I was introduced to the art of storytelling about eight years ago through the Birthing From Within childbirth educator and doula training programs. I could not have predicted then that the storytelling skills I was learning would eventually provide a pathway for cultural and ancestral connection to my Jewish ethnicity and identity.
In 2016, I participated in an Advanced Birth Story Listening course led by Pam England. We dove deeply into stories from all over the world, and we explored how they could be used artfully to help parents and birth workers shift their perspectives and reframe their understandings after experiencing difficult or traumatic births. The practice of Birth Story Listening was fascinating to me, as were all the hours of behind-the-scenes preparation that went into learning stories and looking at them from a variety of perspectives to discover how they could be used as healing metaphors. As I gained more skill in telling stories that had origins in various cultures and parts of the world, I began to ask myself…
Where are MY ancestral stories, the stories of MY people? What wisdom might they hold?
This began a years-long personal quest that has involved genealogical research, finding lost family members, and discovering some gems of stories that were previously unknown to me or anyone else in the BFW community.
In the advanced course, Pam challenged each one of us to work on a personal project that had to do with some aspect of Birth Story Listening, and then to bring that information out into the world to share with others. As I continued to learn more about Jewish stories, I felt called to challenge myself to bring what I was learning to a larger audience. This is when I happened upon Limmud. Limmud is a conference and movement founded in London in 1980 by a group of people who wanted to create a festival for Jewish learning and community connection. The idea was to bring Jews from different denominations and backgrounds together to learn as a community. The conference was so successful that the idea has now spread all over the world, and there are more than 40,000 people who participate in Limmud Festivals each year on nearly every continent.
Limmud encourages everyone to be both a teacher and a learner.
The entire event is volunteer run, and folks who register for the conference are encouraged to submit proposals, the idea being that you don’t need to hold any kind of special title or position to present, just an interesting topic and plan for how to share it. This sounded like a perfect opportunity to bring the new Jewish stories I was learning, combined with the BFW approach of using storytelling as a pathway for personal growth, out into the world. I nervously submitted my proposal; three months later, I was both excited and terrified to hear that it had been accepted!
Fast forward to January 2019, Seattle, Washington: the time had come for me to attend my very first Limmud Festival and to present my session on Great Jewish Stories. The first thing I experienced upon walking through the doors was the feeling of suddenly being surrounded by all things Jewish. There were Jewish people talking with their hands and in a much more animated way than most people speak in the Pacific Northwest, people wearing yarmulkes, women wearing head coverings, and a whole lot of people with curly hair like me. I also noticed people who didn’t look anything like me as well, and loved the fact that we all had one thing in common: we were all Jewish. In Seattle, that is a very unusual occurrence! I could actually feel something relax inside me, and I breathed in deep.
When the time came for my presentation, I had the group of 20 or so participants move their chairs into a circle. I passed out blank notecards and crayons, telling the group that they could use these to draw whatever they liked while listening to the stories, and that afterwards we would share in the group about how the stories spoke to them or moved them and what metaphors and imagery they noticed or intrigued them. I set the stage with a short parable from the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement within Judaism. It was about the characters Truth and Story and how when Truth was able to borrow the beautiful multicolored quilted robes of Story to wear, people were able to greet him in the village and welcome him in. I then told an 18th century Russian Jewish story and a 13th century French Jewish story. After each story, I had the participants discuss in pairs before sharing their thoughts with the whole group. As each person shared, I validated their insights and asked more questions…
“Is there a part of ourselves that this character speaks to?” “What is the significance of the treasure box, the scorpion, the ring?” “What does each symbol represent and how might the time and place where the story came from influence the use or interpretation of these symbols?” “What might it be like to look at this story through the lens of one of the other characters in the story?”
The discussions were rich, including a lively exchange about the character of Lilith in Jewish folklore and what she means and represents. People were so engaged that we ran out of time and could have gone on longer, looking at more aspects of the stories together.
The Limmud Festival ended with a big circle of people making music and singing Jewish songs in Hebrew. We all sang and danced together as we listened to the beautiful, melancholy melodies of our people. It felt to me like being surrounded by a big, beautiful hug. Full of music in my heart, songs on my lips, and connection to my culture, I walked away with a sense of great personal victory. I had been able to bring the wisdom of the BFW way of looking at stories to a group of my cultural peers and to use it with my own ancestral stories, connecting in a visceral way to my own lineage as a Jew. Not only was the experience personally fulfilling, but it also touched the participants and got them thinking about Jewish stories in a new way. Who knew that my work as a childbirth educator would end up leading me to present at a festival for Jewish learning?