How did I turn out to be a storyteller? Why do I work to help others find the storyteller in themselves?
My heritage of story
I grew up to stories of my father's boyhood in the Jewish ghetto of Chicago.
Taking mattresses up to the roof to sleep, when the tenements were too hot inside, his whole family watched the stars together in that unlikely place.
His mother would sometimes offer him fruit, making light of their poverty: "We have an apple. You want an apple?" - No. "You want a pear?" - No. "Well, you want a banana?" - Yes! "Well, that's good; we don't have any bananas. Now, what will you eat?"
My father, Paul, didn't want to be Jewish - to be part of an alien culture. Even though his father was not observant, and there are family stories about how my grandfather stopped believing in God while still in Russia, Paul rejected his father's culture.
Paul's father - not to mention the pious Jews with their long side-locks and old-world ways that he saw in the streets - was an embarrassment to him.
Paul's goal was to be different in his own way: to be a poet. Instead of studying Torah, he made a card catalog of his prized collection of books. Instead of seeking wealth, as some non-religious Jews did, he put his savings into the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary.
His proudest memory from high school was Electric Shop. Why? Because he never went to class but still got a "B." A permissive school? No, the teacher of Electric Shop was also the sponsor of the school newspaper. He valued my father's weekly poems so much that he allowed my father to write poetry instead of wiring lamps.
When Paul fell in love with Virginia - a non-Jew - he didn't hesitate to marry her. No matter that his father refused to see him or recognize him. Paul was a determined rebel. Now my grandfather, who had denied the Jewish religion, cast out his rebellious son, who was denying the Jewish race.
My brother and I were brought up without any religious teachings. Our parents promised to show us all religions and let us choose for ourselves, but, in fact, we were shown little that was identified as religion.
My father told me a story his mother used to tell him - about a son who smashed the idols his father made - but he wasn't even aware that this story was from the Talmud: the story of the first Jews.
We could hardly have received less Jewish culture - or so it seemed.
Years later, after I had been teaching music workshops to teachers and parents for years, I went to an event featuring a Hassidic rabbi, the late Schlomo Carlbach. He spent an evening with us, leading his small audience in songs and dances. He told us stories to make his points, taking us far from his subject, far into our hearts - only to lead us back with a gentle surprise to the point he had left 30 minutes before.
This rabbi seemed to want us to discover something within ourselves and our connection with each other, just as I did in my workshops. Amazed, I realized that he also used the same mix of lecture, story, singing, and dance that I did.
Then I understood that, although no creed or belief had been given me of my Jewish heritage, I had absorbed the instinctive use of story and song to reach people deeply.
My grandfather had rebelled against the dogma of the Jews; my father had rebelled against the content of Jewish culture.
What was left to me was the form of Jewish teaching.
I am most in touch with that legacy - and at home with myself - when telling stories.
A story for me
There is one story that, above all the others, I remember my father telling me. You see, when I was nine or ten, my father and I used to write poems together. We'd get out 101 Famous Poems and read "Invictus" or "If" or "Charge of the Light Brigade."
We'd both feel inspired, so we'd take pencil and paper and begin to write. "Dad, what rhymes with 'missed you'?" "Just go through the alphabet: 'bissed you, cissed you, dissed you'. You'll find one." "I got it, Dad: 'kissed you'. Thanks!"
After 20 minutes or so, we'd share what we'd written.
"Dad, how did you do that? That's good!"
He'd explain to me: just think of the ending first, and work toward that. Just like with stories.
"Dad, do you mean you can make up stories, too.?"
He paused and looked at me. I can still picture his face at that moment: it's my first memory in which I can see him wondering if he could live up to my expectations of him. "Sure, I could make one up sometime."
Hardly a day went by without my asking him to make up a story, a story for me. Finally, he agreed. I couldn't have been happier with a new bicycle or a trip to Disneyland.
The story began in his boyhood, on the roof of the tenement. It was a hot night; the family dragged their mattresses up onto the tarred roof to sleep. My father was the only one awake. As he lay there looking at the stars, he noticed that Mars - the red planet - was getting larger. Soon, a giant red globe descended, engulfed him, and carried him up into the night sky.
Too soon, the first installment was over. Every day I asked for more. A week later, the story - my story - continued.
My father had been captured by strange creatures, then escaped onto the bizarre, silent landscape of this alien planet. In my mind, I was with him there, picturing a black and red land that no human had seen before, where everything was indescribably different. Only my father and I really understood.
When this second episode ended, I wanted more - but not more so much as more of the same. I wanted to savor. My reality had been changed for a time. My father and I had taken a walk in a secret world; I wanted to linger at the doorstep before coming back inside the house.
Still, I became impatient. "Tell me more of my story. Tell me more, Daddy."
Now, my father became evasive. Every night, walking home from the bus stop after work, he seemed to brace himself for my demand. "Will you finish the story tonight?"
Every night, he seemed more exhausted as he refused. It was as though he were still fighting his battles in that alien land, and didn't dare give a report until he had returned triumphant.
Were the horrors of Mars too great for me to hear?
My requests came less often. I was deeply hurt, too hurt to keep asking. Didn't my daddy love to walk in that landscape as much as I did? Was I inadequate for the adventure we were on together?
At last one evening I said, with blame and pain in my voice, "Why don't you ever want to tell me my story any more?"
My father looked down at the table in our dining room, then out the window at our Scotch pine that had now grown taller than either of us.
"I can't finish the story. You see, it was going to end like an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel I once read, with the only weakness of the Martians being sound. If you spoke, they had to run. But I don't know, I just couldn't make it come out good enough."
Good enough. My father was afraid his story wasn't good enough. I was crushed. Didn't he know how much I loved it? How much I loved him?
If only I had been able to say what I know now: it wasn't how good the story was that mattered to me. Instead, it was the act of being told a story.
He could have told the first episode over and over. He could have asked me to help him finish it. He could have started another story. He could have....
Sometimes it seems to me that my whole career as a storyteller - and especially as a leader of storytelling workshops for teachers and parents - is an attempt to get my father to keep telling that story.
What matters most about storytelling is the act of sharing your imagination with another person. What matters most is that special closeness. What matters is not the story told, but that you tell.
What's my heritage of story? It's a comfort with stories told to make a point, to transform - a comfort that I inherited from Jewish tradition. It's also exposure to the deep, interpersonal magic of the story - and a hunger to share it with the world.
May all of us be blessed by stories that let us put aside our fears, and reach out to listeners who want, more than anything, to be close to us - just the way we are.
This article appeared in a conference booklet published by Trenton State College (Trenton, NJ), as well as in The Jewish Storytelling Newsletter.