Telling Our Stories, Yom Kippur Morning 5777

on Friday, 14 October 2016. Posted in Rabbi

Telling Our Stories

The Jewish British novelist Masie Mosco published the first book of her trilogy in 1979. Called Almonds and Raisins, it, together with Scattered Seeds and The Children’s Children, tells the story of two Jewish families in Manchester, England. They arrive in 1905, one from Russia and one from Austria. Their children marry, and the books trace the stories of their descendants for the next 75 years.

My great grandfather arrived in Manchester, England a few years earlier, from Lithuania. His son, my grandfather, was the only one of his six children to leave Britain. He eventually made his way to New York City where he met my grandmother, also from England. They married, moved to New Jersey, and had my aunt and my father.

Until he was in his early 30s, my father knew virtually nothing about his father’s family. His father left England at 17, before his youngest sister was even born. Communication was mostly by mail in the early part of the 20th century, and my grandfather faced the challenges of both world wars and the intervening depression. By the summer of 1960, when my dad was 25, his father was preparing to return to England for the first time in more than 50 years. Tragically, before he could do so, my grandfather suffered a heart attack and died. And with his death, all the contact information for his siblings and nieces and nephews died with him. My father was convinced he’d never know his father’s family.

About eight years later, during the Vietnam War, my father was working for Western Union. They wanted to send him to Washington, DC on a job for which he would need a security clearance. The FBI located my dad’s family in England. His father’s baby sister, Auntie Rose, had a son, Tony, who worked for Pan American Airlines. Tony was to be in New York soon after the FBI found him. He and my dad – grown men, first cousins who had never met and knew nothing of each other’s existence – met under the clock at Grand Central Station. This opened the door for my dad to meet his English family.

As wonderful as it was meeting Rose, Tony and later many more cousins, very few of them could tell us much about my grandfather or his parents, as they didn’t know a lot of the history, either.

Before a trip I was planning to England in the early 1990s, a friend suggested that I look for the Masie Mosco trilogy. “If you can’t learn the real story,” he suggested, “at least you can read a fictional account of a similar family.” So off I went, in search of the books.

London has more bookstores that any other city in the world. I looked and looked and found nothing. Then, one day, after visiting Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral, I was wandering around a used bookstore in Salisbury. Another patron, an older woman with a soft smile, saw me searching, probably looking desperate, and so she asked me what I was trying to find. I told her and I told her why.

“I have those books,” she responded. “I’m not Jewish and I never knew why I kept them. Now I think I do. I want to give them to you.” I didn’t want to take them from her, but she insisted. She went home and left them with the ticket agent at the train station for me to pick up before I headed back to London. When I got to the station later that day, the agent handed me the bag. Inside, I found a note.

“Since the War, I have wanted to do something for some Americans to thank you for saving us from the Germans. And I was so touched that you’d be looking for something to share with your father while on your holiday. Please enjoy these books.”

I read voraciously, entering the lives of Sarah and Abraham and their children, especially their son David. Could he have been anything like my grandfather? The family lives through the wars, losing sons on the battlefields. Many leave Orthodoxy. Some move to Israel. Some intermarry. A few become secular. After I returned home, my aunt read the books and then I passed them on to my father.

One day, my father was talking to his cousin Tony. “Tony,” he asked, “Are you familiar with the Almonds and Raisins series by Masie Mosco? Robin got them while in England, hoping to learn more about our family.” Tony’s response probably best exemplifies the Yiddish word bashert, or fated. He said, “Oh yes, Bob, I know the books, and Masie Mosco. Her husband worked for my father. The stories are based on our family.” My father dropped the phone.

I recounted this tale at the recent Sisterhood tea. Afterwards, several people thanked me for relating it, and encouraged me to share it with the congregation. While this is my story, we all have them. One of the gifts of the Sisterhood tea was the sharing, through artifacts, of the stories of our families – their lives in Europe, their journeys to America, and their perseverance once arriving here. These stories make us who we are today. By telling our stories to each other, we deepen our bonds, we discover our similarities – nearly half of the women in the room had roots in Lithuania, we realize both the significance and insignificance of our differences, we learn empathy, and perhaps most importantly, we create community.

