Story Tellers: A New Story of Jewish Identity

March 7, 2010
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Barry Shrage

The ultimate impact of the leader depends most significantly on the particular story that he or she relates or embodies… Leaders tell stories about themselves and their groups, about where they are coming from and where they are headed, about what is to be feared, struggled against, and dreamed about… The most basic story has to do with issues of identity. And so it is the leader who succeeds in conveying a new version of a given group’s story, who is likely to be effective.

—Howard Gardner, Leading Minds

This year, Passover arrives at a time of great hope and frightening dreams, of pessimism and renewed optimism, of darkness and vision — on the surface, assimilation and decline; beneath the surface, renaissance and renewal. For a moment, a brief moment perhaps, the American Jewish community has the power to define itself, to tell a new story.

My teacher, the late Dr. Michael Osband, taught in the  name of Rav Soloveitchik that two different kinds of storytelling take place as part of Jewish holidays — zachor and sipur.  While the memory of other holidays is transmitted through the zachor (remembering) process, Passover requires the more active process of sipur — active, personal, storytelling.

Through the sipur process, we tell a story that actually happened to us. For the Rav, the seder is literally a time warp. We are slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. We are fellow revolutionaries with Rabbi Akiva in B’nei Brak, waiting for the final battle between good and evil; we are present at countless sedarim with generations of great rabbinic figures; we are reading the four questions and new unimaginable, horrible questions with Mordechai Anielewicz in the Warsaw Ghetto, and we are celebrating in Jerusalem, in Israel reborn with Ben-Gurion in 1949. We embody all these stories because we are actually present — right now — in all of them simultaneously.

Sipur, the process of active storytelling, is itself an act of leadership, transformation, and liberation. Particularly in a time when the very structure of our Jewish community life appears to be changing, when the old stories don’t appear to be working anymore, when we shift from an old worldview to an uncertain future, the leader as storyteller becomes critical to the process of connecting with the past and creating a vision of a transcendent future. The leader, then, uses the turmoil of the sea and the wilderness to create a vision of a new future and a renewed community.

When we create our own seder, we become the architect of our own redemption. As we lead our seder and tell the story to our children, we are also defining ourselves rather than letting our oppressors or our oppression define us; we are liberating ourselves, and ensuring our future.

How will this year’s seder be different from all others? Who will sit at our seder? What questions will they ask and what stories will we tell? As we gather our families and friends around the table, many of us will be sitting with children raised in interfaith households and young adults who have returned from Taglit-Birthright Israel trips to Israel. Those children and grandchildren may be asking surprisingly spiritual questions. (A recent study found that the next generation of Jews is actually more spiritual than the last and that the children of intermarriage are the most spiritual of all.) And Birthright, like the seder itself, is a sipur experience — a personal journey during which individuals begin to experience Jewish history by traveling the land and meeting their peers. So our Birthright returnees may well ask questions about their history and what ties them to the Jewish people.

What story will we tell them at our seder in 5770, when they ask: What is this service, this story, to you?

  • In a time that lacks vision and prophecy and that yearns for meaning, our stories carry an ancient faith in an ancient God
    so that our children and grandchildren will have spiritual options to fill their lives with light and joy.
  • In a time of greed and selfishness, our
    stories are part of an old — a very old — tradition of caring for strangers, the poor and oppressed, the widows and orphans, the elderly and handicapped.
  • In a time of forgetfulness, our stories are part of a living chain of learning and literature, allowing us to be inheritors of an ancient and hauntingly beautiful culture.
  • In a time of anomie and loneliness, we carry the secret of community building
    that provides our children with a sense of caring and belonging.
  • In a time of rootlessness and alienation, our stories are connected to a religious civilization with a 3,500-year-old history and an infinite future and the ultimate
    responsibility for the betterment of human­kind in the name of the God whose story is at the heart of our existence.

Our capacity to tell this new story will test our strength as leaders and storytellers, mothers and fathers, grandparents and teachers. Much, though, depends on how we elicit and respond to questions — to the stories of our children and grandchildren.

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