…Make my voice expres­sive and clear so that the col­lec­tive wis­dom of our peo­ple can reach the hearts of those who listen.

…Make me wor­thy to be a sto­ry­teller of our Jew­ish people. 

-Penin­nah Schram, My Storyteller’s Prayer” 

It is Jan­u­ary 2023, and I am stand­ing in the West Bank head­quar­ters of the peace orga­ni­za­tion Roots/​Judur/​Shorashim, sur­round­ed by about thir­ty Jews and Pales­tini­ans. We are wind­ing up the last of the sto­ry­telling work­shops I have con­duct­ed here over the past three weeks. I am in the midst of per­form­ing a sto­ry, with the help of Ara­bic and Hebrew inter­preters, that weaves togeth­er the tales I have heard in the time that I have been liv­ing and work­ing in the area. 

At one point in the per­for­mance, I tell the fol­low­ing Chas­sidic tale: The great Baal Shem Tov (the Besht) said: The per­fect man will see no evil. If one per­ceives evil, it is because he him­self has some of that evil, and he was led to see it so that he can cor­rect it in him­self.” Then the rab­bi met a man who had des­e­crat­ed the Sab­bath. After fast­ing and prayer, the Besht real­ized that in fact, he him­self had dis­re­spect­ed a man whose name was Sabbath.

It is then that I begin to won­der: Am I com­ing across few­er peo­ple late­ly who deval­ue sto­ry­telling because I am valu­ing it more myself?

For the past cou­ple of decades, I have been a Jew­ish sto­ry­teller, writer, and researcher, fol­low­ing in the giant (albeit ele­gant) foot­steps of the great Penin­nah Schram, whose biog­ra­phy, Peninnah’s World: A Jew­ish Life in Sto­ries, I was priv­i­leged to write. At a time when STEM cours­es are edg­ing out the human­i­ties at an alarm­ing rate, the aver­age per­son might be for­giv­en for ques­tion­ing the impor­tance of a book about the life of one of storytelling’s great­est prac­ti­tion­ers. Per­for­mance is not gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered as valu­able to soci­ety as it once was, and sto­ry­tellers have long been the Rod­ney Dan­ger­fields (that is, we get no respect”) of per­for­mance artists. Indeed, I have some­times asked myself, in a world gone mad, is the prac­tice of sto­ry­telling the best use of my time, tal­ents, and education?

Writ­ing and shar­ing Peninnah’s World has answered that ques­tion for me with a resound­ing yes.” My two-fold goal for the book was first­ly, to intro­duce (to some) and hon­or a leg­end in my field — Penin­nah Schram, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta at Stern Col­lege and a very active author, per­former, teacher, and researcher. My sec­ond inten­tion was my desire to demon­strate how beau­ti­ful­ly sto­ry­telling is able to unpack how our cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives impact the indi­vid­u­als we are, as well as the world we cre­ate and inhabit.

Case in point: Roots/​Judur/​Shorashim brought me to the West Bank (with gen­er­ous fund­ing from B’nai Torah Con­gre­ga­tion in Boca Raton, Flori­da, as well as a pri­vate donor) to tell and elic­it sto­ries from Israelis and Pales­tini­ans, because the lead­er­ship of this orga­ni­za­tion under­stands the impor­tance of shar­ing and cel­e­brat­ing cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences in pur­suit of respect and, even­tu­al­ly, peace. This is in con­trast to the stan­dard agen­das of peace orga­ni­za­tions, which tend to encour­age the idea that we and our per­ceived ene­mies are all, in fact, the same. I knew that my work was a good fit for Roots, because the project of folk­lore clas­si­fi­ca­tion is to high­light the dif­fer­ences among vari­ants rather than the sim­i­lar­i­ties. For exam­ple, the sto­ry of Cin­derel­la appears in hun­dreds of forms across the globe, includ­ing as Yehsin in Chi­na and Vasil­isa in Rus­sia, and reflects the unique and beau­ti­ful vicis­si­tudes of each cul­ture in which it is told. 

With this in mind, I had planned to focus on folk­tales from the two groups, hop­ing that I could help par­tic­i­pants hon­or and under­stand the other’s culture. 

Dur­ing my work in the West Bank, I heard sto­ries of Djo­ha, the trick­ster char­ac­ter from the Ara­bic tra­di­tion. One par­tic­i­pant told me that Djo­ha was once forced to sell his house at a price far below mar­ket val­ue. He agreed to sell every­thing except a sin­gle nail. Every few days, he would go back to his old house to vis­it that nail. Some­times he hung a pic­ture on it, some­times a coat. Some­times he brought his fam­i­ly around to see it. At last, the new own­er got the hint. He paid an exor­bi­tant amount just to final­ly own that lit­tle nail!

These sto­ries are impor­tant reminders that who we are as indi­vid­u­als is direct­ly relat­ed to who we are as a peo­ple, that we do not exist in a vac­u­um, but rather on a foun­da­tion devel­oped long before we existed.

