Toward a Storytelling Renewal in Our Community

My wife and I recently matched a personal best, seeing two movies in a single week. I wrote about my impressions of the first, Spotlight, here. A few days later we saw Brooklyn, the moving tale of a female Irish immigrant who finds love in New York and temptation upon her return home.

More striking than the movie itself was the audience's response at the end of the film: the overwhelming majority stood and applauded for a full ten seconds. As they clapped I found myself puzzled, wondering for whom they were cheering. The actors were of course nowhere to be found. None of the theater's employees were in the room when the film ended. Apparently, the audience's response was a spontaneous outburst of appreciation, even catharsis. Having become accustomed to standing ovations at the end of live performances, they celebrated the film's stirring emotional force by way of applause.

This "irrational" behavior speaks to a profound yet familiar truth about storytelling: stories inspire and stay with us in ways that facts or lectures often do not. Jennifer Aaker, a prominent social psychologist at Stanford University, goes so far as to assert that "stories are remembered up to twenty-two times more than facts alone." Rabbi Yehuda Amital zt”l, former head of Yeshivat Har Etzion, used to sardonically comment that while his students often forgot the Torah he taught, they almost always remembered the stories he told.

Offering a physiological basis for the stickiness of stories, Jonathan Gottschall, author of the acclaimed 2012 book The Storytelling Animal, cites evidence that as we hear stories "our neurons are firing much as they would if we were... taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain." We experience stories about others almost vicariously, as if we ourselves had endured the same trauma or attained that elation. Gottschall observes that evolutionary theorists have struggled to account for the staying power of storytelling. After all, weaving a narrative doesn't seem quite as essential a skill as, say, eating or sleeping. Whatever the explanation, the centrality and universality of storytelling is clear. As Elie Wiesel once put it, "God made man because He loves stories."

Faith communities, including our own, discovered this long ago. Narratives comprise nearly half the Jewish Bible. God regularly communicates with the prophets by way of images that evoke a predictive story. Maggidim, professional sermonizers, thrived in Eastern Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Our people's foundational narrative, the Exodus, is related orally from parent to child on the Seder night.

Above all, the rabbis' emphasis on the value of agada, rabbinic lore, highlights the importance of storytelling in the rabbinic worldview. To cite just one example, Sifrei (Devarim 49), teaches that "if you wish to know He who spoke and the world came into being, study agada, for thereby you will come to know Him and cling to His ways." Although rigorous study of Jewish law remains the staple of the rabbinic curriculum - as it should ours - the rabbis nonetheless embraced the formative role of agada.

In my own life, I vividly recall being inspired by stories. As a teenager growing up with an active local Orthodox youth group, stories - especially when related as Shabbat ebbed away or during a musical havdala - were often the high point of an inspiring Shabbaton. As do many teens, I found it moving to hear about my teachers' life experiences and defining moments. Later on, I still recall the yarn of narratives spun by Rabbi Pesach Oratz zt"l, a first-rate Torah scholar who, as the decades-long day camp teacher in Camp Morasha, demonstrated that no scholar is above regaling children with uplifting and witty Torah tales.

Given the potency of storytelling, it's worth asking how our community fares in this regard. Although I have no data and can't speak with conviction, my anecdotal sense is that our results, at least in the Modern Orthodox community, are mixed. Our youth movements, as mentioned, effectively harness the power of storytelling; the same is probably true of our schools at Shabbatonim and similar occasions. But on a day-to-day basis, in the classroom and at home, I wonder if our brethren to our right do this more effectively than do we.

To illustrate, I recently spoke with a mother whose child used to come home regularly inspired by her elementary school teacher's stories. The parents were overjoyed yet found themselves conflicted, as the Haredi-leaning teacher's stories did not fully mesh with their Modern Orthodox worldview. They wondered - and I along with them - why they felt forced to choose.

Many explanations might be proffered for the relatively limited amount of storytelling in our community. The Haredi emphasis on venerating gedolim generates a more robust culture of storytelling centered around towering personalities. Our community's high level of education and concomitant sophistication - on balance a good thing - may bias us toward ideas over stories, which can easily be perceived as less substantive and rigorous. The lack of a substantial Modern Orthodox children and adult storytelling literature (at least in the English language) simply affords us less access to the kinds of stories we might seek to tell.

At least two additional factors can be cited. In contradistinction to both the yeshiva and hasidic groups, which view themselves as heirs to Eastern European communities endowed with almost mythical significance, many adherents of Modern Orthodoxy do not perceive themselves as donning the mantle of a prior Jewish community. This diminishes the reservoirs of narratives from which we might draw. (For this reason I think it's critical for our community to develop a more deeply-rooted historical narrative, but that's for another post.) And our more critical approach to history rightly inclines us toward a healthy skepticism regarding many of the stories we hear, further shrinking the pool.

Whatever the explanation - and a combination of factors seems likely - the outcome is clear. At all levels we would do well to engender a greater culture of storytelling. We need to better harness and popularize the materials we have, create online resources including inspiring tales in written, audio and video formats, and generate a robust literature for children and adults alike, including full-length popular biographies of personalities such as R. Joseph Soloveitchik. In addition to popularizing and developing "pre-packaged" stories, we would do well to emphasize the raw power of the personal story, which enables the listeners to connect personally with the storyteller. This will more deeply embed our community in a web of compelling narratives, tugging at the heartstrings of children and young adults who may otherwise be tempted by lifestyles inimical to ours.

Clearly we must do everything in our power to ensure that our children and students remember the Torah we teach. But if we manage to renew our storytelling tradition, we'll have taken a major step toward not only educating the minds, but inspiring the hearts of a new generation of young men and women.