Spinning yarns

Israel's storytelling culture is thriving - and it isn't just for kids.

yossi alfi 88 (photo credit: )
yossi alfi 88
(photo credit: )
'Shakespeare was a divine thief," says Yossi Alfi, leaning slightly forward in his wooden chair and narrowing his eyes, as if trying to spot a faraway camel traveling atop a desert sand dune. "He knew how to steal. And any good storyteller should know how to steal." The delight in his expression as he makes his point is almost tangible. The deliberate pause he takes to evaluate my reaction is similar to the well-timed punch-lines he customarily gives his audiences, and he waits just long enough before elaborating upon his controversial statement. "You see," he explains slowly, in his smooth voice, relaxing back into his seat, "the storyteller is an artist who interacts with his audience to bring a story to life, and he must know how to take different reactions and change the elements within his story to suit his needs. He must know how to steal a 'story' and make it his own." In other words, we know the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet, but it is a story that is still unfolding around us every day, as young lovers are forbidden relationships because of their nationality, religion or racial backgrounds. In order to renew the story, the details have to be carefully chosen and then described so well that we can see, smell, touch, hear and feel the places, characters and events within it. "Show, don't tell" is one of the principal rules in writing a good short story, and professional storytellers adhere to the same guidelines. They show their audiences places and people, and they bring events to life by filling them with magical, sensory details. Alfi, who began telling stories professionally about 20 years ago, is also an actor, a poet, a writer and a radio host. One of the founding fathers of the rapidly growing contemporary storytelling movement in Israel, he says the profession is starting to expand at a time when it is most needed to break down cultural barriers. "When I started the storytelling festival in Givatayim 12 years ago, no one knew what storytelling was," he says. "I told them people got on stage and told stories. They thought I was out of my mind." To promote the first storytelling festival, Alfi brought camels to the city of Givatayim and walked them through the town once a day to the tolling of bells. People were dying to know what those camels were doing in town, and once they began to see the Beduin tents constructed for the occasion, the anticipation grew to unforeseen proportions. "Our first event was a huge success because people wanted to find out what storytelling was all about, and once they came into the tents where stories were being told, they got sucked in," explains Alfi. This year, at the 12th annual storytelling festival, more than 12,000 people came to listen, reminisce and laugh as storytellers, politicians, actors, rabbis, diplomats and sports figures took the stage to tell personal, folkloric, mythical and historical tales. ACCORDING TO Yitzhak Mayer, a former Israeli ambassador in Europe and a writer, "Israelis are by and large peeping toms, and hearing these stories gives them a way to open the keyhole of an enclosed room and see some of the more hidden parts of their own history." Yet the storytelling forums, in which groups of people share stories together around a central theme, differ greatly from hearing an individual storyteller recounting narratives, and many of the 200 professional storytellers in Israel are now focusing on contemporary stories that allow their audiences to better understand each other. As they weave their humorous personal ethnic stories, they remind their audiences of similarities between groups, and they put a human face on "the other," no small feat to accomplish in the currents of racism and aggression that run through Israeli society today. "All Jews are Jews," says Alfi, "and they come to Israel to be Israeli, but when they get here they realize they bring their nationality from home." For Alfi, storytelling is a way of returning to ethnic identities and sharing them. It gives people an equal opportunity to look at each other from an artistic standpoint, and brings culture to a transparent and accessible surface through stories. "An Iraqi accent in the Habima Theater would not have been accepted in the '80s," says Alfi. "So I started talking like a Russian. Today, people can say whatever they want in whatever language they want, as long as their audience understands them." Other Israeli storytellers go beyond just breaking down cultural barriers at home - they take their experiences and histories abroad, to audiences that might not otherwise have an opportunity to really understand what it is like to live in the "war-ravaged, divided place" that the media present as Israel. "I was once invited to a conference in the United States on storytelling, and we addressed a largely Southern Baptist Christian audience that knew nothing of Israel today or its history. Through stories about Zionism and the early settlers, people began to understand what it was like to live in Israel in the 1950s in an outpost, or to experience the Six Day War," says Rinah Sheleff, a storyteller from Ra'anana. Sheleff, who made aliya over 30 years ago from Philadelphia, is a member of the Oppenheimer Storytelling Center in Tel Aviv. "Their historical understanding of Israel went far deeper than a mere lecture, because through the stories, their senses were touched and they could see, hear and feel Israel as the storytellers took them there with their words," she adds. As their understanding of the past grew, Sheleff found the audiences also began to confront questions about the present; they began to raise concerns regarding contemporary life, rather than just passing judgment or accepting what they saw on the nightly news as truth, something they admittedly had done in the past. But not all storytellers come from an ideological or personal standpoint. Many of them use folkloric and mythic elements to invent tales of fantastic proportions far beyond the scope of reality. Yet despite the differences of genre, in order to perform successfully, every storyteller has to spin a good