This post is a follow-up to The BSF.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about stories, and as always, the Big Scary Future.
We grew up learning, telling, hearing, loving stories that seemed completely detached from reality. Fairy tales, with their brave knights and fearsome beasts, folk-tales, with their witches and wise men. As a kid, I loved these tales. I ran to read my monthly Cricket magazines, eager to discover new legends from China, India, Russia, or the Congo. On the rare occasion a Jewish folk-tale was featured (usually a Chelm anecdote or a Chanukah tale), I gave a little shriek of joy.
I've saved every one of these magazines. Every once in a while, I look through them, rereading the Ramayana or adventures of Lohengrin, and all the time I wonder, why is it that I know about as much about the legends and myths of all these amazing cultures as I do about my own (that is, not that much)? Why is it that I spent my whole life going to Jewish schools and camps, and yet the most I’ve learned about the folk-culture of our generations, the superstitions and silly jokes, I learned from a magazine without any Jewish connections?
Oh, I’m not saying I don’t know my own culture. I grew up learning the Tanach and Halacha and Talmud on the surface and in-depth, along with enough commentaries and Midrashim to challenge those Shakespeare-typing monkeys in space any day. But to me, these seem like a different caliber of Jewish cultural education. I mean, think about it. Essentially, we’re being taught what we must learn in order to continue our faith and pass it down to future generations. They’re indispensible. But what’s to become of the lighter fare of our faith, those stories told by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, or the Chelm Tales, or even those medieval Jewish legends of the Ten Lost Tribes?
We didn’t learn them. Or if we did, they were told to us at a fire-side Kumzits by an energetic speaker, or on a Shabbaton, or on the bus to camp. And I don’t know about you guys, but I treasured those story-telling moments as much if not more than when I learned the authoritative lessons in the classroom.
I've had many discussions with people from all along the spectrum of Judaism: Yeshivish teachers, Modern-Orthodox friends, proud culturally-Jewish atheists, and High-Holiday-only family friends. Some have told me that those classroom essentials are basically just better-known folk-tales (a view which, I must admit caused me to flinch a little. I respect it, but I can’t agree with it). Others called them leftover superstitious nonsense. Still others recalled them with nostalgia, having heard them during childhood from their European grandparents.
My own view is that they have little to do with the essentials of the faith. These aren’t part of the guide to living as a Jew. They have nothing to tell us about keeping Shabbat or Kashrut, or about what Moshe Rabbeinu meant when he said “x”. They are not our faith, but they are our culture, as much as those Zemirot we sing at the Shabbat table, or the paintings of Chagall, or the reggae beats of Matisyahu. They are our past, and so we have what to learn from them. They were the stories fathers in the shtetls told their kids to alleviate the fear of the next pogrom. They were the jokes they told to deal with the Dreyfus Affair and the latest blood libel. They are windows into how we lived, and how we were treated not so long ago. Haven’t we been taught that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it? In the end, our history is all we have to shape our future.
They are ours to be proud of, the influences of our modern sense of humor and comic-book superheroes. And, as I recently discovered via some book-shelf surfing and amazon.com searching, they are really, awesomely…well, cool. How often do you hear that about something undeniably Jewish?
Did you know that during the 18th-19th centuries, European Jews had their own versions of Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel? I sure as heck didn’t. And why shouldn’t they? Every other culture did. Did you know that we had fairy tales starring brave princes who kept Shabbat, and princesses who played upon the violin of Eliyahu HaNavi? Some of these stories are so fantastically amazing, I can’t help but read them over and over, and annoyingly shove them in the face of everyone I know.
And now, it seems they’ve come to influence a lot more than just my sense of Jewish pride. My art projects echo them. My blog posts and cartoons mention them at every turn. And now that I’ve started that scary climb into real adulthood (eek!), they seem to have pushed me into a career path as well.
After years of agonizing over majors, then trying out internships in every field that interested me, then checking out programs in those fields, I seem to have picked a road to walk down. My first, real, every-single-day job starts this week, and I’ve begun the process of applying to graduate school, finally choosing an actual path of study. And it’s not what many would call a “safe” career path. I’m not going to be a doctor or a lawyer. I’ve chosen to combine my love of all things nonpractical: my love of art and culture, and my seemingly aching need to teach the future generation of young Jews to be proud of their background and realize there’s more to being a Jew than bagels with lox and being a nerdy Woody Allen caricature. It may not make me a dime, but it sure is fulfilling.
And it’s the stories that did it. That’s something I only realized last week, when I sat down to start my first graduate-school admissions essay. The topic demanded of me: “What connections can you make between (experiences in childhood and your background) and your present feelings…about children and youth…and your own patterns of action?”In other words, what about my past possessed me to do what I’m doing now?
And I realized: it’s my culture. It’s those legends I learned from my parents as we walked along the banks of the Danube in Budapest. It’s every gasp of excitement my five-year-old self issued when she realized this PBS kids’ show was going to mention Chanukah in its holiday special. It’s every ache of nostalgia and sense of responsibility I feel when I read one of these so-little-known stories, and my repeated thoughts: I can’t let these be lost. They’re too beautiful. They’re too enchanting. They’re too significant. They’re too Jewish. I’m going to write about them. About my culture, how it’s undertaught, and how that inspired me to make a career out of helping kids discover the parts of knowledge beyond the essentials: art, music, and yes, stories.
And as a bonus, I've realized my faith and my culture are some unexpected weapons I can use in the fight against the BSF. When I feel like the monster's beating me, I have my faith, my culture, and my loved-ones who share them. I’m not saying that’s enough to win the battle, but it sure feels good to be armed with something that’s got as much of an investment in me as I've got in it.
Big Scary Future, let's dance.