History was traditionally a narrative of great human events: wars, investitures of monarchs and plagues. Lately, we have turned to more mundane realities and human experiences to fill the gaps in these narratives.
The old chronologies left out too much, but the challenging genre of memoirs and personal stories offers a fresh basis for exploring the human condition, as they include personal details, such as class, gender, family and education.
Stories are exciting. They hold our attention as they reveal the mundane and the inspired. In stories, we grasp humanity in all its varied excesses and poverties – in its relationships, desires and dreams.
I love telling stories and I know they are an effective teaching tool. It is a fact that some stories are not always accurate. Thus, we need to be careful in our eagerness to accept a memoir as fact – details need to be verified. But the emotional, cognitive and interactive elements of stories are illuminating and inimitable. Listening to a story enables greater understanding, empathy and even participation.
Purim will soon be celebrated in many communities around the globe with four rituals: three food elements and one storytelling. The patterns of celebration and partying vary, but one thing is constant: we all tell the story of Esther, of her bravery, strategy and heroism. Please remember that the Torah calls it Ma’amar Esther, Esther’s story. (I would hope that this year, we elaborate not only on Esther’s greatness, but also on Vashti’s courage: the courage of a woman to say “No!”)
Many look at Judaism as a religion of laws. But if we sincerely examine the richness of this tradition, it becomes obvious that it is bursting with narratives – chronicles and anecdotes that bring the past into the present and seal a commitment to the future.
All cultures have stories that they tell over and over. Some never vary the format and others are open to great modifications. We all have them and we all have our favourites. Renowned author Ursula K. Le Guin once noted: “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Knowingly, we use stories to excite and embrace our own realities and to connect ourselves to the past and to the future.
Many of our stories are recorded. Many are lost. Jews did not write journals or memoirs in the medieval period and it took time for our personal story writing to gain momentum. We have begun to gather some of our most substantial tales. These new narratives lend an essential element to the “big” events of our history. The testimonies of Holocaust survivors and the collected journals of Israel’s pioneers fill gaps and deepen our understanding and appreciation in significant ways. But we need more of the quotidian. We know they exist. The challenge is to find and preserve them.
For example, we have begun to get accounts of the efforts of individuals who worked tirelessly to rescue Jews who were trapped in countries, such as Syria, that were hostile toward them. I hope that even more accounts will come forward.
I am also looking for stories about the movement to save Soviet Jewry. There have been some valuable accounts published, but there is so much more. Several friends of mine worked with a wonderful woman named Sharon Wolf, whose amazing story has not been told – but it should be. Through bake sales, Wolf raised the money to send many Jews, including myself, to Russia. She briefed us and debriefed us. She had contacts there that let her know what they needed and what kind of teachers they wanted. How did she get that? Like Esther, she stepped into the breach and acted. Her phone was tapped and once she was badly beaten up in Moscow. All of which is suggestive of an amazing Jewish Montreal story that’s just waiting to be told.
Write a story; make history.