Friday, November 29, 2013

Same and Different: The Never-Ending Story of Chanukah

My given name is Sandor, which is derived from Alexander, and I am named after Alexander the Great. You should ask, why was a nice Jewish boy from New York named after Alexander the Great? …

For the rest of the story, told live at Sharing the Fire: The Northeast Storytelling Conference:

Happy Chanukah!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stop Action Storytelling

 I began my story …
I never knew who this guy was, but even before the meeting started he sought me out. Undoubtedly he had just arrived from the airport for this big meeting we were running for the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the Great Flood of '93, when the Mississippi overflowed its banks for months. He walked right up to me, a mass of curly black hair, green-canvas backpack slung over one shoulder. He extended his hand, not to shake mine, but to push a computer disk in my face. “This is my recommendation,” he said, “I need to print this out.”
… and then I stopped. I asked the group, “What would you do, and why?”

“Stop Action Storytelling” is a technique I use in training workshops. I tell a story that is pertinent to the subject matter – a true story or a composite of true stories in which I was involved, often with names and places changed. At a critical point in the story, where I or someone else in the story had to make a decision – to choose one action or another – I interrupt the story and ask the group, “What would you do, and why?”

Typically a number of people respond, describing the action they would take and their rationale. Each response can spawn a group discussion to explore the underlying reasoning and alternative actions that could be taken. Afterwards, I continue with the story, explaining what I actually did and why I did it, and – too often – what I wish I had done instead. The intent is not to find the single best answer, or even to agree on what should have been done, but rather to explore the underlying reasons – the values and principles that guide us – and the repertoire of actions that might be used to enact them.

The approach is based on the Critical Incident Technique. I first used this approach at the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) conference in 2000 in a session entitled, “Critical incidents: How do our values and principles guide us?” This well-attended session led to the creation of the Ethics and Values Task Force that developed IAF's Statement of Values and Code of Ethics for Group Facilitators.

Many of the stories I use in Stop Action Storytelling have multiple stopping points. For examples, here are two stories I have used in workshops for group facilitators: The Meaning of Wilderness and The Unaccustomed Participant.


Flanagan, John C. (1954). The critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin, 51, 4, 327-358.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Jewish Grimm

Dov Noy z"l founded the Israel Folktale Archives in 1955, resulting in today's collection of nearly 25,000 folktales from 70 Jewish and non Jewish ethnic groups. His contributions to the study of folklore – Jewish folklore in particular – are astounding, extending beyond the more than 60 books he wrote and edited (the muti-volume Folktales of the Jews, Folktales of Israel, and many others). He influenced countless students, storytellers, listeners and readers over his career. He died September 29, 2013 at age 92.

An example of his insights into Jewish folktales can be found in his essay, “What is Jewish About the Jewish Folktale,” that is the forward to Howard Schwartz's book, Miriam's Tambourine. My one-sentence summary in What is a Jewish Story does not do it justice. Another example, his analysis of the Angel of Death in Jewish Folklore, was excerpted in Jewish Heritage Online Magazine.

His obituary in The Jewish Daily Forward and on the Jewish Studies Network/ H-Judaic email list provide more details of his storied career.

Friday, September 27, 2013

More Sides to Another Side to the Story

“No single story captures the full complexity of real-life events … even the stories told by those whose practices and beliefs we reject can be as coherent and compelling as our own.”

I came across this statement at the end of an article written by Moshe Simon-Shoshan that explores the nature of a conflict that took place 2000 years ago (involving the throwing of etrogim at a person) and its parallels to a contemporary one (involving the throwing of eggs at a group of people). I couldn't resist calling attention to the concluding line, quoted above. The full story: At the Wall, is it Religion — or Politics?

Then, in a conference call this afternoon on organizational storytelling, Thaler Pekar referred to “the story that is told, the story that is heard, and the truth,” noting that they might all be different, and then added, “the story that is not told.”

There is always another side to the story.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bill Greenfield, The Goldarndest Liar

When I heard my first story about Bill Greenfield, “the goldarndest liar,” my fascination with tall tales turned into a decades-long quest. Was he a made-up character like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill? Or was he a real person from upstate New York? Here is my introduction to “Bill Greenfield, The Goldarndest Liar,” which appeared on Story by Story, the TV program hosted by Kate Dudding and Joe Doolittle.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Jew's Harp Festival on Yom Kippur

The North American Jew's Harp Festival, originally scheduled to take place on Yom Kippur, has been cancelled. Is it ironic that the Jew's Harp Festival was scheduled on Yom Kippur in the first place? Is there anything Jewish about the Jews' harp? Stay "tuned."
Until then, I wish everyone a good and sweet year.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Sam's Saxophone

The Hamilton Hill Arts Center needs musical instruments for its new jazz band. It’s a good cause, serving inner-city youth. Joe Doolittle’s inspired story  about Hamilton Hill* motivated me to give them my son’s saxophone. We bought it for him fifteen years ago, and his interest in the instrument long since faded. I asked my son, Sam, if it was OK to donate it. Without hesitation he said yes.

