Last year when I spent the evening in my uncle’s living room the night before my grandmother’s funeral, he told stories about her, about my great-grandparents, about Mama and Papa Murdoch. I recorded tiny notes in my phone. These pieces of my history have become critical to my understanding of the world, and some of them were new to me; I didn’t want to forget at thing. Lisa Cron (Wired for Story) explains why:
Story evolved as a way to explore our own mind and the minds of others, as a sort of dress rehearsal for the future. As a result, story helps us survive not only in the life-and-death sense but also in a life-lived-well social sense.
Stories then are tied not only to history but also to the culture of family and beyond. Today I welcome Erika Dreifus to talk about storytelling–its significance and symbolism–within her culture.
On Jewish Storytelling
By Erika Dreifus
When Christi invited me to contribute a guest post on the topic of “Jewish storytelling,” I thought immediately of the perennial joke: “Two Jews; three opinions.” And that’s because the very phrase—“Jewish storytelling”—invites debate. As far as I have observed, writers (and readers) seem to be engaged in a lively, eternal discussion, unfolding in print and online, to clarify and define what makes a given story “Jewish.”
Some of my ruminations on this subject stem from my own writing, notably my short-story collection, Quiet Americans, which is inspired largely by the experiences of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. But I’ve also considered the subject more broadly, particularly as I continue to read and write about other people’s “Jewish stories,” and, most recently, as I’ve joined the team of new company, Fig Tree Books LLC, that focuses on publishing “the best Jewish fiction of the American Jewish Experience.”
Helping me shape my thoughts throughout is a website that I discovered thanks to one of the innumerable Jewishly-focused newsletters I subscribe to. At The 5 Legged Table, educator Avraham Infeld’s teachings frame a discussion of the question: What is being Jewish all about? The underlying principles impress me as applicable to a related question: What is a Jewish book or story all about?
Briefly, the 5-Legged Table comprises the following elements:
- Memory: “While history is about what happened in the past, memory is about how that past drives our present and our future.”
- Covenant: Grounded in the idea that, at Sinai, Jews committed “to recognize one God; to make the world a better place for all people; and to use certain rituals to define and shape Jewish time and space. So, for Jews who observe any or all of the mitzvot, and those who are committed to tikkun olam (repairing the world), and those who serve the Jewish community, or move to Israel, the covenant established at Mount Sinai is still a tie that binds.”
My hypothesis: To the extent that these are the “legs” on which a particular book stands, that book is a Jewish book; its story is a Jewish story.
Note that the work need not necessarily include all five legs. After all, tables normally stand on four. But I take pride in realizing that, to varying degrees, all five are woven into Quiet Americans:
Memory: The book itself stems from the transmitted histories of my grandparents and their families, and how all of that accumulated history is remembered and continues to influence me.
Which leads to family: Family relationships are at the core of virtually every story in my book.
What about Covenant? Here, I think especially of one story in my collection, “Lebensraum,” and the role that Jewish ritual plays there. Moreover, in a small gesture of tikkun olam, I have been making quarterly donations—based on sales of Quiet Americans—to The Blue Card, a nonprofit organization that aids U.S.-based Holocaust survivors, ever since the book was first released.
Hebrew words—albeit transliterated—are sprinkled throughout Quiet Americans.
And Israel is very much on the minds of many of my Jewish-American characters, whether they are watching Golda Meir speak on television after the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, or anguishing over the Second Lebanon War (and international condemnation of Israel for it) nearly 35 years later.
So that’s my take. But others have their own views on Jewish stories and storytelling. If this question interests you, I recommend that you explore the views of a diverse array of writers in Moment magazine a couple of years ago. There’s more food for thought—much more, in fact— in those contributions.
Erika Dreifus lives in New York, where she writes prose and poetry and serves as Media Editor for Fig Tree Books. Visit Erika online at www.erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter (@ErikaDreifus), where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”