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ARTICLE A Listening Heart: Lessons from a Jewish Storyteller

“Ribono shel olam, God of the Universe, listen to my heart and my voice as I stand before You, wanting to tell our story. Help me to understand and find the right feelings and words with which to transmit the tale. Make my voice expressive and clear so that the collective wisdom of our people can reach the hearts of those who listen…”

—Peninnah Schram, “My Storyteller’s Prayer,” Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another, (Jason Aronson, an Imprint of Rowman and Littlefield, 1987), p. xxxv.

For Peninnah Schram, 1995 Covenant Award recipient and internationally renowned storyteller, the power of the spoken word was woven into the fabric of her childhood in New London, Connecticut, growing up with her father, Hazzan Samuel E. Manchester, and her mother, Dora Markman Manchester.

“I was blessed with parents who told me stories and the love of story was planted in my imagination,” Peninnah said. “My parents were given a legacy of the oral tradition from their parents which they handed down to me.”

Particularly vivid for Peninnah is the memory of her father chanting the Hineni prayer on the High Holidays. 

“He began to walk slowly from the back of the synagogue to the bimah, haltingly, dramatically, chanting by heart, and pleading with his whole heart on behalf of the congregation, his voice coming from deep within him – at times both arms outstretched to the heavens,” she shared.

It was this High Holiday experience that introduced Peninnah to the art of storytelling. “I began to know the power of having words clearly articulated, musical rhythm and timing, pause and silence, readiness to begin as well as bringing the audience along with you in the story journey, and feeling the images communicated expressively through the body and voice holistically,” she said. Peninnah’s mother also had an influence on her storytelling by telling her secular teaching tales. Inspired by her parents, as well as Elie Wiesel and Ruth Rubin – a Yiddish folksinger and ethnomusicologist – the roots of Peninnah’s future profession were planted early on.

For decades, Peninnah has shared her stories and wisdom with the world, beginning in 1969 at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, where she taught Speech and Drama. At the time, Peninnah was also volunteering to record books for the blind at The Jewish Braille Institute. She loved a book of folktales she had recorded. After discovering her students at Stern College didn’t know much about Jewish folktales, she realized she had work to do—namely, to begin sharing sacred and secular Jewish folktales of all genres with children, in person, so that these jewels of Jewish culture wouldn’t be lost on another generation. Together with storyteller Laura Simms, Peninnah created a weekly program at the 92nd Street Y called “Fire, Water, Stone & Air” in which they would perform dramatic, participatory tellings of stories from around the world. Later she created another storytelling workshop, along with her Stern College students. This one focused on Jewish tales and was titled “Kernels of a Pomegranate.”

Though the term “experiential education” was not yet popular, the program was an experience—and included creative dramatics, movement, music, and art. Through this work, Peninnah developed and refined an entire repertoire of Jewish stories and folktales, later becoming the resident storyteller at The Jewish Museum.

It wasn’t long before Peninnah’s reputation for the art of storytelling became widely known. She became a Professor of Speech and Drama at Yeshiva University’s Stern College and the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. Then, in 1974, she was offered the opportunity to create a Storytelling course as part of the Speech and Drama curriculum. Peninnah ultimately taught at YU until her retirement as Professor Emerita in 2015.

These days, Peninnah continues to share her storytelling wisdom with the field of Jewish Education. In addition to teaching at a number of conferences, including NewCAJE and Limmud, she presents storytelling programs and workshops at synagogues, universities, and festivals across the US, Canada, and Israel.

Peninnah has always believed in the power of storytelling to pave the way for a brighter future and, given the divisive political climate of today, she finds storytelling as relevant as ever for educators looking for tools with which to teach the next generation values like kindness and empathy.

“Sharing stories creates a bond between people,” Peninnah said. “Once we know someone’s story, we can no longer be enemies because we develop empathy that, in turn, leads to relationships. That’s why stories still work – why they still have power and importance in our world.”

A shared storytelling experience enables listeners to “walk in the shoes” of the storyteller and the characters in the story and also to understand peers on a deeper level, Peninnah explained. That emotional exchange emerges from the deeply human endeavor in which one imagines oneself as the storyteller and the sadness, joy, or other emotions one would feel having been through the same experience.

The powerful human-to-human exchange between storyteller and listeners needs to happen face-to-face for the development of empathy, compassion, and community, Peninnah emphasized. 

“There’s just no substitute for the human voice telling a story directly – with people looking at each other – listening to each other,” she said. “It is through the senses that one recalls emotions. It is the emotions that cause one to act in concert with one’s own group and to integrate the aspirations of the individuals with the ideals of their community.”

In addition to promoting empathy, storytelling is a powerful educational method because it “sets the story in the heart,” she noted. As the storyteller speaks, the essence of the story and its lessons are reinforced in the storyteller’s memory and the listener’s memory, and as the story reaches deep into the audience, they are changed and moved at the same time. “The voice is the messenger of the heart. We tell stories with the voice from the heart to reach the hearts of others,” she said.

Storytelling is vital to answering what Peninnah refers to as “heart questions,” the ultimate questions we are all trying to answer throughout our lives. Who are my people? How did they live? How should I live? What are my values? What is the legacy I want to leave for my children and the world?

Judaism is rich with sacred literature – Torah, Talmud, Midrashim, and a secular oral tradition that includes folktales, fairytales, fables, parables, tall tales, mystical tales and supernatural tales – which all set out to answer these questions.

“Shared stories become guides for desirable conduct and values,” Peninnah said. “Passed down from generation to generation, these communal stories educate and develop group identity in a creative and inspiring way. While stories delight, they also teach, and the images of the story remain in the imagination forever. These images then serve as a trigger to recall the lesson itself and contribute to moral development and Jewish identity.”

For educators hoping to incorporate storytelling into their classrooms and lessons, Peninnah offers practical advice that begins with a simple and singular suggestion: practice just listening. A class can walk outside and listen to the sounds around them and their nuances, listen to music and identify the instruments, or practice awareness of the stillness when in a quiet room. She also suggests becoming aware of body language and vocal tone when people are speaking by watching TV or a film with the sound turned down. Teachers and students can also search for a story they love and then share it with the whole class. The more students and teachers practice telling stories, the better. Educators who need a story for teaching a particular topic or theme can search in the Jewish Storytelling Coalition Directory and then contact a professional Jewish storyteller who can provide specialized coaching and guidance.

One of Peninnah’s favorite Jewish teachings comes from the book of Kings I, in which God asks King Solomon what he wishes for. Solomon responds not by asking God for long life, or for riches, or for the destruction of his enemies. Rather, Peninnah cites, Solomon asks for a lev shomea, a “listening heart,” for he understood that it is through listening and gaining a deep understanding of the experience of others that we can acquire true wisdom and only then can we make informed and compassionate choices of how to act in our world.

Although we may not be able to receive wisdom directly from God in the way that Solomon did, we can all begin the journey to acquiring a lev shomea through storytelling.

“We, as storytellers, should listen to the kinds of stories we need to tell,” Peninnah said. “We must listen to the message of the story and feel its importance to our lives. We must listen to the rhythm of the story, as to a musical composition. We must listen to the silences within the story. We must listen to what the listeners of the story need to hear.”

By Yonah Kirschner, for The Covenant Foundation. Photo by Zion Ozeri.

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