by Gerald Fierst
I have just returned from presenting at Limmud, the European Conference of Jewish Education, at the National Exhibition Center, Birmingham, UK. I call it the TED Conference for Jews. Three thousand scholars, activists, politicians, journalists, artists, and spiritual leaders from all over the world gather to share and teach. To me, of course, it is all storytelling: The power and courage of a 15 year old boy telling the story of a terrorist bombing at his school; the former head of the New York Times Jerusalem Bureau discussing the frustrating and fascinating characters in conflict in the mideast; the twenty something narrating his spiritual journey from ultra orthodoxy to secularism and his yearning for the security of faith; and the storyteller/educator telling how folktales and midrash provide the core of an ethical and compassionate world view.
The great sage Hillel was challenged to encapsulate the whole of Jewish thought while standing on one foot. “Do unto others,” he said, “as you would have them do to you. All the rest is commentary.”
The old stories, the traditional stories, that have been passed through generations have always been the tools to explain the choices life offers. In our fragmented and branded world, these stories are more important and more powerful than ever. Five of storytelling arts teaching artists are working together at the Morris County Youth Detention Center. This past year, we chose to travel across the world, tying our stories to geography. This month, along with Julie Pasqual, I am in India. Our lesson plan includes the ringing of a Tibetan prayer bell whose tone seems to go on forever. One rings the bell and everyone listens until they no longer hear anything. Then the question is asked, “What did you hear?” A bell? or eternity? Your own breath? or the sound of the universe breathing?
The story goes that as Alexander the Great crossed the Himalayas, he came upon a naked yogi sitting on a rock. “What are you doing?” asked Alexander. “Trying to find nothing,” replied the yogi. Alexander thought the yogi was surely crazy.
“What are you doing?” the yogi then asked Alexander. “I am trying to conquer the world!” exclaimed Alexander. The yogi thought him certainly crazy.
In our society, we value product. Can something be weighed, measured, and monetized. Stories, on the other hand, are nothing, an ephemeral breath, but they resonate with eternity and eternal truth. Cosmologists, physicists, artists and sorcerers agree that the energy of the cosmos came from one expansive moment and that all matter was born therein. So we are the stuff of starlight, and our stories are a small echo of that act of creation when a new universe was born. When we talk of education and community, when we talk of responsibility and leadership, we must teach about inspiration - from the Latin to breathe. We listen, we breathe with a breath that comes from deep within ourselves, from our traditions, and from our sense of our connection to the eternal; and from that release of energy comes the imaginative big bang and our power to transform and create ourselves and our world..