Penin­nah’s World: A Jew­ish Life in Stories 

  • Review
By – September 7, 2022

Penin­nah Pearl Schram is an acclaimed Jew­ish sto­ry­teller. Writ­ten by a schol­ar for whom Schram served as a doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion com­mit­tee mem­ber, this autho­rized biog­ra­phy art­ful­ly cap­tures Schram’s jour­ney in a series of chap­ters — each of which reads like a com­plete story.

Schram (née Man­ches­ter) was born in 1934 to immi­grant par­ents and spent her ear­ly years in the coastal city of New Lon­don, Con­necti­cut. Her father was a Jew­ish vocal­ist (chaz­zan) who also per­formed cir­cum­ci­sions and rit­u­al slaugh­ters, while her moth­er was an indus­tri­ous busi­ness­woman. They show­ered her with sto­ries, music, wis­dom, and love. She learned moral­i­ty, empa­thy, and strength of char­ac­ter from oft-repeat­ed folk­tales and bib­li­cal sto­ries. An intel­li­gent and resource­ful young­ster, she devel­oped a love of the­ater and speech in school and col­lege. She met aca­d­e­m­ic and social suc­cess and was ever eager for new expe­ri­ences and opportunities.

The nar­ra­tive fol­lows Schram through engag­ing anec­dotes and can­did accounts as she attends col­lege, trav­els, mar­ries, and has chil­dren. It tracks how she honed her the­atri­cal skills, set­tled into NYC domes­tic­i­ty, and then lost her hus­band Irv­ing at a young age. After his death, the sin­gle par­ent of two began teach­ing at Iona Col­lege. Through a serendip­i­tous meet­ing at a wed­ding she reluc­tant­ly attends, the dean at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty offers her a posi­tion. She rejects it, but a year lat­er accepts his offer of a pro­fes­sor­ship at Stern Col­lege for Women. Her pas­sion for per­for­mance and immer­sion in Jew­ish tra­di­tions allows her to devel­op the first col­lege course in Jew­ish Storytelling.

Schram has become a trail­blaz­er in Jew­ish folk­lore. She read and taped sto­ries for the Jew­ish Braille Insti­tute; imple­ment­ed a sto­ry­telling pro­gram for chil­dren at the 92nd Street Y; broad­cast­ed over the Jew­ish radio sta­tion WEVD; and brought her art­form to the Jew­ish Muse­um. Among her oth­er accom­plish­ments, she orga­nized the Jew­ish Sto­ry­telling Cen­ter (CAJE), appeared at Nation­al Sto­ry­telling Fes­ti­vals, and authored many books and antholo­gies. Her tal­ent and per­son­al­i­ty bring her acco­lades, numer­ous awards, and recog­ni­tion as the cen­tral fig­ure respon­si­ble for the reemer­gence of Jew­ish sto­ry­telling. What’s more, she counts Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, and oth­er Jew­ish lumi­nar­ies in her acquired cir­cle as her friends, men­tors, and colleagues.

Caren Schnur Neile has strung Schram’s sto­ries with poet­ic lan­guage and rel­ished exam­ples of Jew­ish sto­ries — fit­ting, con­sid­er­ing the sto­ry­teller Schram her­self is.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions