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Judith Greenberg, Ph.D. Headshot

Storytelling Families

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There's so much pressure on parents these days. How are we to do right by our children? Are we to be "helicopter parents," circling around our kids to spare them unnecessary scarring, or, as I read recently, as suggested by Rabbi David Wolpe, more gentle "helium parents," loosely holding the string while our "balloon"/child soars? Do we secretly approve of the tiger mom, or the new "diet enforcer mom" to ensure that our protégés are not only high-achieving but also physically fit? I propose a different approach that returns to the old-fashioned notion of listening to and telling stories, an approach apropos of the Passover and Easter weekend, holidays centering on important stories. Perhaps we don't need to reinvent the parenting wheel but just look at -- or listen to -- it again.

What aspects of the stories of our traditions are we retelling this weekend? What messages do our children hear in those stories?

The other day my daughter and I visited the Dead Sea Scrolls, now on exhibit at Discovery Times Square. It was an opportunity to view a 2,000-year-old collection of stories that continue to shape the thinking and practices of our modern world -- a true testimony to the everlasting power of storytelling. In anticipation of Passover, which begins on Friday night, we came with a group to reflect upon seeing what these ancient pieces of parchment mean to our lives today.

Discovered in caves in Qumran near the Dead Sea by Bedouins tending their sheep in 1947, the scrolls are the oldest surviving written documents of the Hebrew Bible. The discoveries included sacred and secular texts -- fragments of books of the Hebrew Bible, psalms and hymns, regulations for the community, and other historical documents. Coming face to face with ancient texts helps a remote past feel tangible present. For my daughter, this ancient copy of the Ten Commandments gave her a sense of the hand of history.

Ancient stories also come alive for me and many Jews seated at Seder tables across the Globe during Passover when we recite the story of the arduous journey from slavery to freedom from the Biblical Book of Exodus. At our family table, we have read Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, we have discussed the legacy of the Holocaust, we have reclaimed women's roles in the story, and we have focused on places in the world where people still remain enslaved today. One friend's father assigned his Seder guests to bring a song of freedom to their table. Passover also raises difficult questions: When is it time to leave one's county and what does departure entail? Was it necessary for God to smite the first-born Egyptian sons? My brother appreciates the symbolic act of spilling a drop of wine to mourn those Egyptian children. Passover's embrace of the value of the question, the journey to freedom and the symbolism of food make it my favorite holiday. (We actually indulge in many unleavened desserts while reclining in our chairs -- we are not a diet-enforcer family, alas.) The holiday also connects the past to the present through the retelling of a story.

The families I joined at Discovery Times Square are participating in an alternative bar/bat mitzvah training program called "Raising the Bar" led by the organization Storahtelling, a group that focuses on the cultural and ethical meanings of the stories of the Torah (Hebrew Bible). Torah stories can be full of heroism and bravery but also moral difficulties that merit questioning. "Raising the Bar" aims to provide the teens with tools to interpret and tell those stories in the present and future and to listen to their nuances and complexities. Yesterday, the group was asked to consider what meaning this encounter with ancient texts had for the present. How do stories continue to shape and affect us? How does the encounter with an archive speak to us about our own lives, the stories and commandments that shape us, and the tales we carry on?

Storahtelling's emphasis on textual analysis, critical thinking and moral examination couldn't appeal to me more. My own studies in comparative literature have trained me to examine the narratives around us -- in literature, film and our psyches. I actually teach a course called "Truth or Fiction? Memory and Storytelling" and invite students to consider the weight of inserting stories in our historical archives. They evaluate the "Rashomon-effect" of memory itself. Stories can shape our thoughts and our thoughts can create new stories. The seminar table and the Seder table can share an approach to the importance of listening to -- and questioning -- the significant stories in our lives.

As I read about "tiger moms' and "diet enforcer moms," I would like to offer a return to storytelling moms -- and not just moms, but families. The ability to listen to listen to the stories of the past, to hear complexities and nuances in those stories, and to reflect upon how those stories shape us, may prove more productive than denying our children fatty foods or insisting upon extra hours of rigorous homework. What about the joy of listening to a child's story -- of events from the day, of wishes, of fears -- and asking questions about it? What about reading together and pausing to discuss the story? The tradition of a family gathering around a Seder table to recite a story of freedom, to welcome guests to that table, and to ask questions about the story can extend beyond the Jewish observance of Passover. Retelling and critically reflecting upon our cultural stories -- whichever stories our traditions hold as sacred or special -- can even connect us to people who enscribed scrolls that had been entombed in the Dead Sea for two centuries.