A long time ago, I left the faith of my ancestors and went on a spiritual quest to find meaning in life, searching in many places, paths, traditions and practices. But the last place I would have looked (and in fact, the last place I looked) was in the spiritual path I grew up in: Judaism.
After about 11 years looking in, searching around, studying, visiting and practicing so many different spiritual paths, I finally returned to Judaism. And the signposts that helped me find my way back was stories and storytelling.
Rabbi Ted Falcon is a wonderful storyteller and his telling Hasidic stories back in the early 1980’s was one of the main reasons I cam back and stayed.
And that by itself is a big breakthrough. However, the really big breakthrough , for me as regards the path of the storyteller, was the story that came to me as a member of the choir in Rabbi Falcon’s congregation at that time, Makom Ohr Shalom: A Place for the Light of Healing.
This was 1986. It was the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year. It also happened to be, through an accident (there really are none) of the Jewish calendar, a calendar based on the lunar cycle,and the recent leap year that that particular Rosh Hashanah second day was also my own personal New Year: my birthday. That would not happen again until THIS past year, 2005, when for the first time since 1986, my birthday would fall on the second day of Rosh Hashanah And it was not just another birthday, but it was my 30th birthday—certainly a landmark year for most of us.
So there I was sitting in the tenor section of the Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom choir and Rabbi Ted was leading us in one his wonderful guided meditations. And normally, when we were doing these meditations, I went along with wherever Ted was going.
But this time, I went somewhere else. Some side way off the main path. And wherever that was, I received something, a gift, I had never received before, nor ever received since. I heard a story that the Rabbi was not telling. It was a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. There was no creative struggle or any of the usual process I experience while creating a story. No, this story came right through as if it was being told to me. I had never heard it before and as far as I know it had never been told or written anywhere else. Just inside me at that moment, like it was being dictated. Or as I said, it was being told to me. Inside.
I later decided that it was. That whatever an angelic encounter was, this was as close as I was probably ever going to get.
I kept thinking of the story for the rest of the service and as soon as I could, I wrote down a little note to myself so I would remember it. I wrote on the front cover of my copy of the meditation book/prayer pamphlet/songbook that we used: “Invisible Mezuzzah”.
This story has turned out to be one of my favorite stories to tell. That mystical experience of receiving the story led me, just a few weeks later to want to audit a class Rabbi Ted was teaching at the University of Judaism (UJ) in Bel Air, which led me to fall in love with that campus there in the Santa Monica foothills, which led me to register as an undergraduate in the UJ’s Lee College, which led me to apply to rabbinical school, which led me to be a rabbi now (and also to meeting my wife, but that is another story). Which led me to start a congregation here in Northern California, which led me to a trip to Israel…
But wait. There is something that comes before that.
Being at the UJ, also led me to spending a Shabbat (Sabbath) retreat there on campus in the dorms, and chapel setting with one of the great master storytellers of our generation, Peninah Schram. Peninah spent that Shabbat with about 10 students (there were few living there anyway and most of them did not stay around for the Shabbat). In one of the student lounges, she told us a story. And it was great.
Then she asked the students to tell a story. Only two of us were willing: a rabbinical student, and me (still an undergrad at that time).
The story I told was “The Invisible Mezuzzah”. Afterwards, Peninah told me that it was a great story and that I was a very gifted storyteller.
Well, after my head stopped spinning and I came back to earth, I though about this whole new concept of storytelling as an “art form” (I had heard of it and I had told stories in educational settings for years, but I had not thought of it before as an actual art form). And that haunted me throughout my rabbinical school career (which lasted 6 years AFTER finishing the 3 years needed to complete my undergraduate work since I had never completed my bachelor’s degree as a music student in my early twenties) and my first few years as a rabbi (since 1996, my ordination year).
Now, last year, in December 2004, I led a group of 10 of us from our little 30 member household congregation here in “lost” Jewish world of Solano County, Northern California on a tour to Israel, as part of a much larger group of people from Southern California.
Close to the end of that tour, I, along with one family from our congregation, was on a bus, that had been for most of the tour, occupied by the rabbi, his wife and child and his congregants from a very wealthy and large synagogue in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the US. It was mostly a very pleasant bus. However, the children on that bus had been given a free pass to make as much noise, move around freely on the bus and basically do anything they wanted. It was decided that it would be a “kid friendly” bus—that on that bus, they would let “kids be kids”. Which basically meant in that situation that the children had a license to scream, carry on and do anything they wanted, as long as nobody was killed. This was a problem for the Israeli tour guide, as the most he could hope for most of the way, while he talked to us about the sights and interesting background, was a low roar.
Well, we were on our way to Tzefat (aka “Safed”), the mystical city of Israel, which has a very rich legacy in the development of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah.
Since I love that city, maybe even more (or certainly as much) as Jerusalem, I felt inspired. I asked the other rabbi, if I might tell a story to the bus through the bus PA system. He said “Sure, but since it is a ‘kid friendly’ bus, don’t expect them to actually listen or be quiet while you tell it. And we can’t really demand that they do, since the agreement with parents was they had the freedom to “just be kids”. I said okay.
And then I began to tell them the story of the “The Invisible Mezuzzah”. And about 1 minute into the story, you could hear a pin drop. Well, actually you could hear the sound of the bus engine, the outside ambience and me telling the story. And that was really the first time you could hear those first two since we had entered the bus. To be fair, there was a few moments of laughter from the children and the parents at points in the story, I often expect laughter. They listened to the entire story and afterwards, there was a moment of silence and then applause.
A few minutes later, we arrived in Tzefat.
After we disembarked from the bus, the man who was the husband and father of the only other family from my congregation (all the others had left that bus after the first day we rode with them. They could not take the “kid friendliness”), said to me, “Rabbi Steve, I want to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
No horse heads or contracts at gun point, I hoped.
“I will pay all the costs for your first storytelling CD. I think that you are a great storyteller and I think your stories need to be heard. Whatever it costs, I will put the money up. You can pay me back if and when the CD pays for itself and then the rest is yours.”
Well, that experience was certainly a breakthrough. And it was based on a story that had come to me at an earlier breakthrough, 18 years earlier. In the Jewish tradition, the number 18 stands for “Life” because in Hebrew letters are numbers and the letters “yud” and “Het” are the 10th and 8th letters respectively and they are the same letters for the word “chai” which means life. And in between the receiving of that story and its 18th year of life, was that telling of it in that little student lounge back at the UJ in Los Angeles before I entered rabbinical school.
I am now working on that first CD and on the first of this year (2006), I had my first official storytelling performance at a local United Church of Christ church. I have another performance scheduled this month and two more at a local Episcopal Church in February. My feet are now firmly on the storytelling path.
Or we could say, my life as a storyteller is now fully born, after a long pregnancy period. I see the receiving of the gift of that story and then the telling of it, first at the UJ to that small group of students and Peninah Schram and then on that bus in Israel on the way to the mystical city of Tzefat, as being the three biggest landmarks or road signs on my storyteller path. I only now am entering into this life long passion and love of mine with full force. And it is the story of the journey of the story of “The Invisible Mezuzzah” that carried me here.
May it carry me, accompanied by many other stories and story angels forward on the path of the storyteller.