Voices from the field

A Nation of Storytellers

By Scott Frankel

“The great leaders tell the story of the group. But the greatest of leaders, Moses, taught the group to become a nation of storytellers.”

– Rabbi Sacks, A Nation of Storytellers

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately. I just recently graduated from the Masters in Jewish Professional Studies program from Spertus Institute. My thesis was on the use of storytelling in education, and one of the key steps for maximizing the value of stories in meaning making is the awareness that every story first starts with an act of remembering. What do I choose to remember and why? How does memory play a role in what stories I’m telling? What’s the educational value of this all?

Growing up, every year at our Pesach Seder in Chicago, my Bubbe would say “Next Year in Jerusalem.” So in 2010, after I graduated from college, I decided to spend Pesach in Jerusalem. As my memory serves, that same Pesach I got a phone call from my Bubbe saying, “Next year in Chicago!” And now, every year at Pesach, Bubbe says to me, “This year in Chicago” and then gives me a kiss. It’s become our tradition.

I was recently listening to a podcast by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called A Nation of Storytellers where he speaks about Jews as the first people to write history. As I was listening, I found myself thinking more and more about the relationship between “tradition” and “history” in Judaism and the  similarities to the relationship between “memory” and “story.” Rabbi Sacks explains that Biblical Hebrew has no word  “history.” Modern Hebrew uses "historia" (היסטוריה), but the old word “zahor” (זכור) really means  “remember" (or “memory”). History, then, is all about “his-story” – that which happened to someone else. But memory is more about “my story," and the act of remembering is what makes these stories personal and meaningful.

Five years ago, it became my responsibility to lead our (very large) family Seder. It was a very humbling moment – one full of nerves – as I was invited to have a place in the long line of great Seder leaders: my great-grandfather, my papa, my father, my step-father, and now me. It was now my opportunity to add a personal touch to the traditions of our Seder; to contribute, in my own way, to this ongoing story of my family’s collective story.  In reflecting on this experience, I now understand what Rabbi Sacks means when he says, “By making the Israelites a nation of storytellers, Moses helped turn them into a people bound by collective responsibility – to one another, to the past and future, and to G-d. By framing a narrative that successive generations would make their own story and teach to their children, Moses turned Jews into a nation of leaders.”

I believe that this act of story leading is a holy one in our work as Jewish and Israel educators. It’s one thing to recognize what story to tell and when. It’s another thing to tell and retell that story effectively; to adapt that story to any educational opportunity at any time. But first, we need to be comfortable in our own stories – to model what leadership can look like through the use of our own memories and narratives. As important as it is to re-tell the Pesach story in a way that my parents and grandparents did at our family Seder, it is more important that I am comfortable with my own voice.

So this Pesach, as we engage with those around our Seder tables, let us ask the following (additional) four questions:

  1. What stories do we remember at this time and why?
  2. How do we tell and re-tell our personal stories?
  3. How can our individual stories be interwoven as part of our collective story?
  4. How can we use these stories to lead and empower others?

Chag Pesach Sameach!