Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Greatest Stories Ever Told

photoSince writing a regular column for the Sun-Sentinel Jewish Journal, I’ve started looking at stories in a new way. Lately, I have been thinking of them more in terms of what they do for those for whom religion matters.

To backtrack a moment: Literature professors look at stories for their internal meanings; interpretation, for them, is an act of decoding (to borrow a term from semiotics) to discover hidden meanings that may, incidentally, be unknown even to the writers themselves. Communication scholars, on the other hand, examine stories for their external meanings. What do stories do in the world? What do they do for their tellers and their listeners? How are they used to achieve a conscious or unconscious goal?

Here’s an example: I once brought in to my university the remarkable First Nation storyteller Dovie Thomason. In the course of her performance, she mentioned that traditionally, Native children don’t get punished when they misbehave. Instead, they are told stories about the infraction they committed. So if, say, Dovie played with matches in the house, she would hear a story about the dangers of playing with fire. That would be an example of how a communication class would look at stories. We are not examining them on the micro level of language so much as on the macro level of family and society.

Back to religion. Why is the Bible chock full of stories? What do the stories do for those who read it?

The simple answer is: This is history and law, and we have to learn it. Period.

For many people, that’s enough. As a seminary graduate, however, this doesn’t do it for me. We learned that the Torah (the word refers to the Old Testament) was written by a number of human beings, with different perspectives and different agendas. So in effect, we studied it from the point of view of a religion class, a literature class and a communication class. The “literature” part was to study the motivation of Moses and Jonah, the incomparable poetry of the writing, the way that stories unfolded. The “communication” aspect was to discuss why certain authors contributed certain stories from certain perspectives. (Some had political motives; some more religious motives; at least one was supposedly female, which might give her another motivation altogether.)

So as a Seminary graduate and a communication instructor, I am looking at the Bible lately and saying, “Wow. They knew that stories teach us, engage us and help us remember better than any other form of instruction.” That is to say, whether or not the Bible is a true history of events is not for me to discuss, at least not here. In making this particular point, it is irrelevant. What matters is the ingenious way that the author(s) of the Bible—whether human or Divine—put forth their messages.

I often say that infotainment, such a dirty word in elite media, is actually the best way to learn. Why does something have to taste bad to be good for you? Why can’t we enjoy our learning? The masters of the oral tradition, long before writing was developed, knew that the way to keep people interested in math, science or moral education was to entertain and educate at the same time: to tell them a good story.

You may have noticed that I left out how we studied the Bible from a religious standpoint at the Seminary—not the Bible as literature, not the Bible as communication, but the Bible as spiritual guide. From my perspective, all these years later, I would say that the spiritual part of my training encompassed both literature and communication. We learned that the Torah, whether or not it was a work of history, was, most importantly, a great work of metaphor, of symbol. Thus the ancient sages could argue forever about its meaning, about how we are meant to live. What does Abraham’s binding of Isaac (the story known as the “Akedah”) mean for us today? What does it tell us about relating not only to God, but also to our parents, children, animals, servants and social responsibilities?

From a communication standpoint, we also learned that the Bible is an important tool for teaching us how to be better citizens of the world. Thus one interpretation of the story of human beings’ appearance on the sixth and final day of creation was to tell us we are stewards of the earth.

Most importantly for me, the Bible reminds us of the overwhelming power of storytelling.


When Stories Create Us

dalailama I am reading a wonderful book called Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-narratology, by Arthur Frank. It reminds me a bit of another counterintuitive book I read about a decade ago, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, in that it questions our dominant narrative of being in control of our own actions. That’s so important to us in the modern world, isn’t it? I think many of us would agree that being free to make our own choices, whether it’s what to have for dinner, where to live or whom, and whether, to marry, is worth fighting for, if not dying for.

The authors of these books might at first be amused to have them compared, because one, Frank, is a narratologist writing about storytelling, while the others, Dawkins, is a biogist writing about genes. However in both cases the fascinating point is made that while we think we are in charge, actually we have limited self-determination. Frank argues we literally embody the stories we are told by our families, our schools, our houses of worship, our governments, the media, etc. Almost like automatons, we are “programmed” to live out certain scripts. Sometimes we may rebel against those scripts, but even our rebellion is choreographed. In other words, how do we know how to behave at all? How do we know what to like, dislike, value, scorn? By virtue of the stories with which we come into contact. (A simplification of the gene argument, which is less interesting to me, for obvious reasons, is that the goal of our genes is to survive, and so they induce us to do all kinds of things to stay fertile and multiply.)

Now without going so far as to echo Martin Luther’s argument against free will, I will quickly state another side of this argument, which I am, again, oversimplifying. Education, travel, talking to a variety of people and reading a variety of material, critical thinking—all these elements can at the very lest help us determine the best course of action for ourselves. Of course, even that will be a script. It is, in other words, probably impossible to live a way, or think a way, that has absolutely no precedent. What’s more, it’s exhausting. I read once, for example, that the brain is designed to NOT have to think. In other words, thinking expends a lot of energy, which is always assumed by the body to be at a premium, Big Macs notwithstanding. So our brains are geared to develop shortcuts, to rely on old patterns (neuronal pathways) that we can travel and retravel and retravel again. It’s a whole lot easier to walk the same way to the bus stop, or drive the same way to work, or get ready for bed in the same order, than to have to rethink and reorder it every day.