yarn that their audience wants to hear. For the professional storyteller, the tale being woven is a dynamic and living thing, capable of deviations, additions, and surprising twists depending upon its listeners, which is one of the principal distinctions between dramatic productions in a theater and the art of storytelling. "The space between the audience and the stage is much less pronounced in storytelling than in theater. The audience is lit instead of being in the dark, and a good storyteller can use this visual contact with the crowd to his advantage when he is describing a scene or taking them on a journey," explains Professor Yoel Perez. In other words, elements such as sudden, pelting rain, the ring of a cell phone, or a loud sneeze can be used by the storyteller to enliven their tale. Perez, who has been telling stories in Israel for over 35 years, completed his PhD thesis on storytelling and teaches in the folklore department of Ben-Gurion University. His repertoire includes folktales, both Jewish and international. He says that the storytelling renaissance in Israel is part of a larger global trend, in which people are seeking entertainment that takes them away from a computer screen or a television set and satisfies the need for human interaction. While both actors and storytellers may use costumes, stage presence and voice projections, the storyteller is telling the story as a person, not a character. The storyteller has to transcend the text, adapt to the audience and understand how to draw the interest of the listeners. The job of an actor is to deliver a fixed and stable text that remains the same no matter who may be watching, but storytellers have to be able to adapt their bodily movements, their voice projections and their words to capture attention and keep it without the help of lighting, a director, a writer or a producer. The art form of professional storytelling involves the mastery of certain techniques and tools that bring the story itself to life for a particular audience at a fixed moment in time. According to Perez, storytellers have four positions they can assume when telling a story. They can use meta-text, i.e., "I heard this story from my grandmother," etc., they can use characters and imitate voices as they tell the story, or they can shift somewhere between the two, either closer to meta-text or closer to characters. Good storytellers should be able to shift and change like a chameleon as necessary to tell the story, but the techniques they employ will vary depending upon their personal style and the types of stories they tell. They may use textual references familiar to the audience, or crowd participation; they may employ dialogues or create a "common secret" with the audience; they may play music and have props; they may utilize vocal and spatial techniques to create distance or proximity; they might create suspense with pauses or lyricism with repetition, and the difference between a good storyteller and a master storyteller lies in knowing how to use these tools effectively while telling a story. Perez, who was invited to tell stories in the United States in honor of the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel, is invited next month to the memorial service of General Rafael Eitan, who drowned tragically last year. His daughter chose to celebrate her father's great love for stories by hiring a storyteller for the ceremony. "Birthdays, holidays, community events, private parties, festivals and club meetings are also venues for inviting storytellers to liven up the celebration," says Dvora Shurman, the founder of the Oppenheimer Storytelling Center in Tel Aviv. In order to learn and perfect the art of storytelling, some fortunate students are accepted into the prestigious, two-year storytelling program at the Beit Ariela cultural center in Tel Aviv, but the competition is stiff, especially in recent years. "People of various ages, religious backgrounds and professions come from all over Israel to study here," says Ewa Lieber-Ziss, the director of the Beit Ariela cultural and storytelling center. "We have many more applicants than we can accept, and although I have been to many other places in the world, I have never seen as comprehensive a program as the one we have here," she says proudly. The courses offered at Beit Ariela include voice techniques, gesture work, stage presence, turning critical points with timing and rhythm, performing arts, literature, folklore and genre studies and are taught by professionals from the worlds of storytelling, academia, and drama. Beit Ariela's storytelling program, founded 20 years ago, has grown by leaps and bounds as the demand for storytellers continues to increase. Yet, according to Lieber-Ziss, there are still not enough storytellers for children in Israel, and despite what might have once been true - that storytellers were primarily for children - most of the professional storytellers who graduate from the program at Beit Ariela work with adult audiences. "There are only five stories in the world - love, joy, crisis, death, and quest-and-discovery," says Lieber-Ziss, "and all of them are psychologically true for human beings, no matter what culture they come from." For those with a deep love for people and a passion for stories, the Beit Ariela center develops the skills of artistically rendering and delivering stories that will touch others through their power of imagination and their ability to evoke a scene. And not only people interested in becoming professional storytellers apply. Doctors who want to improve their bedside manner sometimes attend classes, as do lawyers, teachers, tour guides, business executives and advertising directors. Storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of communication, and it is a skill that people, whether they realize it or not, can use in their everyday lives no matter what their age or status. "A good storyteller has the ability to recognize truth and lose themselves while being wide awake," says Lieber-Ziss. "It takes a unique person to master the art of storytelling, a person who can reach inside themselves and openly share their visions with their audience, a person who can open up to the outside world and show off the human being within."