Kavannah of Transformation

Jewish tradition teaches that each of us has three names: the name given to us, the name others give us, and the name we give ourselves. How did I have the huzpah to give myself the name “Jewish Storyteller?” While I always loved stories, I didn’t dream of becoming a storyteller. How did it all happen?

In 1974, intuitively, I made a proposal to the Director of Education at the 92nd Street Y to begin a program of telling folktales to older children. As it turned out, another young woman had made a similar proposal. Together we created a weekly storytelling program that we called “Fire, Water, Stone & Air.” We told world folktales, added creative dramatic activities, movement, music, and art, in a participatory approach. In this way, I developed a repertoire of stories, including Jewish folktales, many that I knew from my childhood, or those I had told my own two young children.

One time, I told a story from world folklore that was also in the repertoire of the other storyteller. At the end of the program, she turned to me and said, “Why don’t you tell just Jewish stories and leave the rest of the world to me!” I was stunned! It was as though someone had slapped my face so hard that it knocked the wind out of me! I don’t remember if I replied or just burst into tears. I recall thinking “how dare she tell me what stories to tell!” I vowed to end our friendship and never forgive her for this cruel directive. However, I was too stunned to say anything to her. Instead, I went home angry and unsettled.

Slowly, I began to give this remark great thought when I realized that she had given me a gift for life to fully become who I needed to become: a Jewish Storyteller. I really loved the Jewish oral tradition and felt closely identified with Jewish tales. Maybe she knew that before I could admit it. One day soon after, I asked her forgiveness for not understanding her insightful, but brutally honest, observation. I have been thankful to my friend for her radically transformative remark. My great discovery was that being a Jewish storyteller was my life.

Textual sources taken from Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:3, Tanhuma Vayakhel 1, and Midrash Shmuel 23.

Written By Peninnah Schram

Peninnah Schram, a 22 year BJ member, is an internationally known storyteller, teacher, author, and recording artist. She is Professor Emerita of Speech and Drama at Yeshiva University. Peninnah is...