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.

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