Storytelling In Style

Vered Hankin talks about the art of Jewish storytelling

September, 1998


Last May, Jewish storyteller Vered Hankin performed at Columbia University. After a New Voices reader described the event as "exciting, educational, touching, funny, mystical and memorable," I knew this was a young woman the Jewish community needed to hear more about. New Voices recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Hankin about her work.

N.V: How did you become interested in Jewish storytelling?

V.H.: Since I was a child, I have always loved stories, but I never dreamed of being a "storyteller." I actually had no idea there was such a thing. But when I moved to New York and began acting and working in Jewish education, the two worlds just sort of merged. I began by telling Biblical stories at Shaaray Tefila as part of their Parshat Ha'shavuah (Torah portion of the week) program. I would narrate the stories and the children would act them out. Soon, they began featuring me in family programs, and it just took off from there. At this point, I tell all kinds of folktales, not just Biblical, for all ages from preschool to adult.

What techniques do you use to make old stories relevant to modern audiences?

I use a combination of Talmudic and acting techniques (what else would a Jewish storyteller do?). First, I examine a story as a piece of text, asking questions about the plot, setting and characters. Then, I make choices, as an actor does, for each character. For example, if I were to tell the Adam and Eve story, I would need to decide what kind of prson Adam is by asking myself how he greets his wife, what did he do today, etc. As I make my choices, I will certainly take my audience into account. If they are a group of Jewish college students, my choices will be different than if my audience is a group of young children listening to a radio show. I also try to find places in the story in which the audience can interact. If it is a young audience, they may help by providing noises or hand motions whenever a particular character enters the scene. On the other hand, I may address adult audiences as characters in the story (such as "People of Israel" or "Servants of the King") and/or ask for their input. Sometimes I'll also have them join me in a niggun (a Jewish melody without words) that runs throughout the story. I may also change certain factors in the story to adapt them to modern situations. The more I can make the characters and story come alive for the audience, the better and more successful the story will be.

How have the roles of stories and storytelling changed in Jewish history over the centuries? Does Jewish culture place a special emphasis on storytelling?

Well, first of all, it took centuries for stories to actually be written down. And of course the way stories were recorded has changed a lot. Biblical stories are quite different from Midrash (tales created by the rabbis to explain the Bible), and both are different from other kinds of oral folktales. However, it is difficult to generalize about the different centuries, because Jews were so deeply influenced by the cultures surrounding them. As for the importance of storytelling in Jewish culture, it is written in the Sh'ma prayer that "Thou shalt tell them diligently unto thy children," and during Passover our greatest commandment is to tell a story. Of the Holocaust, we are reminded again and again never to forget, and we read the Torah and tell the story of every major holiday, which includes the weekly holiday of Shabbat. Every one of our customs is accompanied by a story. As a wandering nation, a people that was homeless for centuries, stories were a significant way of keeping a culture together and reminding us of our past.

How is being a storyteller different from being an actor?

This is a question I have thought about a lot. As an actor one takes on one particular character and becomes that person. Also, in a play, there is usually an imaginary "fourth wall" separating audience from the actor or actors. In storytelling, the storyteller not only presents the world of one particular character, but the entire story, complete with every point of view involved, and an entourage of characters. The storyteller serves as narrator, director, and cast, while bridging the gap between story and audience and thus creating a much more interactive scenario. A storyteller leads the audience through the journey of the story, while the actor pulls the audience in more gradually and subtly. I find that storytelling and acting, while different in many ways, are also inextricably connected. For me, expanding and improving upon each craft benefits the other.

What's your favorite Jewish story and why?

I love the stories that have been told to me and especially ones that bring back beautiful memories. For instance, one story which I often tell is that of "King Solomon's Ring," in which King Solomon offers his servant an "impossible mission." I love it because it is engrossing and fun and multi-level. And I love it because it taught me a lesson and stayed with me for a very long time.

How would you explain your storytelling style?

For me, storytelling is a conglomeration of acting, movement, and music. Since I view my job as bringing ancient stories to life, I try to do this in as animated way as possible. I always make my performances interactive. I become each different character and give that character a life of its own. Lately, I have been working a lot with multi-instrumentalist musician, Steve Roiphe. The music enhances everything, transporting audience and teller into the world of the story.

Do you have specific types of stories that you prefer to tell to college students?

I love performing for college students because I loved college. For me, it was an incredible time of searching and thinking critically. So when I perform for college students I look for stories that are complicated, interesting and difficult, stories that move and shake (intertwined with some stillness). "The Princess who Became the Morning Star" from Howard Schwartz's Miriam's Tambourine is a favorite of mine.

Have you ever encountered skepticism from those who feel they're too old for storytelling?

I have never encountered skepticism from college age students. College students are so overloaded that they would like nothing more than to sit back and be taken on a fantastical journey. The most skepticism I have come across has been from adults who book the programs for older kids (like high school and junior high). Sometimes they'll warn me: "Beware of our seventh graders," or they'll ask me suspiciously, "Do high schoolers generally listen to stories?" But my experience has been that when you offer a piece of truth people latch on to it. One particular time when I was to perform for a group of seventh and eighth graders, I waited patiently while their teacher attempted to quit them down so I could begin. They ignored him. Then the principal tried to get their attention. Nothing. They motioned for me to begin, shrugging their shoulders helplessly. I began with the introduction to my first story, but the teens did not even acknowledge my presence. I had no choice but to keep going, so I just launched into my first story. For the next half hour the room was silent. Stories can be that powerful.