The Stories We Tell

Idie Benjamin and Dale Sides Cooperman

Dale Sides Cooperman and Idie BenjaminOnce upon a time, a long, long time ago….

Humans are story tellers. From ancient times, people sat around the fire and heard stories of what had been and who they were now. These stories were not created for children. They were what adults told each other as the children presumably slept. And there were ways to share the stories with the children, so that they would learn who they were, who came before them and why we celebrate what was remembered in the story.

Stories are living, breathing things. To each story there is a central core, its truth, but as the story is told by different story tellers the shape, size, and colors can change. The core is always there but the details can shift this way and that. How many versions of Little Red Riding Hood are there?

Judaism is stories, and the Jewish people are story tellers.

Like other stories, Jewish stories come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They take us back in time and bring us to today. Our holidays are based on stories of our history. Something happened a long time ago and now we remember it with a celebration. We begin a new year, we sit in huts, we dance, we kindle flames, we plant, we dress-up, we eat, we receive, and we rehear and retell the stories each year. Each holiday is its own unique story but in its essence, it is a story connected to all of the other stories.

Our stories are living, breathing things. Each story has its core, its truth, but in each retelling we consider the audience. Do we change the story depending on who the listener its? Think about it. The core is always there, but do we not shift the details this way and that depending on the teller and the listeners?

In the Shema, we are told, “You shall teach them diligently to your children,” with a literal reference to the mitzvot. But it can also mean that we are to tell our children who we are, who they are, and from whence we come. And we all learn this best from stories.

But what form should a story for young children take? What is the appropriate shape, size or color? Which version of Little Red Riding Hood would you tell to a 2, 3, 4, or 5-year-old? Many of our stories are the equivalent of the Grimm version of the fairy tales. They may have happy endings, but the details are often dark and dire. Stories are not always pretty tales of rainbows and talking animals. Some stories are difficult.

Some of us assert that the story is the story, that young children should not receive a diluted version. At the other end of the discussion, some believe that our holidays do not need a story. To tell children that we do this and eat this can be enough for now. When they are older, once they can understand it all, we can tell them the story that gives all of the details and fully explains the foods and traditions.

We believe in the power of stories. We believe that stories bring meaning and understanding to why we celebrate a holiday. If what we do does not have a story, a reason, then why do we do it? If the goal for early childhood education–and for all education–is for children to be questioners and meaning makers, then how can we not have an answer to their questions?

We believe in the power of stories to connect us to our past and explain the present. Long ago, the Jewish people experienced something. To remember that and to celebrate it, we tell the story. It must be important if it has a story.

There is a path – a fine line – between not telling and telling. We believe that editing – in a way that protects the children, leaving out details not appropriate — does not change the story. It is the central truth of the story that is sacred. Not telling everything does not change its central truth. It leaves more to be learned when the time is right.

Educate the child according to his/her way, and when he/she is old, he/she will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22.6)

Some stories have the power to delight young children — apples and honey and wishes for a sweet year, sitting in a sukkah and remembering a journey of long ago, planting seeds, and receiving the greatest gift ever given.

The more difficult stories also have power — the power to teach lessons that children learn so well from stories. Think of the lessons of Little Red Riding Hood. If we aren’t afraid of the feelings that a secular story is meant to evoke, then how can we be tentative about this with our stories? The challenge is to make the story an appropriate shape, size, and color so that it imparts the intended lessons.

Hanukkah – Look at the story from a child’s perspective. It is about a bully who tries to take things that are important to the Jewish people away from them. But then Judah and the Maccabees tells Antiochus that he cannot hurt people, take their things, and forbid them from doing what they like to do. It resonates with children because it mirrors their days and their lives. By telling the story in this way, we are helping to reinforce the ideas of playing fair and being just.

Hanukkah is also about light and hope and even a miracle. It is magical, what children love in a story. What is the menorah without the story?

Pesah — again let’s look at it with a child’s eyes. Pesah is THE story. There is a Pharaoh who wants what he wants and says, “No,” over and over. But Moses shows us that this behavior does not bring success. There are rules of behavior which must be followed. The story teaches freedom – not freedom from rules, but from freedom from chaos. Children who thrive in appropriate structure understand this story. They love the story because it has meaning in their lives; it makes sense to them. If bunnies in a story can be sad, then we can certainly talk about sad slaves and bring meaning to maror.

Our Jewish stories have solid cores that connect and teach. When told appropriately, they teach children who the Jewish people are, both now and “…once upon a time.” These stories teach what is important to us, and how we celebrate.

“Once upon a time” are four very powerful words that we don’t want to take away from children. We only want to use them carefully to tell the tale.