…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.