Telling our stories is also one of the most important parts of healing – whether we are healing from a death, an illness, a trauma, or any other loss. When I am with someone nearing the end of his or her life, I encourage the dying person to tell me his or her story. I ask questions to bring out more. In the pastoral counseling world, we call this “life review.” I have found that most people need to do a life review in order to let go of whatever might still hold them back.

When I served as a hospice chaplain, one of the other chaplains on my team had a patient who was very agitated and afraid of dying. I accompanied that chaplain on one of her visits. She was very good at administering communion and other rites to this man, but wasn’t sure about how to engage with him.

I asked him about his childhood and family of origin. As he began to talk about growing up, the tears flowed. He told us about a brother from whom he had been estranged for decades. He wanted to apologize for whatever he had done to cause the rift, but he didn’t know how to find his brother or what to say. His wife suggested that he contact a nephew – the son of the two brothers’ sister. I encouraged him to simply speak from his heart.

About a month later at our hospice team meeting, the chaplain I had gone with to meet this man reported that the patient had died. He had reconnected with his brother. And he died at peace.

The University of Maine’s Life Story Center suggests that telling our life story can fulfill the four important functions of bringing ourselves into accord with:

1. Who we are – the psychological function

2. The others in our lives – the sociological function

3. The mystery of life – the spiritual function, and

4. The universe around us – the philosophical function[1]

For the hospice patient, he unburdened himself, reconnected with a lost sibling, deepened his faith in God, and discovered how to conquer hate with love – living out all four of these.

Telling our stories is as old the Torah itself. One might describe the entire book of Deuteronomy as Moses telling his story. He uses, in the English translation, the words “I” and “me” over 1,000 times. He tells his story as it relates to the Israelite people, his own growth, and his relationship with God. Angry throughout Torah that he won’t be able to enter the Promised Land with the Israelites, at end of the book of Deuteronomy, he seems peacefully accepting.

Judaism even has a commandment to tell our story. We read in the Passover Haggadah: mitzvah aleinu l’saper b’tziyat mitzrayim, v’khol hamarbeh l’saper b’tziyat miztrayim – harei zeh m’shubach, “It is a commandment upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt; all who expand and elaborate in telling of the exodus from Egypt are praiseworthy.” The Haggadah continues, “Even if all of us were wise and understanding, all of us elders, all experts in Torah, still we are obliged to speak of the exodus from Egypt.”

The exodus from Egypt is not merely one Jewish story. It is said to be the Jewish story. It is the retelling of our redemption – our becoming free people. We find mention of the Exodus in our prayers, we celebrate it in our holidays, and it is engraved on our hearts. And most fundamentally, it is the story that has given the Jewish people hope for all of our existence. If we were redeemed once, then the misery, horror, and pain that we are enduring will end when God chooses to redeem us again.

And while it is a collective story – the story of the entire people of Israel, we must each individually tell it and make it our own story. That is the Jewish way since Mount Sinai. A midrash teaches:

When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mount Sinai, young [men] and old, women, children, and infants heard the voice of God according to their ability to understand.[2]

Along with that understanding came the commandment to tell.

Jon Ferreira, the Assistant Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, believes that telling our story is what connects us to our humanity.[3] He identifies more than 20 benefits to telling our story, including these four:

  1. To feel what other human beings have felt that we have not – that is, empathy
  2. To feel what other human beings have felt that we have too – so as to not feel alone and to reaffirm our own humanity
  3. To inspire others, and
  4. To give our lives meaning

Each of us has a unique story, unlike anyone else’s. Our stories constantly change, as we rewrite them, reconstruct them, and even discard pieces of them from the moment we are born until we die.[4] Telling our stories and hearing others’ stories help us make sense of the insensible.[5] This is especially true at the time of a death.

Telling the stories of our loved ones helps us cope.[6] This is one reason for shivah – to allow the mourners to tell their story. Maybe it’s the wedding story, when a spouse dies. Perhaps it’s the gift of guidance, when a parent dies. So often, it’s the demonstration of unconditional love and spoiling, when a grandparent dies. And after the death of a loved one, our story changes. It now must include the hole, the absence, the loneliness, the birthdays no longer celebrated, and the holiday meals with an empty chair.

