The Beginning of the Jewish Storytelling Coalition and Its Importance
by Hanna Bandes Geshelin, (c) 2019
How was the Jewish Storytelling Coalition started, and why is it important? As I sit at my desk pondering this question, I look out my front window at the hills of the northern Galilee. In the distance I see New Pekiin, the modern section of a village that has had a continuous Jewish presence since the time of the Second Temple. Nearer are wooded hills, a creek and a nature preserve where jackals, wild boars, and other creatures live. On some hilltops nearby are Druze, Christian Arab, and Muslim Arab villages as well as tiny Jewish communities. I am just a few kilometers from the Lebanese border in the friendly mountain city of Ma'alot, population around 20,000, where I have a full and rich religious and social life.
It was my desire to live a Jewish life in a small town that led, oddly enough, to the founding of the Jewish Storytelling Coalition in 1989. I had been living in Brookline, Massachusetts for ten years, and while I had a satisfactory spiritual life I was unhappy living in the city. Living as a Jew in a small community was difficult; I knew this from the seven years I had lived in Idaho and Utah. My isolation in those places drew me back to the Boston area where I had lived twice before. While I had a rich Jewish life in Brookline, I struggled socially. Neither a city sophisticate, urban rebel, nor suburbanite, I had no natural cohort even in the Jewish community. I was discouraged from making aliyah by the Jewish Agency, whose representatives told me that without a degree in social work or nursing I would not find work outside of a big city. Israel was just beginning to emerge from Third World status, and there was no other work for college-educated people in development towns. I was too old and too single to be accepted into a kibbutz or moshav, where membership had strict requirements that I did not meet.
My desire to live both a Jewish and a small-town life drew me, around 1987, to a conference on rural Jewry held in northern Vermont. Maybe, I thought, I could find a way or a place where I would be more comfortable. I enjoyed the conference, although it offered no answers to my questions. I got a ride back to Brookline with Herman Brown, director of the Boston Workmen's Circle, a Yiddish workers' organization that was trying to find itself in the post-Yiddish labor movement world. In the course of our three-hour ride he learned that I was a Jewish storyteller. Always on the lookout for programming that would draw people to his organization's facility in Brookline, he started brainstorming with me. I was not interested in organizing anything, I just wanted to get out of the city. But Herman didn't give up. He called me every few weeks, asking how my plans for a Jewish storytelling "something" were coming. Finally I caved and agreed to run a conference.
We set a date in March and I got busy. I had studied storytelling with Doug Lipman in 1986 and attended monthly storytelling get-togethers where some of the other storytellers were also Jewish. I contacted people I knew and started planning. With press releases in the Jewish Advocate, Boston Globe and the Herald, as well as the local storytelling network and the Workmen's Circle mailings, the conference was advertised. I had no idea if anyone would turn up. To my surprise, we had about 40 people that first year. At Herman's urging I set out a sign-up list for people interested in a Jewish storytelling organization. Those people became the founding members of the Jewish Storytelling Coalition and helped me plan and run the conference for the next several years.
The conference continued to grow and draw interest. Opportunities for storytelling gigs increased; talented storytellers began to grow in the JSC's supportive atmosphere. I married in 1995 and moved away, losing touch with the organization. Because of trouble with my voice I stopped telling stories shortly thereafter. But the organization continued to flourish.
So why is the Jewish Storytelling Coalition important? It is important because it is a clearinghouse for Jewish storytelling. If you Google "Jewish storytelling," the Jewish Storytelling Coalition's website, www.jewishstorytellers.com, comes up on the first page. It has a national directory of Jewish storytellers and is a primary method of connecting places looking for storytellers with practitioners of the art. The telling of the stories of our people has an importance that we cannot fathom. People who would never sit down at a rabbi's class, people who have never sat in a Hebrew or Jewish Sunday School classroom, may be enthralled by the folktales of our people. And ours, both silly and serious, are teaching tales, not meandering anecdotes that go nowhere. For thousands of years our stories have been an important means of educating our people, of transmitting our history, culture, and values.
The event that crystallized the importance of Jewish storytelling for me happened later the same summer that I met Herman. I was hired by a Jewish summer camp to tell stories during the Three Weeks, the period between the 17th of Tammuz, when the Romans breached the wall of Jerusalem, and Tisha B'Av, the day of the destruction of the Second Temple and the taking of the Jewish people as slaves to Rome. Our tradition teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among the Jewish people. Remember the uniquely Jewish punchline, "You're right, and he's also right?" Ours is the only religious tradition where ambiguity in belief is tolerated. On Tisha B'Av we are told to put hatred aside and get along even with those with whom we disagree, because baseless hatred--hatred caused by differences such as those of opinion, rather than by direct acts of violence or violation--is wrong and causes destruction.
The camp director asked me to come up on a Sunday afternoon to tell traditional stories, including about Tisha B'Av. I rented a car, loaded my sound system, costume and sack supper, and headed north. The drive to the camp took about two hours. When I arrived, I was told that the campers had had their annual tennis tournament that day, so they were tired and ready for a quiet activity. I changed into my costume, took my sound system, and headed with a counselor to the building where I would perform. But we discovered there was no power in the building. A dead squirrel on the ground beneath the chewed supply line told the story. Until an electrician could come there would be no power. It was a hot day; there was no other room big enough for all the campers. The counselor and maintenance man scurried around looking for lanterns and flashlights to illuminate the stage. I would have to project my voice.
The windowless room was pitch black except for the small lights across the front of the stage, which may have illuminated me but did nothing to dispel the blackness of the hall itself. I heard shuffling as the campers filed in, but it did not sound like the three hundred kids I had been told to expect. How many were in the hall I could not tell. The campers were absolutely silent. Perhaps they fell asleep, I thought. I segued from one story to the next without the applause that usually follows completion of a story, imagining I was speaking to an empty room. When I finished my program there was, again, no applause, just a small amount of rustling that sounded like three rats leaving the building, not a bunch of campers. I felt I had just concluded an exercise in total futility. Two hours up, two hours back, an hour setting up, and getting ready to return home. The expense of the rental car. Wasted. Back in the office, the counselor apologized for my difficulties and handed me payment. "Next year," he said, "after the tournament I think we should just have free time." Yes, I thought, good idea.
I started for my car. I was grumbling about being laden down with my unused equipment when a boy of perhaps eleven years stepped up. "Can I help you to your car?" he asked. I gladly relinquished my speaker and mic. As we walked, he said, "I really liked that story you told about how stupid hatred between two men caused the destruction of Jerusalem. It made me think. This is my third year at this camp, and there's a boy here I just don't like. I don't even remember why I don't like him, but we have never gotten along. I do stupid things to hurt him, and he does stupid things to hurt me. But it's wrong. I am going to speak to him today and apologize for the things I've done to him. Maybe we won't ever be friends, but it would be really good if we could stop being enemies. I'm going to try."
One story had hit its mark. The miles home flew by as I considered that one boy had just taken a huge step toward responsible adulthood because he had heard and understood a story from our past. The message of the tragic tale of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza was still resonating 1917 years after it occurred, still helping our young people grow into thoughtful and compassionate Jews. That is the importance of story: people listen for entertainment and, more often than we can know, absorb and grow from the lessons. This is the reason that Jewish tales are important. This is the reason that the Jewish Storytelling Coalition and its directory of Jewish storytellers matter.