What does this line of argument mean for us on a daily basis? First, it’s just interesting; at least I find it so. Second, it tells us that stories are more important than we ever thought. They actually do things and make us do things for them, in part to keep them alive. And third—maybe we don’t have to feel quite so bad about our poor decisions and actions.

On the other hand, maybe we can’t feel so proud when we succeed.








On Being a Jewish Storyteller

shalomyall A funny, wonderful, astonishing, helpful thing happened to me this summer: I became a full-fledged Jewish storyteller. Now don’t get me wrong: I was always Jewish, and I have been a storyteller since as long as I can remember. Maybe half of my storytelling performance work has been with Jewish groups for a good many years. I’ve told updated versions of Old Testament stories, Jewish folklore and literary tales; I’ve even lectured on Isaac Bashevis Singer and Philip Roth, two Jewish literary giants. I’ve contributed to an encyclopedia of Jewish literature, and I’ve edited or ghosted two books on Jewish themes. I even majored in Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  But it wasn’t until this summer that I really came out of the Jewish closet.

Here’s how it happened: At the beginning of the summer, I knew I had to do something big in order to get work for the coming season. So I contacted the Jewish supplement to our local paper—you know you’re in a Jewish area when such a thing exists, given that there are only six million Jews in the country—and they ran the piece. From that, and the subsequent re-running of the piece in the community section of the paper—slow news month, I guess—I got a lot of work. Then, a couple of months later, I arranged to do a twice-monthly column in the same supplement.

So what’s the big deal? First and foremost, I am delighted for the work. Work is a good thing; don’t let anybody tell you different. Second, storytellers generally feel really secure when they have a comfortable niche, particularly when it’s something that’s authentically theirs, like an African-American’s telling African folktales, or a—well, a Jew telling Jewish ones. We tend to get a little queasy when we feel like someone is appropriating another culture without sufficiently earning that right.

But most of all, I am just more comfortable than I’ve ever been—although I’m not 100 percent there yet—letting the non-Jewish world know that this is who I am and this is what I do. If I were black, I’d have nothing on that subject to hide, whether I wanted to or not. It’s those things that can be more easily hidden—being Jewish, being gay, for instance—that somehow feel, at least to many of us, like we shouldn’t bring them out into the open unless we are compelled to do so. Of course historically there is good reason for this. The Boca Raton Hotel & Club down the street from my house was “restricted,” not allowing Jews to pass through its doors, a mere 60 years ago. I graduated from Columbia University, which did not, to my knowledge, accept more than a small quota of Jews early on in its history.

Even now, I wonder if I’m really going to post this. Even now, I think: There is so much prejudice in the world, so much hatred, why open myself up to it? But that’s the thing about storytelling. After a good long week of it (I had three gigs yesterday plus I taught two, three-hour university classes on the subject this week, then recorded for my radio show today) opening up becomes a more-or-less natural state. Not only that, but opening up feels like it could even be a healthy and joyful choice.

Happy new year, world. I am a Jewish storyteller.

Hearing Is Believing

earI’ve been doing quite a bit of introductory storytelling lecturing lately, given that it’s the beginning of the semester. One of the concepts I typically bring out in these early discussions is the fact that audiences, at least in the Western tradition, remember infinitely more that they see in a presentation (the visual) than tone of voice or content. Some researchers have even put the ratio at 78, 15 and 7 percent. So, I argue, storytelling is especially effective because the vast majority of us (as many as 97 percent) get visual images in our minds when we hear a story. Thus, the argument goes, storytelling, albeit an oral art form, contributes to discourse on a visual, and thus particularly potent, level.

At least that’s the point I’ve been making for years. Then yesterday it occurred to me that the argument privileges the visual. In other words, it takes as a given that we are visual beings and equates “visual” with “potent.” So the more “visual” storytelling becomes, even if those pictures are only in our heads, the better, or at least more effective, it is.

It isn’t like that everywhere, of course, and it hasn’t always been that way here. I have read that there are indigenous tribes for which smelling, rather than seeing, is believing, and certainly pre-literate peoples and the blind are going to believe, at least partly, in hearing.  As time goes on, however, our communal sense of sight becomes more and more important (it’s not easy using a computer, or experiencing (I first wrote “watching,” but corrected it, because we also listen to) a film or TV show, if our sense of sight is not strong–not to mention driving a car or walking down a city street. We rely less on our hearing, smell, taste and touch, not to mention instinct, the proverbial “sixth” sense, because sight is predominant.

But how many times have our eyes fooled us? I will never forget meeting a former colleague in his office on the first day of his new job. He looked—and sounded—fine. No shaky hands, no quavering voice, and his words were confident and smooth. But—I hope you’re not eating while you read this—I could smell his fear from across the room. And last night, experiencing television in the living room, I could smell my husband’s bread burning in the toaster oven in the kitchen. We hadn’t heard the toaster alarm go off, a sure sign that the food was done, because he had accidentally set it on BAKE.

Then there are all the other buzzers and alarms in our lives, the cellphones going off, the babies’ cries, the “you’ve got mail” chimes. When I taste the soy milk to find out (I accidentally wrote “see”–“see” how vision-centric I am?) if it’s gone bad, my sight doesn’t help me at all. When I squeeze the tomato to find out if it’s ready to eat, my sight isn’t worth anything, either.

So where am I going with this? I have come to understand—NOT to see—that I am denigrating storytelling, aka the oral narrative tradition, by suggesting that it’s powerful because it’s got a visual component. Far better for me, or at least more interesting, to say: Let’s listen to the world around us. It speaks volumes.