Some of my fondest memories of rabbis involve stories. When I was younger, on Shabbat evenings we would sit by the medurah, the campfire, at GUCI and listen as Rabbi Ron Klotz walked slowly around it and told another story about the Ba’al Shem Tov. Sundays during religious school Rabbis Mark Levin and Vered Harris told stories about Honi the Circle Maker, the Gossip and the Feather Pillow, and the Water Bearer. I sat with rapt attention, listening as the words came together to weave a beautiful tapestry. As I got older, I knew I wanted to be a rabbi, and I wondered if I could share stories that painted such vivid pictures as the rabbis I had grown up with could. Their words had the power to enchant and teach young and old. When someone is a good story teller the audience is transported to a new world.
This summer at Valley Temple I learned and shared many stories. I shared Shabbat stories and the story of a congregant who passed away. Each one was special, a moment to itself, which contained a pearl of truth, whimsy, or memory.
I challenged myself to share in this way because it is not a strength that I come by naturally. The first encounter I had with stories this summer was the death of a congregant. Many memories were relived at the meeting with the family. There were tears, laughter, and nostalgia mixed with pain at the thought of no new memories to be created. I went home that night and wrote the eulogy, careful to develop the fullest picture of this dear man, whose family deeply loved him. While this is not the setting I think of when someone says the word “story” it could be the truest form. A eulogy shares the life of a person, how they impacted everyone around them, and proscribes how we can best honor their memory. These snapshots of a life lived can bring comfort to the family in a time of pain. I felt I was able to do that for this man’s family and friends.
My second meaningful experience with stories was for a Friday night Shabbat service. I wracked my brain for a good tale, but nothing popped out. Then, I searched through a few different story books. Still, nothing seemed quite right. Finally, I searched Shabbat stories on Google and found the perfect piece, one that artfully combined elements of Shabbat with communal care and relationships. An old tale I had heard many times in different variations about two men in a congregation, one who bakes challah for God and leaves it in the ark, and one who humbly receives challah to feed his family. I practiced over and over, reading it aloud until I could tell it without the sheets in front of me. I added a few hand motions, tried it out on the bimah, and then led services, nervously awaiting the moment I would share it. As I began to share the opening lines, I felt a shift in the energy in the room. Each sentence spilled out, and I looked around the room, seeing eyes glued to me, waiting with rapt attention for the story to unfold. The magic I experienced as a listener seemed mirrored in the eyes of my congregants.
My time at Valley Temple this summer gave me new insight into storytelling. It helped me understand that we are constantly engaging with stories—when we are on the bimahsharing a Shabbat tale, relaying biblical narratives in a sermon, or recounting lives. We are sharing a piece of ourselves and creating connection with our listeners. It showed me that the magic of stories can be revealed when we believe what we are saying and practice wholeheartedly. Storytelling is an artform, and the more I practice, the better my art will become.
Taylor Poslosky was a TJF fellow at Valley Temple in the summer of 2018.