One of the most important ways to move through the death is to create and tell a story that helps bring meaning to the experience. At one funeral where I officiated, estranged family members came together to bury the deceased. Initially cautious about seeing each other, they left the cemetery wondering why they had stopped speak­ing. The story they now tell is how the death led to reconciliation.

Stories must be told. First, we tell them to ourselves, to create a private story. But it is not enough to just write them into a journal or keep them in our head. To assimilate loss, change, death, as well as joy, surprise, and a tickled funny bone, we must share our stories. That is how we integrate life changes into our personal narrative.[7]

And by telling our stories, we enter the space where, as my colleague and friend, Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, writes, “individuals and community meet.” Rabbi Zimmerman wrote her rabbinic thesis on how the sharing of personal stories lives helps create community.  In her research, she learned that when we are able to move beyond the factual recitation of the events and tell each other the depth, the meaning, and how the event has shaped us – we share the sacred. She learned from our teacher, Rabbi Larry Kushner, who writes:

Each person has a Torah, unique to that person, his or her innermost teaching. Some seem to know their Torahs very early in life and speak and sing them in a myriad of ways. Others spend their whole lives stammering, shaping, and rehearsing them. Some are long, some short. Some are intricate and poetic, others are only a few words, and still others can only be spoken through gesture and example. But every soul has a Torah. To hear another say Torah is a precious gift.[8]

Remember that we stood together as one community to hear the Torah revealed at Mount Sinai. And even though the midrash taught that we all heard according to our abilities, we were not there only as individuals; we were also there as a community. Together we heard the voice of God, as frightening and as awe-inspiring as that moment was. And who stood at Sinai to hear revelation? Both those who came out of Egypt and the future generations – that is, every Jew who has ever lived, stood there, too. Or more accurately, stands there today … and every day.

Revelation is ongoing. What we hear, what we learn, what we experience happens all the time. When we take those hearings, learnings, and experiences and integrate them into our neshamah, our soul, they become a part of our story.

The term “community organizing” doesn’t have a positive connotation for some people. Associated with Saul Alinsky, a Chicago activist, and President Obama, many people unfamiliar with community organizing assumes it to be an agenda item of the left.

But community organizing begins with something called a listening campaign. People tell each other their stories – their triumphs and their struggles, what keeps them up at night and about what they feel passionate. At the end of the campaign, the organizers come together to share what themes kept repeating. From there, they choose a topic around which to organize.

Sometimes, the community organizes to extend a bus route to a much-needed stop or to get a traffic light installed at a busy intersection. Other times, the community works together to tackle a social problem such as inadequate access to medical care or increasing gun violence. No matter what the issue, the community unites only after hearing the heartfelt individual stories.

In the coming year, may we celebrate the intersection of the indivi­dual and the community. May we recognize the unique contributions each one of us makes to the whole, contributions that no one else can bring, while we also recognize that each of our contributions helps create the collective story, our story, the human story. Dig deep and tell your story. Let down your defenses. Don’t seek affirmation. Just be. At the same time, open your heart and hear the story of others. Whether you speak or you listen, you will come away forever changed for the better.

Shanah tovah.


[1]http://usm.maine.edu/lifestorycenter/why.html

[2]Shemot Rabbah 5:9

[3]www.quora.com/Why-is-storytelling-important

[4]Elwyn G, Gwyn R. Narrative based medicine: Stories we hear and stories we tell; analyzing talk in clinical practice. BMJ. 1999; 318:186-8. Available at: http://www.bmj.org/cgi/content/full/318/7177/186 Accessed: October 17, 2001.

[5]Hammerschlag CA. Silverman HD. Healing Ceremonies: Creating Personal Rituals for Spiritual, Emotional, Physical and Mental Health. New York, N.Y: A Perigee Book: 1997. p.52.

[6]Dyer K. Thompson CD. Internet use for Web-Education on the Overlooked Areas of Grief and Loss. CyberPsychology & Behavior. 2000: 3(2); 255-270. 

[7]Neimeyer RA ed. Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss. Washington DC: APA, 2001, p 232. 

[8]God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know

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