Livejournal: Telling Old Stories Anew

Originally published on my long-defunct Livejournal.

One of the most formative influences on my Jewish identity is, for good and for ill, the years I spent (and continue to spend) involved with USY. In the New England Region, we have a tradition that whenever the region spends Shabbat together, the regional president tells a Jewish story before mincha. Through my years as a USYer, I heard dozens of Jewish folktales. (I have since learned that some of these stories even have authors, and original versions! But at the time, I never connected their tellings and retellings to Peretz and Singer and the rest. Thank goodness for graduate school. But I digress.) As regional president, it fell to me to tell the stories, so I devoured collections of Yiddish tales and Chasidic tales and listened carefully when rabbis and friends told stories that I might adapt. In the years since, there have been many opportunities for me to hear successive generations of USY presidents tell stories, and on more than one occasion the current president has asked me to tell him or her a story in case I might have one that’s usable.

One story that seemed to continually resurface in USY went something like this:

There was a town that had a group of holy men, and every year they would go out to the secret, appointed place with their secret, special implements to perform their secret, specific ceremony involving the secret, precise way to light a fire and the changing of a secret and beautiful prayer, and God was happy. As generations passed, the group of holy men dwindled until there was only one holy man left who knew the location of the secret place, the way to make the secret implements, the order of the secret ceremony, the procedure for lighting the secret fire, and the words to the secret prayer. But he faithfully enacted the ceremony every year and God was happy. When he passed away it fell to his son, who could not find the secret place, so he took the implements to a new place where performed the secret ceremony, lit the secret fire and chanted the secret poem. And God was happy. When he passed away, his son no longer knew how to make the implements, so… you get the idea. Until we come to today, where there’s no one left who even knows whether God is happy or not.

The story is a very effective precautionary tale against assimilation, reinforcing the importance of teaching our traditions to successive generations. But today, the story seems all wrong to me. There’s a piece missing. If a generation has lost their way to a holy place, perhaps the holiness of that place did not resonate with them. But instead telling the story that they compromised by doing their ceremony any place, shouldn’t we celebrate their ingenuity at finding a new place that holds meaning for them? And instead of despairing that a later generation forgot the poem or the melody or the fire, why not celebrate that generation’s yearning to approach God with their own words, with new music, with a different, personal ritual?

In my story, that’s exactly what happens. And next time I have the opportunity to share a Jewish story, I know exactly what story I’m going to tell.

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