Once Upon a Time

"I am a storyteller. Storytelling contains acting, and also gives the teller the creative freedom to portray all the various characters and points of view within the tale, as well as to write new stories"

Summer, 2004

"...Rabbi Osnat whispered a word her father had taught her. At that moment everyone heard the flapping sounds of doves. The people looked up and saw that they were not doves but angels! The angels swept down toward the synagogue, putting out the fire with their wings, then flew away. When the smoke disappeared, the Jews saw that yet another miracle had occurred: The synagogue appeared to be untouched by the flames! Nowadays, women from all over the world gather to celebrate the new moon, Rosh Chodesh. Dancing under the light of the moon, each woman moves to her own rhythm. Some say that on a clear night one can see the shadow of Rabbi Osnat, rising and falling like a heartbeat."

It is an evening of storytelling at the 92nd Street Y Library. The audience, made up of folklorists, writers and storytellers, sits enthralled as the young woman, wearing sinuous, long black, takes them on a journey. She is Vered Hankin, age 29, acclaimed as "the leading storyteller of her generation" (The Jewish Week). She has per- formed at the International Fringe Festival, Columbia University, Brooklyn's Children Museum, The Jewish Museum and others. Her work includes: Tv, film, theatre, including a recent performance of God of Vengeance, by Sholom Asch. Her CD, The Day the Rabbi Disappeared, based on the National Jewish Award-winning book by 1 Howard Schwartz, also won the prestigious National Parenting Publications Gold Award. Recently, she joined celebrities Leonard Nimoy, Jerry Stiller and Darryl Hannah in an internationally aired radio show culminating in a six-CD set: "One People, Many Stories"

She was just approached by NPR to record a Hanukkah story. She's collaborating with two ~ I t psychology professors in writing a book of children's stories. She's even venturing into motivational speaking. Actress, author, speaker, recording star, storyteller, which does she prefer?

"I am a storyteller.

Storytelling contains acting, and also gives the teller the creative freedom to portray all the various characters and points of view within the tale, as well as to write new stories.

Scheherazade told stories for a thousand and one nights. At the same time she entertained, delighted and seduced the caliph. She also bore him several children and averted a death decree. Scheherazade told stories so that she might live. Why does Hankin?

"Folktales are magical and powerful and as the teller I become Scheherazade part of a tradition that spans generations through thousands of tellings. I feel the healing, the life giving force of it. I define healing, not as a cure, but as a shift in energy.  Storytelling is also a key to our cultural heritage. It teaches not didactically, by telling you how to live and worship, but through image and metaphor, by engaging the imagination and the fantasy of children. The child in Hebrew school, the child from a Reform congregation, the child from an unaffiliated home, how can these children internalise the treasures of our culture? One way is through the story. That's why the rebbes told stories."

What must the teller never do?

 "The story must never be told as if the teller were removed from the tale.

The teller must always be involved in the story, as if he or she were actually living the story in that very moment, but at the same time be very much in the present connecting with the audience as well." 

What is the role of music in story telling?

"Music is a very powerful medium, which transports audience and teller into another world. I have worked with cellists, guitarists and percussionists. I would never presume to tell them what to do. I just say, 'Have a sense of fun with it.' We improvise together."

She goes through hundreds of stories before choosing one.

"I read in English translation and in Hebrew. Unfortunately, I don't know Yiddish. A few summers ago went to the Israel Folk Tale Museum in Haifa, which has over 20,000 stories from all over the world. It is interesting to see how they differ. There is an Afghani tale with a very harsh view of justice. There are Ethiopian stories, Syrian stories, Kurdistani stories, Moroccan stories, stories of the Balkans, of Germany, the mystical stories of Eastern Europe, the rebbes' stories - the most accomplished ones being the stories of Rebbe Nachman of Bretzlav- and the beautiful stories of Shlomo Carlebach. There are funny stories, spiritual stories, stories full of magic and feeling, scary stories about our fears and superstitions, also stories about things that we don't want to admit to. For example, Lilith is a demon who steals man's sperm while he sleeps. If a man wakes up after a nocturnal emission, it must be Lilith's fault.

"In Greek mythology it is Pandora's fault. She opened her box and evil spread throughout the world.  In Genesis it is Eve who seduces innocent Adam into eating the forbidden fruit, which brings about our eternal punishment." 

And that brings us to the next question. How does feminism impact on her choice of material? 

"It is a delicate balance between remaining honest and true to the folk tradition, which is not usually a feminist one, and making sure that our voice is in there. One way of doing this is by portraying the range of women in the Jewish folk tale. There is the self- sacrificing heroine, the wicked witch, the crafty demon, the strong wise rabbi. They are all within us."

What is the role of narrative in our culture?

Vered smiles. "What is not the role of the story in our culture? Torah, Midrash, folktales, the rebbes' stories- everything is narrative. It is told that when the Rizhiner Rebbe was on his deathbed, his students came to him with two books to sign: one book of laws and one book of stories. He could only muster the strength to sign one book-the book of stories. Why? Because, said the Rebbe, even God loves stories. First came the story, and then came the law."

Do Jewish folktales have stories about children and wicked step- mothers such as Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? And do we have stories about adolescent girls, their sexual awakenings, longings and fears, e.g., Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard and his castle?

"Oh, yes. There is the Jewish version of many of these stories, including Cinderella and Snow White-a version in which the stepmother actually cuts off her arms and legs after taking her to the forest. The original Rapunzel story was a story of King Solomon's daughter. We have many stories about young girls or boys taking a journey, and we also have many stories of couples who want children or who ask for blessings to have children. Children are a very important part of our culture, after all."

How about love stories which end with: "And they lived happily ever after?"

