Monthly Archives: October 2013

When Storytelling Does Not Promote Memory

dadA funny thing happened to me recently on the way to a story. I had related a family tale about my deceased father for my column in the Sun-Sentinel Jewish Journal and sent the piece to my mom, because I thought it would please her. It did, but she pointed out a correction: The plot of the story was just as I had described it from memory, but I had misremembered the setting. I set the story at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where logic told me it had occurred, because it involved my Trenton-based grandfather’s visiting my dad in 1942 at an Army base. However, the story had actually happened at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

There are times, like this one, when life imitates academia. I am always explaining to students that in the heyday of the oral tradition, when the tribal storyteller told the story of a hunt, it made no difference  whether 10 or 12 buffalo were killed; what mattered was the bravery of the hunters and the beasts. That’s why the oral tradition worked so well—numbers and details were largely unimportant, so each generation could fill in the gaps with his or her own imagination, insight and knowledge. (Sort of like some of our reportage today.) It wasn’t until commerce emerged that it mattered just how many buffalo hides were traded for just how many sheaves of wheat.

Truth, my explanation continues, comes in many forms. Two of them are (1) documentable, verifiable truth, the kind that the media (largely) aim for, and (2) universal, human Truth, such as love, fear, greed and heroism. The first kind is largely an illusion: there are so many perspectives on any one event, it is often impossible to pin down the mercury-like bubble of fact. We simply do our best. The second is more meaningful, to my mind, but appears to many eyes, and hearts, as the stuff of children’s stories, old wives’ tales, or worse. Sometimes, of course, it is. Just not always.

There is at least one reason that I will, from now on, correct my misconception about that story. My grandfather was sent (by my grandmother) with an urgent message to prevent my father from becoming a paratrooper: If he jumped out of a plane with a parachute, she told him, she would jump off her roof with an umbrella. It is even more amazing that my grandfather took a train from Trenton to North Carolina in 1942 to deliver this message than that he drove the few miles to the base in New Jersey.

In other words, it’s a better story. That means that people will have an easier time remembering it, and the values inherent in it (family love, humor, etc.) will have a greater impact. To my mind, that’s the best reason to correct it.

P.S. This family story might have taken place in 1943 or 1944. Does it matter? If more paratroopers were dying in a certain year, I would say it makes for a better story!

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Your Storytelling Correspondent from Warsaw

Sitting on a cozy sofa upstairs in an overheated cafe in Stare Miasto (Old Town) Warsaw, I am sipping passion fruit tea, listening to American pop music and watching the sun slip down the cold blue sky. And I think about my week teaching and lecturing on storytelling, which ends tomorrow.

The words storytelling and narrative are often interchanged; sometimes for good reason. Here’s one difference that sometimes surfaces between them: a narrative is the generic denotation of all specific stories on a certain theme, such as “national narrative” or “master narrative,” while a story is a specific assemblage of character, setting and plot, such as “the story of Warsaw during World War II.”

The master narrative—the guiding, hegemonic type of story—of non-Polish Americans about Poland’s role in the war, as far as I know, is one of complicity and cooperation. What I am told as a visitor here, both directly by my host and slightly less directly by monuments and guidebooks, is the Polish master narrative of that time: Poland as a “brother in blood,” Poland as victim, and Warsaw as the ultimate victim, razed to the ground.

warsawI had no idea before coming here, for instance, that the Nazi officer in charge of Warsaw ordered everyone in the city to be shot, and all the buildings to be destroyed. I had no idea about the Warsaw Uprising that led to that order. All I knew was the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Were there Poles who collaborated and cooperated with the Nazis? Of course. There are weak and evil people in every society. Do I know how I would behave, if I suddenly wandered into their story? I think about it every day here.

I came here to teach and deliver a public lecture at SWPS, a small university in Praga, which turns out to be the bohemian section of the city. (I also lectured at the much larger, more prominent University of Warsaw.) My 45 students came from countries including Ukraine, Italy, China and Vietnam. In one class in particular, I was struck by another example of the diversity of stories here. I had told an African folktale about couples who start off very close and end up warring over a foolish thing. Several of the Ukrainian students knew a similar version of the story, which at first confused them, because their assignment was to transpose the African story into that of another culture. In their story, two brothers fight over a pear tree, and it is finally split in two. It is the avoided conclusion of Solomon and the baby, because in this case, the tree is split and dies. In a beautiful burst of serendipity, I was able to pull from my bag a pear I had saved from breakfast and hand it to the student as her “prize.”

I relate these two examples of cross-cultural storytelling because, for one thing,  I am in an unfamiliar place searching for meaning wherever I can find it. But also because it is, truth be told, everywhere I look.

One last thing: I have been watching Euronews on TV here, along with CNN International and BBC. The station has a short segment called “No Comment.” It simply shows astounding video, such as that of the shooting at the mall in Nairobi or riots in France. I watch it in fascination, but I have to say: Just pointing the camera in a certain direction, just editing the footage, is commentary. It’s all commentary. It’s all storytelling.

