Storytelling with Vered Hankin - Certainly Not Nap Time

by Michael Braus


Columbia University's celebration of Israel's 50th birthday featured a week filled with educational programs and well known speakers, including leaders involved in the peace process, the Ambassador of Israel, and the unforgettable David Broza. But the week's highlight was on the eve of Shabbat - in a night of storytelling with Vered Hankin.

Ms. Hankin, a recent graduate of the University of Kansas and now a nationally renowned performer in the Jewish community, drew a packed audience of over 100 Columbia University students into the largest student lounge on campus. Storytelling??? This might initially spark childhood memories of milk and cookies. Yet, the oneg Shabbat was certainly not naptime; rather, Hankin's intriguing presence and inviting voice ignited all to enjoy and appreciate the richness of Jewish history and culture.

Ms. Hankin's presentation focused on Jewish stories from around the world, illustrated by three stories. Each story represented a specific cultural and historical era, yet Hankin's engaging and dramatic style truly brought ancient Jewish past to life. Hankin beganthe evening with an original story based upon a Moroccan Jewish folk story. The story told of the great Rabbi Chaninah Yokel and his undying quest to visit Jerusalem. Without fancy costumes and stage props, Hankin utilized only her voice and body movements to skillfully illuminate the plot. Her intricate use of diversified voices for her characters was all it took to invite the listeners to partake in the Rabbi's world. The result was a success: the audience was spellbound.

The second story of the famous Hasidic leader, the Kotzker Rebbe, was a highlight of the performance. Hankin told of the great Rebbe's mystical powers to travel on a spiritual accession to the palaces of the Sages, in search of his close friend. As Hankin described the Rebbe's journey, her body reached for the ceiling, creating the illusion that we were all accompanying the Kotzker Rebbe on his perilous path. Finally after meeting the Great figures from Rashi to Moses, all of whom Hankin described and performed with vivid detail, the Kotzker Rebbe found his friend at the edge of the universe, praying by the "Ocean of Tears," the center of all the Jewish pain in the world. Looking around the room at the captivated audience, I noted that there were few dry eyes in here, too.

Yes, The Ocean of Tears had somehow made it to Columbia's John Jay Lounge on a Friday. And with her hilarious third story, Hankin was going to wipe it dry. Telling a "story within a story," Hankin spoke of the "very Israeli" jeweler who told her the story - a la Israeli mud coffee and a giant slice of watermelon. The jeweler told of King Solomon's servant's wild search for a special ring that would "make a happy person sad - and a sad person happy." With the audience nearly on the floor with laughter, Hankin magically became character after character, featuring King Solomon's servant, Binyahu, whose mannerisms resembled a Jewish version of Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny.

Hankin's presentation was exciting, education, touching, funny, mystical, and memorable. As Hankin took her bow, the thunderous applause gave it all away - there was not a person in the audience who left without a rekindled love for stories and a renewed appreciation for the Jewish past.

I'll take that over milk and cookies anytime.