"We don't have those-exactly. We have happy endings, but a more prevalent theme is that the wheel of life goes up and down, and whichever end you may find yourself at, there's always the other one around the corner. It's part of our history to live this way."

She tells tales to the very young, to students of all ages, and to the elderly. How does the audience influence her choice of repertoire and style?

"Folktales are multileveled and thus work for all ages. A teenage audience is the toughest one. Coolness is most important for them-something funny to pull them in, and a lot of suspense. But deep down they're softies, and within the first five minutes of a story, they're in. Adults are more open- minded and give the teller the freedom to take them to many different places. With little ones, three to five years old, it is the pull of the fantastic, the magical, the funny: shorter, simpler stories, larger characters, a lot of movement, action, and a lot of silliness. They also like stories about things that worry them. There is one story about a little girl named Hannaleh, who is afraid to get her Shabbat dress dirty. Suddenly a puppy comes into view. Uh-oh! Will she or won't she get her Shabbat dress dirty? This is high drama for little kids."

One of the central motifs of storytelling is the hero's journey. The hero leaves his home and sets forth into the unknown. On the way he has many adventures. He finally meets and confronts the (giant/monster/dragon) slays him and returns to his community bearing a gift. What about her own journey, both existential and professional?

"I left Jerusalem when I was 10 years old, and I did not return until I was 21, when I went back for one year. I had applied for research grants, and I convinced myself that was the reason for my going. But from the very first day of my arrival, I knew that there was a whole other reason and that I would find it that year. I had grown up with English and Hebrew, then we left, and the Hebrew slowly began to fade away.

And I, who had been such a talkative child, acting out stories, singing and dancing, became very quiet during that first year of exile. Then came adolescence-never an easy period-and then I went away to college, became politically and intellectually involved, studied, took acting lessons, and became a storyteller. Now I was back in Jerusalem-paradise lost. For so long I had felt the longing of that loss.

"The very first day of my return to Jerusalem, as I was wandering through familiar streets as if in a dream, by some fantastic coincidence I was reunited with my three closest child- hood friends: Ruti, Yael, Tamar. It was as if I had never left. I have since come back to their weddings. I also reconnected with my father, who I had not seen for a few years. The tie had never been broken, but throughout that whole year I was his guest every Shabbat evening, and I developed a relationship with his wife and children, my siblings. And once again I became fluent in Hebrew-began to think, feel and dream in the language of my childhood. There was healing and more than that. There was a sense of who I am, separate from place and people, a sense of where I would be had I stayed, and where I am now. Not that one is better than the other. I am very grateful for everything New York has given me- it's made my dreams come true. I'm a storyteller! The gift is all the places I have been to-geographically, emotion- ally, spiritually-so many things that have changed and grown in me. I've travelled all over telling. I've gone as far as Thailand to perform, as well as to New Mexico, California, Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, all over the coast, and, of course, Israel. One of the best experiences was performing at my hometown in Kansas City, where I grew up after I left Israel.

"It was a performance at the Women's Federation Annual Luncheon. Everyone had received an invitation. My 1oo-year-old grandmother and my mother were in the audience, beaming with pride."

And what did Grandma say?

"She said (chuckling),'lt was better than I expected.' I faced my audience. I am an artist bearing a gift: these wonderful stories that I want to share with you. I guess I feel that I'm not getting in my own way as much. I can speak in my own voice, not afraid to be me, not looking at other people for self-definition, and I can let these stories flow through me as through a vessel. It is not about ego, it is about the tales, their magic and beauty. They are very, very powerful."

Jacob wrestled through the night with the angel. In the morning when he awoke his thigh was wounded, but God changed his name from Jacob to Israel: The wound and the blessing.

"Professionally, it all began when I moved to New York. I would work in a Jewish organization, study acting, then go on to graduate school and become a professor, but I had not quite figured out in what. One day I was asked to tell stories to a group of young children in the synagogue where I worked. 'Why not?' I said. The joy I felt when I had the kids act out the different characters took me by surprise. It was so much fun for me and so much fun for the children. Suddenly it all became crystal clear. I would become a storyteller. And once I had made that decision it all happened very quickly."

Did she have any mentors, people who have inspired her on the way?

"There were many, foremost among them Professor Howard Schwartz, noted folklorist, teacher and writer. We met five years ago at a story- telling conference. He was the keynote speaker; I was one of many participants. We spoke. He was giving a workshop on Lilith. 'Since you have written a thesis on Lilith, you will be Lilith's lawyer!' I felt so honoured, so nervous, and so excited.

"It went very well. We kept in touch after that. Next, he asked me to do the CD based on his collection of stories. He even asked me to help edit the book. At first I thought, how can I edit his writing? It's like editing Isaac Bashevis Singer. But I must say that I soon got the hang of it. Howard taught me a ton about writing, editing and researching, but also about generosity. I feel blessed."

Where to from here?

"Traditionally, learning was totally integrated with living. Modernity has changed that, but I believe that with story- telling I can bridge that gap. I believe in the importance of the story, educationally and as healing. I believe that you can't learn unless you are emotion- ally involved. Every time I learned a great deal, I developed almost a crush on the teacher, because I was so excited about the material. Right now I'm in a clinical psychology doctoral program at City University of New York. I believe that the stories are so healing and I was ready to learn more about healing and the healing power of stories and storytelling. I'm also very interested in the intersection between mind, body and spirit, and how they all work together to create true movement of the soul."

The teller is a princess, young and fair. She is authentic, gifted and wise beyond her years. Does her narrative include a handsome prince with whom to live happily ever after?

"Not right now. But...?" Hankin throws her head back, laughing with abandon.

And that dear reader is the end of the story.