The many faces of storyteller Vered Hankin, seen here performing at a Jewish Federation of Women's Division luncheon.


Dream Job - Former area resident wins acclaim as Jewish storyteller

by Ben Shockey - May 11, 2001


Vered Hankin remembers loving stories since she was very young.

"I remember in kindergarten someone would come around and tell us stories," Hankin said. "I still remember some of the lessons from those stories. I don't remember anything else I was taught in my childhood, but those stories have stayed with me."

Nonetheless, if you had told Hankin six years ago that, at the age of 27, she would be a professional storyteller, heralded as "the leading storyteller of her generation" by New York's Jewish Week, she would never have believed it.

But Hankin, who spent her adolescence in Overland Park, Kansas, attending the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy and Kehilath Israel synagogue, now lives in New York and travels up and down the East Coast and all around the country telling Jewish folktales before audiences of all ages. Last year she released a CD of her stories, "The Day the Rabbi Disappeared: Jewish Holiday Tales of Magic."

Beginning her Journey

Hankin's career as a storyteller began one night as she was sleeping. The answer to her vocational woes came to her in a dream.

But the story begins earlier than that. As a student at the University of Kansas, Hankin majored in women's studies and religious studies, with an emphasis in Judaic studies. After writing an honors thesis at the University of California-Berkeley, she picked up her things and moved to New York.

"I knew I wanted to find Jewish communal work and, to me, New York seemed like the center of the Jewish world," Hankin said.

Hankin found part-time work at a Jewish women's foundation, but finances were tight, and she found herself unsatisfied. She sought out secondary jobs at area synagogues.

At one of the synagogues "the cantor took me to the head of the Hebrew school, and I was thinking, "I don't want to do this. I've done this before," said Hankin. "But then they said they were looking for someone to come in to tell Bible stories to the kids and I thought: 'Now that sounds like fun.'"

Hankin took the job, and word spread quickly about her talents. Before she knew it, she was getting calls to tell stories at other synagogues.

"The foundation job had turned out to be not really what I had wanted, but I was loving storytelling," Hankin said. "I started thinking 'Maybe this could happen - maybe I could become a sort of traveling storyteller.' Once I had the vision, then all kinds of miracles began to occur."

One miracle came in the form of a dream that convinced her to leave her job at the foundation and pursue storytelling as a full-time career.

"I had a dream one night and in it I was at the top of this very tall slide and I was terrified to go down, and all the kids at the bottom were screaming 'Why are you afraid? Haven't you read Proverbs Two?' And I had never read Proverbs Two. Ever. So when I woke up I decided I'd better look it up. And it was incredible. It talks about different kinds of wisdom: the wisdom of your head and the wisdom of your heart. And if you follow the wisdom of your heart, that is the best."

Hankin dove into her storytelling full time, funded by a grant for artist-educators from the Jewish Nation Fund. She worked with JNF for two years before they lost their funding for the project, which Hankin said turned out to be one more serendipitous incident in her career.

"It was sort of like it happened at just the right time. I was ready to be out on my own. People were calling me to do performances," she said.

Releasing Magic

Now, after performing for more than five years, Hankin is beginning to understand something new about the stories.

"When I began, I loved the idea of performing and entertaining and getting people to laugh and have a great time," she said. "I still love that. But now what I'm constantly fascinated by is that I can tell the same story hundreds, thousands of times, and each time I am transformed by it. Something happens. It takes me to a different place."

But Hankin said it's not only her that the stories change, it's the audience.

"When I tell a story, there is this sort of exchange of energy that goes on between the audience and the storyteller," Hankin said. "I think it's the story that creates the energy. What makes a person a good storyteller is to be a blank slate and to let the story live through them… Then the audience will live in the story too. … It's like a journey we all go through together, and at the end there's this sort of catharsis … it's like a group healing. It's a dynamic process, a group process."

Hankin believes the power to teach and to heal lies not in her, but in the stories themselves.

"I think these stories are magical. Something about the fact that they're folktales, that they've been told and retold over and over again, and then they're told at that moment with all that history behind them, which is sort of linking it and continuing that chain… something magical happens at that moment," Hankin said.

The Road Ahead

Though she has achieved a level of success in her field at a young age, Hankin said she is not content to rest on her laurels.

"I'm so grateful that I've been able to get to this place so that I can see that this isn't quite enough," she said.

So what is next for Hankin? She's currently pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology. Her area of interest: the intersection of psychology and storytelling.

"The reason I want to pursue psychology is because of this healing aspect of the stories, and because they've proven to be such incredible learning tools. …I think that we forget about the importance of emotion in education. I personally believe that unless you're emotionally connected to the material you're learning, you won't retain it."

It's an old idea, she said, one that has its roots in many cultures, not least of all Judaism.

"You know, when Jewish people used to have problems, they would go to the rabbi. And what did the rabbi do? He told them a story, and that's how they'd work through their problems. I think stories were meant to be healing, meant to educate people on how to morally live their lives and how to extract joy from them," she said.