As I readied the saxophone, I contemplated Joe’s story. I thought, one good story deserves another. In exchange for Joe’s excellent story I would send him another in return. But as I thought about that story I began to have second thoughts about parting with this saxophone.

* * * * *

Five-year old Sam was already settled into bed – half covered by his quilt, thumb in his mouth, blanket pressed to his cheek. Anna, sitting on her bed as usual, was not wanting to have to go to bed quite yet.

I walked across the room to tuck them in and noticed, in the middle of the floor, my father’s old trumpet case. Sam had apparently pulled it out from underneath the bed. I had just been helping his older brother Ben practice his piano, and I thought perhaps Sam was feeling a bit jealous.

I knelt next to his bed and leaned close to him. “Sam,” I asked quietly, “would you like to learn to play an instrument?” He nodded sleepily, cozy in bed, at one with his thumb and blanket. “What kind of instrument would you like to learn,” I asked, fully expecting him to say “the trumpet.”

“The saxophone …”, he said, and I recalled hearing him say this once before, but tonight it struck a familiar chord, “… and the trumpet.”

Wanting to explore this further, I presented the dilemma. If you could learn to play only one, the saxophone or the trumpet, which would it be?”

He removed his thumb from his mouth to think for a moment and rolled over to look up at the ceiling. “Both,” he said, with the resolve that he had solved the logical requirements of the question.

“Settle into bed now,” I addressed myself more to Anna than to Sam and tucked her in, “and I will tell you a story. It’s a true story, not the kind you read in story books. It’s a story that I heard, and my sisters heard, when we were children, and maybe your cousins have heard it too. It’s a story that my father used to tell about when he was growing up.” Sam knows – I wonder if I remind him too often – that he is named after my father; and Anna knows that she is named after my mother.

I picked up the trumpet that Sam had taken out and, noticing how Sam and Anna’s eyes followed it, placed it carefully back in its well-worn, purple velvet-lined case, closed the hinged top, snapped in the clasps, and pushed it back under Sam’s bed.

“When my father was nineteen years old …” I started, and then interrupted myself. “Do you know how old nineteen is? How old is Ben? … He’s ten. Then you turn eleven, then twelve, and thirteen ...” Anna picked it up and counted with me. “... and then nineteen. When you’re nineteen, you’re in college, so you’re not all grown up yet, but you’re big.”

“Can you drive a car?” asked Sam, looking eager for the prospect.

“Yes, you’re allowed to drive a car if you have the money to pay for one. But when my father was nineteen he didn’t go to college.”

“Why?” asked Sam again. He asks why a lot.

“Because his family was poor and he couldn’t afford to go to college. He had to work,” I said. “He had learned to be an electrician. Electricity was a new thing then and people wanted to have electricity in their houses. But my father loved music. He wanted to write songs and play music. He didn’t have an instrument, though, and he didn’t have the money to buy one.” Sam and Anna were listening with unusual intensity. I continued.

“So he put an advertisement in the newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer. The advertisement said, ‘I will wire your house for electricity in exchange for a …’” I paused and pointed to prompt Sam. He filled in “‘… saxophone.’” “That’s how badly he wanted to have a saxophone, and that’s the only way he could think of to get one. He received only one response to his advertisement. But the man didn’t even have a saxophone, all he had was a …” again I paused and pointed to Sam. “… trumpet,” he filled in again with a smile of satisfaction. “Have you heard this story before?” I asked.

“No,” replied Sam.

“Then how do you know the answers?” I asked, not knowing what to expect for an answer.

“I can just tell from the way you’re saying it.”

I continued. “Well, the trumpet was the only offer he got, so he took it. That’s how it came to pass that my father studied the trumpet, and the trumpet became his instrument.”

“Is that it in the case there?” Sam asked.

“Yes, that was my father’s trumpet, Sam, but I think he bought a better one than that first one he got when he was nineteen.” We had many hugs and kisses then, cozy with endearing emotions. It’s hard to know what this story means to a boy of almost-six and a girl of just-turned-four. Harder to know what it will mean to them in 40 years.

I heard this story many times as a child, and I have thought about it and told it many times as an adult. I have always dwelt on the fateful, by-chance aspects of the story of how my father happened to play the trumpet, which became a big part of his life, the instrument he played until, at age 84, he died. But never, before this night, had I wondered why in the first place he wanted so much to play the saxophone!

There are so many questions I would like to ask him. Why, in all of his stories did he so rarely tell about his father and mother? How did he find the time, the energy, to write all those songs? Why did he bet on those particular lottery numbers? How did he pull through those hard times? Questions and more questions. Questions so dear I can’t write them down.

Now a new question: Why did he want to play the saxophone? I can’t ask my father, but I could ask my son, who bears his name. “Why,” I asked, wondering if he noticed the tear in my eye, “would you like to play the saxophone?”