When I asked Pales­tin­ian women at a dif­fer­ent work­shop if they had any sto­ries about Djo­ha, how­ev­er, they respond­ed with blank stares. I kept repeat­ing the name, know­ing full well that he was an impor­tant fig­ure in their folk­lore. After a long silence, one of the women went on to anoth­er top­ic. All of the sud­den the Pales­tin­ian staff mem­ber said, Ah, Djo­ha! Yes of course!” We all burst out laugh­ing, because clear­ly that’s what I thought I’d said. She went on to relate sev­er­al tales about him.

The Jews also knew folk­tales. Some­one remem­bered the sto­ry from the Tal­mud about the gem need­ed to replace that which was miss­ing from the High Priest’s breast­plate. A buy­er approached the jew­el­er who pos­sessed it, in order to hand it over to the priest. But the jew­el­er would have to dis­turb his sleep­ing father to obtain it. The buy­er kept offer­ing more mon­ey, but the son refused to dis­hon­or his father. Not till his father awak­ened could he sell the jew­el, and then only for the orig­i­nal price.

Through­out the three weeks of work­shops, we also heard par­tic­i­pants’ per­son­al expe­ri­ence sto­ries, includ­ing one from a woman thrown into prison for talk­ing back to a sol­dier, and anoth­er from the woman who required 100 stitch­es on her face because she was attacked by a per­son who threw a rock that shat­tered her wind­shield. Anoth­er sto­ry was from the young man who was treat­ed kind­ly by a sol­dier for being out past mil­i­tary cur­few as a child, only to be lam­bast­ed by his father. Anoth­er from a woman who began to wish Pales­tin­ian work­ers in her vil­lage Ramadan kareem (lit­er­al­ly, gen­er­ous Ramadan) dur­ing the hol­i­day and saw how this sim­ple state­ment of respect led to real dia­logue and relationships.

It should come as no sur­prise that the sto­ries that peo­ple tell about them­selves reflect the val­ues of the sto­ries of their her­itage, sto­ries that are in fact also embed­ded in their pop­u­lar cul­ture. (Con­sid­er the Julia Roberts 1990 movie Pret­ty Woman, a mod­ern retelling of Cin­derel­la in the US.) These sto­ries are impor­tant reminders that who we are as indi­vid­u­als is direct­ly relat­ed to who we are as a peo­ple, that we do not exist in a vac­u­um, but rather on a foun­da­tion devel­oped long before we exist­ed. This is true whether or not we actu­al­ly expe­ri­ence our folk­lore, as Schram did grow­ing up in an Ortho­dox house­hold that ven­er­at­ed not only the spo­ken word, but also the food, music, and oth­er ele­ments of Jew­ish tradition.

There are numer­ous rea­sons that adult sto­ry­telling is cur­rent­ly enjoy­ing renewed atten­tion. The extra­or­di­nary suc­cess of The Moth sto­ry­telling slam, as well as the slams it has spawned, is one. The rise in con­fes­sion­al writ­ing in print and online is anoth­er. Or maybe it’s not more pop­u­lar than ever. Maybe I just see it every­where, because when you feel like you’ve got a ter­rif­ic ham­mer, every­thing looks like a nail. 

Through­out Peninnah’s World, I inter­spersed about a dozen of Schram’s sig­na­ture sto­ries, one of which I retell here, because it encap­su­lates every­thing that the book is about.

In a cer­tain king­dom, the peo­ple main­tained an unusu­al tra­di­tion for choos­ing a king when the old one died. The for­mer king’s advis­ers released the Bird of Hap­pi­ness. It flew around the heads of the country’s men, and whomev­er it land­ed upon became the next king.

It came to pass that a king died, and the rit­u­al was per­formed as usu­al. This time, how­ev­er, to the amuse­ment and hor­ror of the cit­i­zens, the bird alight­ed on the head of the court jester.

You must put away your cap of bells, your drum, and your fool­ish cloth­ing,” the advis­ers told him stern­ly. Now that you are king, you must wear this crown and these robes. And above all, remem­ber that you are the king, and not the jester.”

The first thing the new king did was to arrange for a small shack to be built near the palace. Every once in a while, peo­ple saw him dis­ap­pear into the shack, car­ry­ing his old jester’s cap, drum, bells, and cloth­ing. After a while he emerged and returned to the palace.

Even­tu­al­ly the elders start­ed to whis­per. The bravest among them final­ly asked the king, Sire, what is it that you do in that shack?”

I put on my jester’s cos­tume,” he said. To be effec­tive in the world, I must always remem­ber where I came from. I must remem­ber where I came from, and who I am.”

And so, I sug­gest, must we all.

Caren Schnur Neile, Ph.D., MFA, is a per­for­mance sto­ry­teller who teach­es sto­ry­telling stud­ies at Flori­da Atlantic Uni­ver­si­ty. A pub­lic radio per­son­al­i­ty and colum­nist in South Flori­da, she has pub­lished six books, includ­ing her most recent: A Jew­ish Jour­ney, with Sam Ron.