Telling the Good Stories and Telling the Tough Stories
By Rabbi Joseph Prass
Director, The Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education, The Breman Museum
There is nothing more Jewish than the act of telling stories — which is only logical when you consider that we are called the People of the Book. From the Torah to the Talmud, from the Seder table to great modern literature of today, Jews are storytellers.
As the Director of the Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education at the Breman Museum, it is my job to see that visitors learn about the Holocaust, but more importantly it is my privilege to see that stories of survivors and all Jews are heard. We can give an excellent museum tour, filled with important facts, but hearing the stories of what Jews experienced from those that experienced it, clearly has greater impact. And that is as it should be. The stories visitors hear are meant to motivate them to be agents of tikkun olam (world repair) and to go out and make this a better world. The lessons our Holocaust survivors teach are poignant and the reaction of the those who hear them is even more profound.
The rabbis of tradition pointed out that while both the oral and written law was meant to be followed and understood intellectually, the vast collection of midrash – of stories – was meant to move our hearts. In Jewish education, we can recite the halacha (law codes) to our young students, or we can inspire them through accounts of how our ancestors rose to the challenges of being Jewish.
In the modern era, another profound story is around the founding of Israel. With all due respect to the historians and scientists who can list the strategy, the accomplishments, and the trials and errors of the founders of Israel, most of us understand it a little differently. The founding of Israel is the account of a small group overcoming great odds and adversity to heroically reestablish the Jewish homeland. Again, one informs our heads while the other moves our hearts – it is an inspirational narrative.
In my own experience, some of the most moving moments I have witnessed are in times of joy and times of pain as family have shared stories of loved ones. At a baby naming, how a parent describes the namesake in loving detail brings them alive in that moment for all to know. Likewise, at a funeral, the sacred memories that are shared are more than mere data points, but rather a chronicle of a journey.
Stories help make community. The facts are certainly important but how we hold onto the past and how it informs our present and future – that is done by understanding the “how, why and what” of a situation. For me, what keeps a people – the Jewish people – strong and resilient is how we go on telling the good stories and the tough stories. In doing so, we know where we have come from and can imagine the possibilities ahead.