The Jewish Advocate: Wiesel, fascinated with Jewish tales, still spinning them

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – For 31 years, Elie Wiesel has been sharing his “Fascination with Jewish Tales” with increasingly large audiences of his long-running lecture series by the same name. Next week, Wiesel kicks off Boston University’s annual three-lecture series with a talk entitled “Why Pray?”; it will be held at Metcalf Hall on the university’s Commonwealth Avenue campus.

“I love tales, I always have,” Wiesel told the Advocate in a telephone interview Monday. He credits the centrality of storytelling in his life to his early upbringing in the Hasidic world of Eastern Europe. “Hasidism is not only tales, but it’s also tales. No other religious movement concentrates so much on storytelling and tales as the Hasidic movement,” he said.

His love of storytelling is apparent even in a phone conersation, which continually veered onto tangents as new anecdotes sprang to Wiesel’s mind. Whether adding color to facts or imparting advice to a young reporter, Wiesel cannot help himself when a story comes to mind.

Despite Wiesel’s affinity for spinning tales, that is not the only focus of the BU series. When the lecture series began at the 92nd Street Y in New York in 1975, he wanted to call them “celebrations,” a name that has stuck in their published editions in France. “I like to celebrate Jewish learning,” he said.

Throughout the years of “The Fascination with Jewish Tales” series, the only thing that has really changed about the lectures is the scope. “I think at the beginning, they were afraid to have [the events in] large halls; now it’s very large,” he said, estimating that attendance at last year’s lectures topped 2,000.

“It’s always a pleasure when many people come. It brings together the community,” he said. “I always like to see myself in the role of the matchmaker. I’m like the old shadchan [Yiddish for “matchmaker”] in modern dress.”

At 77, Wiesel remains humble about his appeal. “I think they’re optimistic,” he said of his audiences. “I’m always full of trepidation – why should anyone come? Why should they read my books? There are other books to read. When it happens, it’s a miracle. I thank God for the miracle.”

While curious newcomers might check out the series to hear the famous Nobel Prize-winning author of such literary classics as “Night,” audiences have returned year after year for the variety of the program. “I have always felt the most difficult thing after all is to give lectures that are never the same,” Wiesel said.

This year, the topics may not fit the traditional idea of “Jewish Tales.” The first lecture – “Why Pray?” – grew out of thoughts invading his wandering mind during prayer, Wiesel explained. “When I pray, half the time I stop and say: Why does God need all my prayers? Can you really bribe God?

“I was meditating a lot, and I realized there’s so much in prayer, so much philosophy, so much poetry, sensitivity and mystery in prayer.”

Future subjects include “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” about which Wiesel said: “Anti-Semitism has no imagination. Whatever they say now has already been said 3,500 years ago by Pharaoh in Egypt and Nubechanezzer in Babylon.”

The final installment will center on Wiesel’s own book, “The Time of the Uprooted,” dealing with ideas about displaced persons, refugees and the notion of exile.

In the course of the interview, the author casually mentioned his transition to academia from journalism several years ago. “I was afraid of becoming cynical,” he explained of the latter profession. Now, as an academic, Wiesel makes clear that he takes great pleasure in creating and sharing the lectures, reveling in the ability to teach and learn from his listeners.

As if to reinforce his point about lacking in cynicism, Wiesel noted that he stays involved in what he calls “the mitzvah business,” helping Jewish organizations and causes. Along those lines, he will speak this Sunday at the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the New England Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston.

“I spoke at the inauguration, so I’m coming back for the anniversary,” he said. He declined to offer a hint at what he will say in his remarks. “I feel what’s in the air,” he explained. “There I rely on being Jewish and on the response to the response, from the people to the people who are there.”

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