In 1990 Corey Fischer, founding member of A Traveling Jewish Theatre, created a solo theatre piece, “Sometimes We Need a Story More Than Food,” which he performed in San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles. We invited him to write about stories, drawing on both his explorations in Jewish lore and his experience with Buddhist practice. —Editors
If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.
From Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez
At meditation retreats I often find myself hungering for the nightly dharma talk. Of course anything—meals, interviews, showers—besides sitting or walking meditation is a blessed relief. But I experience a particular longing for the human voice. Almost all the dharma teachers I’ve sat with tell stories when they give talks. It’s the stories—whether traditional or autobiographical, mundane or poetic—that provoke goose bumps or tears or laughter in me. The stories connect me to the teacher, to the sangha, to generations of dharma students, to my own experience.
I begin my theatre piece with the following story adapted from versions by Elie Wiesel and Gershwin Sholem. Like all good stories, its meanings are inexhaustible but it has always spoken to me of the magical ability of storytelling to encode, carry and transmit human experience.
Whenever the community was threatened by a pogrom or by a natural disaster, the Baal Shem Tov would go to a secret place in the forest. He would make fire and he would say a prayer and the catastrophe would be averted.
In the next generation, after the Baal Shem Tov died and the community was again threatened, his daughter, Odel, would go to the same place, and she would say: “Ribbono Shel Olam, God, I can no longer make fire, but I can still find this place and I can say the prayer and that must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient, and again the catastrophe was averted.
In the third generation, when the community was again threatened, Moishe Lieb of Sassov would go to the same place and he would say: “Ribbono Shel Olam, I cannot make fire, and I have forgotten the prayer. But I can still find this place and that must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient, and again the catastrophe was averted.
And now, here we are facing all sorts of catastrophes. And we say: “God, we too have forgotten the prayer. The fires we make seem to destroy everything. And if the place still exists, we certainly can’t find it. All we can do is tell the story. And that must be sufficient.”
Stories unfold in the spaces between people. They move in circles, not in straight lines. So it helps if you listen in circles, because there are stories inside stories and stories between stories. Finding your way through them is as easy and as hard as finding your way home and part of the finding is the getting lost.
This is a retelling of a story I heard on a radio program about storytelling called Word of Mouth, produced by George King in Atlanta. I don’t know who told it on his program.
Once there was a tribe in Africa who were somehow given a television set, a generator and a satellite dish—so they could get all the channels, which is exactly what they proceeded to do. The normal life of the village ground to a halt as everyone sat around the TV and watched, non-stop, day and night, night and day. But at the end of two weeks, they turned it off, went back to their traditional life and never turned it on again.
Now, there happened to be an anthropologist who was studying this tribe and he was very curious about this turn of events. So he asked one of the elders why they had turned the television off. And the village elder said: “Because we’ve seen it.“
The Anthropologist wasn’t satisfied with this answer. “What do you mean you’ve seen it? You don’t understand. It changes all the time. It has many, many stories.”
“Yes,” said the elder, “but we have our storyteller.”
The anthropologist still wasn’t satisfied. “You don’t understand. The television knows many, many more stories than your storyteller could ever possibly know.”
This gave the elder pause. He stared at the ground for a long time. Finally he looked up with a big smile on his face and said: “Yes, it’s true, the television knows many, many stories, but the storyteller knows me.”
This next one is my retelling of a traditional story that I consider to be a definitive statement of classic Hasidic dharma. It must have parallels or variants in other traditions.
One time, on Yom Kippur, Reb Dovid was about to begin the prayers, when suddenly the Baal Shem Tov cried out: “Reb Dovid—your life is a waste. The works of your days are like ashes and not even your pain has meaning!”
Reb Dovid wanted to run from these harsh words, but the Baal Shem Tov said: “Now! Begin the prayers!”
And Reb Dovid prayed. And he prayed. And he prayed.
After the prayers, the Baal Shem Tov came up to him and said: “Reb Dovid, none of what I said is true, but there was a barrier over us tonight and our prayers were blocked. I was only able to open a very narrow path. And the only prayer that can travel that path is the one that comes from a broken heart.”
I once asked Zalman Schachter, that amazing human bridge between the worlds of traditional Hasidic practice and the modern American spiritual smorgasbord, what characterizes Hasidic storytelling. “In a Hasidic mayse (tale),” he said, quoting Heschel, “‘the soul surprises the mind.’”
During a recent run of my performance at the Magic Theatre, I improvised a story each night. This started to become a kind of “practice” in itself. Small moments that might be easily overlooked took on new value. I began to pay a different kind of attention to the events of each day, waiting for “the story” to emerge. I’m suggesting that our own stories can become objects of meditation. We can question our own stories as we would a traditional story. What does it mean? What’s the message here? What elemental forces are being embodied by the characters? What is the teaching?