Funny thing: That’s what I’ve been teaching all week.

A Tribute to Dov Noy

noySince the death of Israeli folklorist Dov Noy on September 30, I have been trying to remember every moment and image of the time I met him at his home in Jerusalem in 2007. I was there thanks to an introduction by my mentor Peninnah Schram, a friend and colleague of Noy’s, but as I was to find out, anyone could stop by his home for conversation about storytelling. It was a slow night, fortunately, and only one other woman arrived in the two hours I was his guest.

I adored the man instantly, the dim walk-up apartment loaded with books, the face like my late, beloved grandfather, the familiar immigrant accent, the knowledge unobscured by arrogance. I remember nothing much of the conversation; I believe I was too overawed at being in the presence of the folklorist and ethnologist whose more than sixty books, multi-university career, international reputation and founding of the Israel Folklore Archives earned him the prestigious Israel Prize for literary research.

Here’s what Dov Noy teaches me tonight: I open his 1963 classic Folktales of Israel to a random page (190) and find the following story, recorded by Zvulun Kort, as heard in his youth in Afghanistan. It is called “Where Is the Jar?” and designated as IF A 1181, Type 1284, Person Does Not Know Himself:

Mullah Nasser-E-Din went to the public baths. He washed himself and saw that all the bathers were lying on the floor, rending the ceiling and the sky with their snores. He said to himself: “How good it would be to fall into a sweet sleep!” But what could he do so as not to be exchanged for a neighbor? He took a jar, fastened it to his waist, and fell asleep.

In the meantime one of the sleepers woke up and saw the jar fastened to Nasser-E-Din’s waist. He coveted the jar, took it, and fastened it to his own waist. After a short time, Nasser-E-Din arose and saw that the jar was not there. He looked around, and lo! there it was, fastened to the waist of someone else. He woke him up and said, “My friend, if I am I, where it the jar? But if you are me, who am I?”

What pleases me so much about this story? I tell a similar tale about the Jewish schmiel Herschele Ostropolier, not as well-known perhaps as the Wise Men of Chelm in Jewish storytelling circles, but a folk hero from the Old Country just the same. In the story, he mistakenly dons the official hat of an authority figure on being awakened from a nap at a train station, and everyone suddenly treats him with respect. When he gets on the train and sees his reflection in the window, instead of saying: “Oh my God, I’ve got the wrong hat!”, his response is: “Oh my God, the porter woke up the wrong man!”

Now this should not surprise me too much. First of all, if there is a tale type and motif for the story, obviously, according to the classification system of folk narrative developed by Stith Thompson and Antti Aarne, there are other, similar stories out there. In addition, why should it shock me that a story told by Jews in Afghanistan and imported to Israel is similar to an Eastern European Jewish tale that I learned from an American book of Jewish folktales? Isn’t that, after all, the way folk narrative works?

Yes, indeed. And who taught us that? Dov Noy.

The Public Storyteller

Michael Stock co-hosts the Public Storyteller with Caren Neile

Michael Stock co-hosts  the Public Storyteller 

I look back over these posts, and I cannot for the life of me find a single mention of the project that started all of this four years ago next month: The Public Storyteller radio segment on Michael Stock’s Folk and Acoustic Music show, which has been airing on WLRN public radio for 30 years.

It was Michael Stock’s deep understanding of folk culture that led him to create with me a storytelling segment that would showcase the non-professional (usually) storytellers in our community who, through their anecdotes about life in South Florida, connect with their neighbors and help their neighbors connect with the region.

For me, this kind of thing is what public radio is all about. Why would commercial radio care about folk culture? It doesn’t sell CDs or downloads. It doesn’t even sell soap, which as we know, was the original raison d’etre for radio and television. It doesn’t even sell concert tickets.

What Michael knows is that without folk culture—the music, stories, dances, games, material objects, etc. that distinguish one culture from another and our species from other species—our lives would be subsumed by commerce even more than they are today.  If a product didn’t “sell,” it wouldn’t exist. Here’s another plug for the Internet: it’s allowing folk culture to flourish, at least for those of us with computer and Internet access.

I have been thinking about The Public Storyteller segment a lot lately. For one thing, it’s early October, and already we are booked up with storytellers eager to contribute until nearly the end of the year—a first. Maybe I’m doing my job as producer better, but I really think it’s just an idea whose time has finally come. Perhaps it’s because we’re about to record our anniversary show—who’d a thunk it would last four years? Or perhaps I’m thinking about the segment so much lately because a university press has agreed to take a look at the manuscript I am preparing celebrating the project that celebrates the stories of our neighbors. Whoever ultimately publishes it, I must be sure to clarify that while having a book is fabulous, these stories belong first and foremost in an oral medium. They rely so much on the voice and the energy of the storytellers who were generous enough to contribute a slice of their lives. The archives for the segment are at thepublicstoryteller.org.

I can’t express often enough my gratitude and pride in being able to help make this program come alive, week after week. I certainly couldn’t do it without my co-host, engineer and godbrother.  Thanks, Michael!