Hankin talks about the art of Jewish storytelling
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.
did you become interested in Jewish storytelling?
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.
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.
the roles of stories and storytelling changed in Jewish history
over the centuries? Does Jewish culture place a special emphasis
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.
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.
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.
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.
have specific types of stories that you prefer to tell to college
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
ever encountered skepticism from those who feel they're too old
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.