He paused only briefly, his five-year old mischief grin mixing with his almost-six look of knowledgeability. He removed his thumb from his mouth just long enough to answer. “Because, it sounds cool.”

Would my father have given the same answer? I’ll never know. But how could I part with this saxophone? This saxophone that connects my son to my father and to this story? My father never took me aside and said, “Sandy, one day you'll want something really badly – it will be your heart's desire. But it won’t work out just the way you wanted. Make the best of whatever comes your way.” No, he never gave me that lecture, he just told me this story about a saxophone. How could I give it up?

But it’s a saxophone, a musical instrument – one that’s been locked in a box, silent, for years. Shouldn’t it be put to greater use? Shouldn’t an aspiring kid in Hamilton Hill have the opportunity to learn to play the instrument of his dreams, to create a new story?

So I will give it up. I will donate Sam’s saxophone to the Hamilton Hill Arts Center.

But I will keep the trumpet.

* “Old, new stories sneak up” by Alden “Joe” Doolittle, Times Union, Albany, New York, August 23, 2013,

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell, the self-reflective documentary by Sarah Polley, is very much aware of its storytelling. The story is told from multiple perspectives through interviews, narrative, home movie re-enactments, and lingering cinematography. It reveals the story of the filmmaker's family as a composite of the often inconsistent stories told by the individuals involved, shared for the first time through the vehicle of this project. With my blog entitled "another side to the story," I can't help but recommend it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

What is a Jewish Story

Is there anything special about Jewish stories? Perhaps they are just like the stories of other cultural traditions. But if there is a difference, what is it that makes a story distinctively Jewish?

I thought I would explore this original question – until I discovered that it wasn’t so original, that others had already asked the question and given thoughtful answers, writing about unique aspects of Jewish folktales, jokes, and humor.

Henry Eilbert wrote that a joke is Jewish if it “stems from the conditions of Jewish life or from the experience of the Jewish people, … depend[s] on the use of a Jewish language … [or] show[s] real or supposed Jewish characteristics or stereotypes.”

According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a Jewish joke “must express a Jewish sensibility … concerning precisely those subjects and values that receive disproportionate attention among Jews. Antisemitism … professional success … verbal combativeness and aggression … assimilation … logic and argumentation … family relationships …”

A Jewish folktale is depicted by Nathan Ausubel as “philosophical and subtle, pious and moralistic, witty and ironic … ethical, pointing a lesson of right conduct, ceaselessly instructing, often even when it is being entertaining or humorous. … The most precious quality in them is their agitation over the eternal mysteries of the human soul.”

Dov Noy’s analysis showed that a Jewish folktale involves four main elements: a Jewish time (a holiday or life cycle event), a Jewish place (such as a synagogue or the Land of Israel), Jewish characters (a rabbi, a person from Jewish history, etc.), and a Jewish message (an ethical teaching, the listener’s duty to God, family, and community).

As seen by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, Jewish humor “is substantive … can be sarcastic, complaining, resigned, or descriptive … tends to be anti-authoritarian … has a critical edge which creates discomfort in making its point … [and] mocks everyone – including God.”

Here is one more, a brief definition I find particularly appealing.
A distinctively Jewish story is one that a non-Jew wouldn’t understand, and a Jewish person has already heard.
By telling – and retelling and explaining – these stories, we share what we find of value.


Henry Eilbert, What is a Jewish Joke: An Excursion into Jewish Humor. Jason Aaronson, 1981, pp. 59-61.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews. William Morrow, 1992, pp. 16-17.

Nathan Ausubel, Editor, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People. Crown, 1948, pp. xx-xxi

Dov Noy, “Forward: What is Jewish about the Jewish Folktale.” In, Howard Schwartz, Miriam's Tambourine: Jewish Folktales from Around the World. Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. xv-xviii.

William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, Editors, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, Harper Perennial, 1981, pp. xx-xxii.

Additional articles on this topic
Jewish Writer, by David Albahari
Nu, What Makes Jewish Literature so Jewish, Anyway? by Rachel Barenblat
What is a Jewish Book, by Kathy Bloomfield
Defining “Jewish Writing,” by Erika Dreifus
Thoughts on Jewish Story, by Erika Dreifus
What Makes a Short Story Jewish? by David Ebenbach
What Makes a Creative Process Jewish? by David Ebenbach
Am I a Jewish Writer or a Writer Who Happens to Be Jewish? by Ellen Feldman
Writing “Jewish” Fiction, by Allegra Goodman
Are You a Jewish Writer? by Joshua Henkin
Is There Such a Thing as Jewish Fiction? Moment symposium with 17 authors
The Complication of the Jewish Writer Question, by Daniel Torday
Five Jewish Writers Walk Into a Bookstore..., by Joseph Winkler
Are You a Jewish Storyteller? by Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff
Why Storytelling Is Essential to Jews and Judaism by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks 
From Its Opening Parsha, Torah Tells Us a Story by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb