"It just feels natural to go into these different characters," says Vered Hankin, here in mid-yarn this week at Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side.


A Head Full of Stories

Called "the leading jewish storyteller of her generation," Vered Hankin makes a living weaving theatrical tales of clowns, witches and demons.

by Susan Josephs - January 8, 1999


Once upon a time, a young woman named Vered Hankin yearned to be a professional storyteller but feared the impossibility of such a livelihood. Then came one deceptively ordinary night, when Hankin had a most mysterious dream. In this dream, she perched at the top of a large playground slide, terrified to descend. A nearby family sensed her fear and asked, "Why are you scared? Haven't you read Proverbs II?"

Hankin woke up, read Proverbs II and zeroed in on the verses regarding those who seek something as if it were silver and proceed to search for it like treasure. "If you seek, then you will find… these words gave me the strength to say I'm going to jump in and be open to whatever comes my way," she recalls. "It was a very weird, inspirational dream. I felt really led."

Three years later, Hankin, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has made considerable strides towards living happily ever after. Drawing from her background in theater and years of Jewish education, she has developed an arsenal of more than 100 mostly Jewish tales that she performs for audiences of all ages at schools, universities, community centers, synagogues, conferences and festivals. She recently performed at the 92nd Street Y with Steve Roiphe, a musician who often collaborates with her; had a guest spot on WHUD, a Westchester-based radio station; and last year, became one of 10 storytellers nationwide to participate in the Jewish National Fund's Performing Artist Educator Program. "I don't need a temp job," she says. "I'm actually making a living."

At 25, Hankin "is the leading [Jewish] storyteller of her generation," says Howard Schwartz, an eminent Jewish folklorist, author, storyteller and professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "She's extraordinarily talented and she's made her mark in a very short time."

Schwartz adds that "the secret of a good storyteller is not to tell the story literally but to ingest it and present it by adding his or her own human element. Vered is very good at this. She really makes the stories her own." In telling stories about Isael and the environment for the Jewish National Fund, Hankin's "performances were always well received," observes Rabbi Arnold Samlan, director of synagogue relations for the JNF. "Vered is someone who possesses a tremendous Jewish background and brings an incredible amount of energy and intensity to her performances."

Sipping herbal tea in an Upper West Side café, Hankin initially appears to be a typically vivacious twenty-something who recently hit the Big Apple throbbing with theatrical ambitions. But then she starts talking about the some 70 witches, wise men, demons, clowns and treasure-seekers that live in her head. King Solomon lives there too, I the midst of teaching his servant a lesson in humility, and so does a man who thinks he's a rooster.

No, Hankin isn't crazy. "it just feels natural to go into these different characters," she explains. "They're just there and I'm aware of them, maybe more than most people. As a kid, I used to fool my younger sister. I would tell her I was no longer me but these different characters from fairy land."

Hankin will read through hundreds of stories before adding one to her repertoire. She also tends to eschew biblical stories and opts for more obscure tales, be they from Schwartz's anthologies or the stories of Rabbi Shlom Carlebach and Rebbe Nachman of Bretslav. "People don't know that Jewish folklore has clowns witches and demons who can be funny and sarcastic," she says.

Hankin rises from her chair to demonstrate. At first, she's simply herself, talking about her childhood and the monsters that swarmed in the darkness as she lay on the verge of sleep. Then, she suddenly launches into a whimsical tale about a hidden fortune and proceeds to mutate into a very stubborn man, his even more stubborn dead mother, a calculating yet lovable witch and a not-too-swift demon. Each character has its own set of accents, facial expressions and movements and Hankin's audience of one feels transported back to kindergarten, sitting mesmerized on the floor during story hour.

When Hankin becomes herself again, she senses there's no need to prove that adults can love a told story as much as a child. "Stories are powerful for everyone…as long as they're truthful," she observes. "I only pick stories that hit me in the heart. If a story doesn't affect me that way, then I can't tell it. Only when I'm affected by a story do I bring to it a level of truth."

Born in Israel, Hankin moved with her family to Kansas City at the age of 10 and grew up "always wanting to be an actress. I pursued theater as a hobby and when I got to college, I thought, OK, it's time to be practical," she recalls.

Hankin could not bring herself to be too practical and settled on majoring in religious and women's studies at the University of Kansas. She also spent a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem studying midrash and wrote her thesis on Lilith, Adam's first wife according to Jewish legend. Upon graduating from college and moving to New York, she got a job working as the associate coordinator for the Jewish Women's Foundation, a project of UJA-Federation. But when she went to the theater, she would get depressed. "I kept saying to myself I should be up there. But I would think, no, I can't. It was a very powerful moment when I first though, maybe I could do it," she says.

After enrolling in acting classes and getting a job as a storyteller specialist at the Upper East Side Reform Congregation Shaaray Tefila, Hankin began to have a "vague vision" of turning storytelling into a full-time career. Soon after, she had her mysterious dream. "Part of how I got to where I am today is because even though I was scared, I followed my heart," she says.

While Hankin has spent the past several years juggling storytelling with more conventional acting pursuits, she recently came to the conclusion that "I really enjoy storytelling. It is very healing for me and I want to expand what I've been doing," she says. "I still have moments when I'm scared and I'll think I can always go back to get another job, but so far, I haven't needed to do that. Thank God, creative solutions keep popping my way."