I think everyone loves a good story! Stories are an intrinsic part of our culture and the influence of storytelling is found in all aspects of our life.
Nobody knows when the first story was actually told. Historians believe stories were used then as a way to calm the fears or doubts of families. As families grouped with other families and formed clans, the storyteller, who was good at recounting heroic events or other important events of the tribe attained positions of respect and power. Thus, before humans learned to write, they had to rely on their memory to learn anything. For this, one had to be a good listener.
This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, highlights when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments – and they listened. Jewish tradition teaches that God dictated the written Torah to Moses during the day, and explained it to him at night.
Those explanations were later recorded in the Talmud, but for generations the laws and legends were passed down as an oral tradition. Perhaps the oral Torah opened the door for a rich lineage of Jewish folktales, fairy tales and mythology. Legends recorded by the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash were created to explain potential inconsistencies in the Torah. For instance, in Genesis, God creates light on the first day, but the sun, moon and stars don’t come into existence until the fourth day. The rabbis explained that this first light was a sacred light, and hundreds of legends sprang up to account for where the sacred light came from and how it went away.
Today, our society could not exist without the influence from past generations. Human beings, as creatures of habit and tradition, hand down lessons and knowledge from one generation to the next. We pride ourselves on leaving a legacy of knowledge for our descendants to utilize.
This past week, David Raphael, a long-time colleague and co-founder of the Jewish Grandparent Network, visited Portland. You may recall we invited people to participate in the first ever (and now largest ever) national survey of Jewish grandparents. David was here to share the preliminary results (we will have final data in late March) with our Jewish community professional leadership and to convene a focus group of local grandparents (they enjoyed the discussion so much they want to have follow-up conversations).
One of the most important findings of the study is the desire of grandparents to share “their story” with their grandchildren. Whether it be about their own childhood, work experiences, connections to Jewish community, etc., grandparents want to share their experience and wisdom.
David referred to a New York Times article from Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University. Dr. Duke was asked to explore ritual and myth in American families. What he found is that children who know their families’ stories tend to do better when they face challenges. “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.”
They also studied different types of family narratives and found that the most helpful and valuable one was the “oscillating family narrative.” Here is an example:
Let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.
With the idea of the oscillating family narrative in mind, here is a commentary from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Haggadahthat recognizes this dynamic:
Not by accident is the Book of Genesis largely about families and marriage: Adam and Eve, Noah and his household, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. Knowing the Bible as well as we do, we rarely if ever stop to consider how strange this is. But it is strange to the point of being unique. Every other literature until modern times … is about epic heroes, gods or demigods, figures of legendary strength and power. The stunning originality of the Book of Genesis is that its heroes and heroines are ordinary people in ordinary situations, made extraordinary not by their power but by their loyalty to one another and to God.
Stories like these have sustained the Jewish people and made us strong and resilient. Again and again we understand themes of freedom, might does not make right, and social justice. Therefore, we must continue to tell stories to our grand/children of our own personal struggles, how we overcame them, and our trials and triumphs. This will keep our children strong, emotionally healthy, and up to the challenges of everyday life.
Understanding the importance of stories, I invite you to the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s (OJMCHE) Story Swap. In the tradition of The Moth, this will be a series of family stories, immigration stories, and stories of resistance. Storytellers are from the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation, Central City Concern, Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, The Immigrant Rights Project, Oregon Justice Resource Center, Portland Art Museum, and the OJMCHE.
The events will be held on January 29, February 26 (where I will be sharing), and March 19. You can get your tickets here . (A special thank you goes to Cassandra Sagan for working with each of the storytellers.)
And, please know I am happy to hear your story any time!
Shabbat shalom.


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