History in the making

Far from being just an entertaining diversion, “storytelling,” insists Peninnah Schram, “is the most human activity we do.”

Schram became an award-winning professional storyteller as an adult, but she’s been telling stories since childhood, when she learned the craft from her parents.

“As a child, I listened to my parents telling me stories, and I knew that [the stories] were important because of the attention, their smiles, and, sometimes, the tears that came to their eyes during the telling,” says Schram.

Later, Schram told those same stories to her own children, and, later still, she began “recording stories for the blind … for The Jewish Braille Institute,” she says.

This opened doors for Schram to tell her stories — drawn from Jewish oral traditions, Talmudic and Midrashic sources, medieval texts, and the Israel Folktale Archives — to larger and larger audiences.

When Schram joins three other nationally known storytellers at UNCA’s second annual Mountain Echoes Storyfest, she will have just spent a month in Israel, collecting more stories.

“I’ve been doing more research on Jewish folktales at the Israel Folktale Archives,” she explains. Schram draws heavily from her own cultural traditions, as do Jackie Torrence, Jamal Koram and Doug Elliott, the festival’s other headliners.

“I primarily tell Jewish folktales because those are what [are] closest to me and part of my own life and Jewish heritage,” Schram says. “I love the wisdoms and values that are my life, so I want to transmit them to the next generation.”

Schram became convinced that storytelling was necessary when she recorded Zlateh the Goat, a book by I.B. Singer, for The Jewish Braille Institute.

“I realized [then] that no one was just telling stories,” she recalls. “So I made a proposal to tell stories at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York City in a program entitled ‘Fire, Water, Stone & Air.'” Soon thereafter, “The Jewish Museum invited me to become a storyteller-in-residence … and so I became a storyteller in name,” she says.

Becoming a storyteller, for Schram, was a natural progression. She says the craft can be taught — but the storyteller-in-training must possess a few basic qualifications.

“For a storyteller to be good, [he/she] must have a real love and connection to the stories told,” Schram says. While “timing, pacing, comfortable and flexible use of voice/body/imagination, and use of ‘pause'” are all important, Schram says that “personal heart connections for the storyteller” are vital.

She will address this issue in a Storyfest workshop titled “Going on a Dig and Uncovering Layers in the Storytelling Process.” The workshop is designed to help participants find and tell stories from their own cultural/ethnic backgrounds.

In a time when people seem more interested in video games and the Internet than in reading or listening to stories, Schram’s occupation likely seems outdated and quaint to some. However, “Storytelling creates a bond between people in a way that is special and meaningful,” she believes.

“I have written many of my own stories as well as a number of my own versions of Jewish folktales retold in my own style of telling,” Schram continues. Revising existing stories is part of the process for Schram, who also “include[s] commentary about the stories and put[s] them in a context,” she says.

Schram’s work — she has written and edited seven books, including a collection of stories from 68 Jewish storytellers — has not gone unnoticed in critical circles. She won the Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Educators in 1995 and the Circle of Excellence Award from the National Storytelling Network in ’99. A resident of New York, Schram is associate professor of speech and drama at Yeshiva University’s Stern College and Azrieli Graduate School.

Despite a packed schedule, she finds time to participate in other storytelling festivals, including the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., where she has been a featured storyteller three times, and the National Storytelling Network Conference, where she has been a keynote speaker.

Schram has experienced a level of success few storytellers reach. But her message remains earnest — and urgent.

“Storytelling teaches history, values and family traditions in a most beautiful and nonthreatening way,” she explains. Sharing her Jewish stories with others — even people from different traditions — can inspire audiences to think differently, she says. Her subject matter contains “universal values … not unique to the Jewish people. That is why audiences of all religions can listen and be inspired by these stories. … We can learn about ourselves from each other, and I firmly believe we can bring more peace to our world by talking story.”

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