleigh Cumbers is a drut’syla, her grandmother’s
term for a traditional Jewish storyteller. The essence of this traditional
way of learning is to place the stories in an intricately woven imaginative
landscape in which all of the stories coexist and reinforce one another. With
over four thousand stories in her head, Shonaleigh has mastered the entire
drut'syla repertoire. By the age of 14 she had to know the Rabbinical cycles,
the Babylonian cycles, and a wide range of Yiddish and Hasidic story cycles.
This workshop offers a unique opportunity to study the basis for such
traditional learning and insight, starting with the Five Midrash, a series of
exercises in myth, imagination, and creativity. This five-day Institute is
the first of its kind on drut’syla storytelling methods in the United
States--an opportunity not to be missed. Please join us at East Tennessee
State University as we explore these ancient landscapes of traditional Jewish
For more info contact: ETSU Storytelling - - 423.439.7863

Thursday, April 16, 2015

This article about Peninnah Schram appeared on April 15, 2015 in the Stern College/YU student newspaper The Observer:

A Storied Career: Peninnah Schram, Professor and 

Award-Winning Storyteller, Retires

This article about Peninnah Schram appeared on April 15, 2015 in the Stern College/YU student newspaper The Observer:

A Storied Career: Peninnah Schram, Professor and Award-Winning Storyteller, Retires

By SHALVA GINSPARG • Published: APRIL 13, 2015
Peninnah Schram, professor of Speech and Drama at SCW for over four decades, retired this fall. Schram first joined the Speech and Drama department in 1969. In the intervening years, she created and taught the first Jewish Storytelling course, published twelve books of Jewish folktales, and was nationally recognized for her work in storytelling. With new projects on the horizon, including a book on Jewish love stories, Schram says that she looks forward to many more “new and fascinating adventures” as she prepares to embark on this next chapter in her life.

Schram earned her B.A. in Speech and Theatre from the University of Connecticut and her M.A., also in Speech and Theatre, from Columbia University. She was teaching Speech and Drama at Iona College in New Rochelle when former Dean David Mirsky interviewed her in 1969 for a position at Stern College.

“How this interview came about is a miracle story of an Elijah the Prophet opening a door for me,” Schram says, “but that’s a story for another time.”

Over the decades-long career that followed, Schram says that she was “blessed with so many highlights.” One that stands out to her was when Dean Mirsky asked her to teach a course in Jewish Storytelling in the mid-70s.
“It was the first such course ever taught in any college,” Schram says. “One of my students in that class – Rachayl Eckstein Davis – has remained in my life as a dear friend and we co-authored a book three years ago (The Apple Tree’s Discovery).”

Another highlight for Schram was when she took her History of Theatre class to see the off-Broadway one-woman play Hannah Senesh.

“In that class was Amy Gordon Guterson,” recalls Schram. “As we were leaving the theatre, I turned to Amy and said ‘This is your role!’ A few years later, she starred in this play at a special performance at Stern College. She was brilliant in that role, as I knew she would be!”

Stern’s first theatre major, Guterson says she found in Schram “someone who melded the Jewish world and the creative world with such a can-do spirit.” It was a model that paved the way for Guterson’s own career in the Jewish creative arts.

After graduating from Stern, Guterson went on to study at the Herbert Berghof Studio with Uta Hagen and then studied with Mike Nichols (the director) and improv specialist Paul Sills at the New Actors Workshop. She has since founded Kol Isha, a women’s theatre company in Pittsburgh, as well as the post-high school Jewish arts seminary, Tzohar Seminary for Chassidus and the Arts, also in Pittsburgh.

Today, Guterson and Schram are still in close contact. “She’s been one of the great mentors of my life,” Guterson says about Schram. “People have different mentors at different stages of their lives, but Peninnah’s stayed with me. She’s a friend, and at this point, a family member.”

Among the specific life skills Guterson says that she gained from Schram is a “yes and” attitude. “In improvisation,” Guterson explains, “you always want a ‘yes and’ feeling—‘yes and…here’s something else I can give you’—as opposed to a ‘no but!’ That’s the creative spirit in essence and that is what Peninnah embodied.”

Guterson also credits Schram with teaching her the importance of focus. Guterson recalls that Schram would often say, and illustrate through example, that “the way to get a lot of things done is to focus on what you’re doing in the moment.”

Not only do Schram’s students testify to her role as a mentor, but so too do her colleagues within the Speech department. Professor Reuven Russell, current professor of Speech and Drama, expresses his gratitude at having had the opportunity to be mentored by Schram.

“I’m teaching 9 years now and my class is really modeled after her and her class,” he says. “She is a terrific storyteller and a wonderful teacher and she will be missed by me and by a lot of people.”

Reflecting on her retirement, Schram says that there is much that she will miss about Stern.

“I’ll miss the ‘ritual’ of leaving my office twice a week during each semester and walk to my classroom,” she says. “As I enter into the classroom, I’ll miss seeing the faces of my students. I’ll miss meeting new students and helping them overcome their fears of public speaking and, in turn, inspiring more self-confidence to utilize this valuable and much-needed art and skill in their personal and professional lives. I’ll miss seeing the changes and improvements during the semester.”

Though she says she has a lot of “mixed emotions at the thought of retirement,” she also has many projects on the horizon. She is co-authoring a book on Jewish love stories which will include love stories from the Tanakh, from folktales, historical love letters and contemporary personal stories. She is also on the faculty of the new Jewish Spiritual Education Maggid-training project and is continuing to teach and perform Jewish folktales at synagogues and conferences. For example, this past February, she was a featured presenter at LimmudNY.

Schram also looks forward to having more time to be a grandmother. “Of course, it goes without saying,” Schram says, “that retiring from YU will also mean that I can visit Israel more often – or for longer times – to visit my daughter and her husband and their 3 sabra children who live there. I can also spend more time with my son and his wife and their son who live in the NY area.”

Adds Schram, “I have many blessings in my life and, as long as I will have my health, I plan to continue as a storyteller and educator.”

Reflecting on Professor Schram’s speech class in a recent email, one of her students wrote, “You gave us encouragement, you gave us confidence. You taught us about life. I will forever cherish those days in class with you and will always carry the lessons you taught us.”

Echoing these sentiments, Dean Bacon recently commended her long-time colleague for a career marked by excellence and commitment.

“Professor Schram,” said Bacon, “took good speakers and helped them get better. She enabled those who did not think they had a public voice to find that voice. With a gentle hand but with steely determination she made sure that each Stern College woman who entered her class would leave with new skills and with enhanced confidence.”
Concluded Bacon, “as a guide and teacher she was the best, and as a consummate storyteller she has created a marvelous legacy.”