All my life, Israel has been a story. And so I could not have been more amazed to find myself sitting in the Tel Aviv apartment of scholar Rachel Korazim; even after two weeks of traveling with fellow educators throughout the country, the reality of this astonishing opportunity was hard for me to grasp. Rachel encouraged us, while passing around cold drinks and cookies, to try to articulate what we would we bring back to our classrooms, to our communities, from this rich experience. At that time, answers were hard for me to formulate. I kept returning to just one word: complexity.
For months, I could not talk about Israel. There were too many stories; I was still processing, and I wasn’t sure that I could do them justice. My family and friends asked, how was Israel? And I—an English teacher and lover of words—was consistently speechless.
School began, and with it a new unit I’d been developing for this fall: Foundational Stories. With the goals of understanding archetypes in literature and addressing the issue of how stories shape societies, we embarked upon a journey that took us to many times and places.
Toward the latter part of the unit, we came to a tale that I called “A Story about Stories.” The text itself was a short summary version of a Hasidic tale I’d heard orally many times, followed by a short commentary paragraph by modern-day writer Rabbi Rami Shapiro. The questions I asked the students to consider while reading the story were both the simplest and the most complex ones we’d be asking all year:
- What do you think is meant by Shapiro’s statement: “We don’t simply listen to a story; we become the story”? Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
- How can a story sometimes “prove sufficient” in the face of a difficult problem or dire situation?
Here is the text we read with those questions as our guides.
A Story about Stories
excerpted from Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “Introduction,” Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Illuminations, 2013),http://www.jewishlights.com/PDF’s/HasidicTales.pdf
When faced with a particularly weighty problem, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, would go to a certain place in the woods, light a sacred ﬁre, and pray. In this way, he found insight into his dilemma. His successor, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Preacher of Mezritch, followed his example and went to the same place in the woods and said, “The fire we can no longer light, but we can still say the prayer.” And he, too, found what he needed. Another generation passed, and Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov went to the woods and said, “The ﬁre we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer remember; all we know is the place in the woods, and that will have to sufﬁce.” And it did. In the fourth generation, Rabbi Israel of Rishin stayed at home and said, “The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer know, nor do we remember the place. All we can do is tell the tale.” And that, too, proved sufficient.
But why? Why is it that telling the story carries the same healing power as the original act? Because the story recreates the act in such a way as to invite us into it. We don’t simply listen to a story; we become the story. The very act of giving our attention to the story gives the story a personal immediacy that erases the boundary between the story and ourselves.
In trying, now, to answer the same questions I posed to the students, I find myself especially invested in Shapiro’s choice of the word “become”—dictionary definition, “begin to be.” The idea that “we become the story” means to me that the process is ongoing and neverending. The tale of the Ba’al Shem Tov says to me that in the face of loss, of forgetting, of a world that is often eager to subsume or consume whatever it touches, story allows us a place where we are infinitely “beginning to be” something that is set apart as vital, treasured, and necessary.
It’s only now that I can begin to talk about Israel, and the way I have found to do so is through the lens of that story. I’m not sure I’ll ever walk the streets of Jerusalem again, or taste the salt of the Dead Sea. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully parse the import of standing among the Davidic ruins or the heights of Masada. I don’t have a neat package of the experience to polish and present. But I do have the story of my experience there—and this, I’m told, will prove sufficient.
This post was written by Middle School English teacher Deborah Golden.