My piece on storytelling just appeared in Jewish Action Magazine:
We all know the midrash: Once upon a time, many, many Rosh Hashanahs ago, Hashem looked into the Torah and used it as a blueprint to make the world—to make us.
So what is in the Torah that He used for material? What are we made of?
The simplest and most profound answer is: stories. Our DNA, our very essence, is primed to respond to stories.
The Torah, among many other things, is Hashem’s storybook. It starts with the tale of the birth of the world and continues with stories of brothers, families, children and eventually the birth of Am Yisrael. Hashem has spun tales that bind us as a nation and define our culture.
This Rosh Hashanah we will retell some of Hashem’s stories and pass them on—beautiful tales of the sacrifice of a father and the prayers of a mother longing for children.
But we are supposed to emulate Hashem, which means we must not just repeat His stories; we must each create and tell our own stories.
In Bruce Feiler’s recent book, The Secret of Happy Families (New York,
2013), he describes how foundational it is to tell family stories to our children. He cites a recent study in which psychologists asked children questions about their history, ranging from “Do you know where your grandparents grew up?” to “Do you know the story of your birth?” to “Do you know how your parents met?” The study’s conclusion was mindboggling: “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The ‘Do You Know?’ scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
Interestingly, he finds that these stories should include tales from both the immediate past as well as from history. When we tell our children the traditional stories that have been handed down to us from generation to generation, we are not just transmitting a code of behavior; we are connecting our children to the essence of who they are.
I thought I knew my own family’s stories. My dad had some great ones, such as how his father came to America, his love for his yeshivah rebbe and about his first pulpit in Wyoming. (That last one came with some great details, believe me.)
But then I interviewed my father through the Storycorps program. (Storycorps, storycorps.org, is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind. It records histories and stories and preserves them at the Library of Congress.)
I had never heard where my father was when he first found out about the Holocaust, how he knew my mom was the one he wanted to marry, what he thought when he first held me. I finally asked him these questions and was so moved to hear the answers—to hear those untold stories—that my view of the Holocaust, marriage and parenting immediately changed; I could suddenly view each from a new and meaningful angle.
As an author/illustrator, I attend many Jewish book programs where publishers speak about the kind of stories they look for. Their main message is: No more shtetl stories! There are so many Jewish kids’ books today that feature a matchmaker, a rebbe and a butcher. But our kids don’t just need shtetl stories; they need our stories— the ones where bubbie colors her hair, runs two miles a day and is into yoga. These modern stories help them place Judaism into their own context and reality.
So for my own kids, I’ll start the ball rolling and respond to some of those “Do You Know?” questions with a small sampling of the stories that answer them.
This year, I hope my stories will help my kids connect to the chain of tales that go back to the very birthday of the world. This year, I hope they will get to write their own chapters. And this year, I hope that our stories will help them—and all of us—be inscribed in Hashem’s book of happily ever after. Ketivah vachatimah tovah.
Ann D. Koffsky is the author/illustrator of more than twenty-five books for Jewish children. Her most recent isThank You for Me! with musician Rick Recht.