A recent gathering of the newly revived Toronto Jewish Storytelling Guild at Congregation Habonim featured personal, historical and traditional tales told by some of the community’s raconteurs.
The evening’s storytellers included Meryl Arbing, Judith Cohen, Jane Enkin, Briane Nasimok, Eden Nameri, Norman Perrin, Nicholas Rice and Eli Rubenstein, the religious leader of Congregation Habonim.
Arbing told the story of Holocaust survivor, David “Dugo” Leitner. Leitner was 14 years old when he was sent on the three-day death march from Auschwitz, beginning on Jan. 18, 1945. His mother had told him about falafels, and he vowed he was going to keep going until he could get one. Eventually Leitner went to Israel and in a Jerusalem market, he ate a falafel. “Every year on the 18th of January, I’m going to have a falafel to remind me of what kept me alive,” Leitner vowed.
That story spread throughout Israel and now tens of thousands of Israelis eat a falafel on Jan. 18 to celebrate their freedom. This year, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Leitner shared a falafel lunch with the IDF Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
Eli Rubenstein recounted an anecdote told by the writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, about the psychological torture prisoners endured at Auschwitz. Levi once reached for an icicle because his throat was dry. A Nazi guard stopped him, saying,“No, it’s not allowed.” Levi said, “But why?” The guard replied, “You’re in Auschwitz and in Auschwitz there is no why.”
Rubenstein said the story symbolizes what Auschwitz was. “It wasn’t just a place of physical torture. It was a place of incredible emotional and psychological torture. They weren’t just there to destroy them physically, they were out to crush their souls. Any place you can’t ask why is a place you shouldn’t be,” he said.
Jane Enkin told one of preacher/storyteller Yitzhak Buxbaum’s stories, about the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Moshe, who on a wintery day during Tu b’Shevat found a path leading to an orange grove deep in the woods.
Briane Nasimok’s story was a joke-filled account about how he closed off emotionally from everyone, including his mother, after his father’s death, and how he and his mother had re-established the bond by the end of her life.
Norman Perrin told a tale about a king who, while walking in disguise on the poorest street in the poor section of a city, thought to himself, “I will come and make this place a better place.”
Perrin learned the story from Alec Gelcer, the founder of Congregation Habonim’s original storytelling group, Jewish Storytelling Arts, in the early 1990s.
Rubenstein said Gelcer was the heart and soul of the storytelling program at the synagogue. After he died in 2003, Habonim held an annual storytelling festival in his honour for 10 years, but “once he passed away, we lost the core, lost the centre,” Rubinstein said.
Under Gelcer’s influence, he introduced stories into his sermons. He noticed that sermons on theology sometimes had his congregation squirming in their seats. “But as soon as I launched into a story, people were sitting on the edge of their seats,” Rubenstein said.
He added that in Judaism, stories are not solely for entertainment. “They’re for morals, values and lessons. And so while the stories themselves are captivating and enchanting and interesting, they always have a deeper underlying value.”
The Toronto Jewish Storytelling Guild hosts evenings of stories the third Sunday of each month at 7:30 p.m. (doors open 7 p.m.) at Congregation Habonim. Anyone is welcome to tell a story. Reading is not permitted, and the only guideline is that stories should have some Jewish content. Admission is pay-what-you-can, with a suggested donation of $5. Refreshments are provided. For more information, email [email protected]