Kiss and tell

Tel Aviv’s StorySlam is based on New York City’s The Moth, a popular event founded by best-selling author and poet George Dawes Green. The most recent installment, held on Valentine’s Day, was themed Man vs Love.

Stories on stage 521 (photo credit: Eliezer Sherman)
Stories on stage 521
(photo credit: Eliezer Sherman)
At least 60 people gather Tuesday evening in the richly atmospheric Café Xoho in Tel Aviv to take part in a classic tradition in a modern guise.
Under dim lights and dozens of eyes, individuals approach the microphone one by one and tell their own stories about loves had and lost.
The event – hosted by Café Xoho and organized by 25-year-old Alon Gelnik – is only happening for the second time but has already doubled in size, with patrons spilling out of the small confines of the humble space onto the balcony and even into the street where the voices telling the stories are carried by a single speaker hanging from a nail on the lintel.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, Gelnik and his Xoho team have crafted a night of storytelling around the theme of Man vs Love.
Despite the open-ended nature of the motif, storytellers shed all platitudes and get up on stage to reveal strikingly personal anecdotes to an unfamiliar audience, telling stories that range from suspiciously sensual odes to stuffed Gumby dolls to the tale of missed opportunities for love as an outcast in a British private school.
One woman, an 83-year-old Tel Aviv storytelling magnate who helped create the city’s Oppenheimer English Storytelling Center, gets up and recites to an audience comprising mostly immigrants in their 20s and 30s a folk tale of royal lovers on Hawaiian islands separated by the wars their respective fathers fought.
She ends the story by mentioning Hezbollah and Hamas, saying “we need a romance” in order to calm the regional situation down and encouraging love between archenemies.
A young novelist tells her own story about a man who weighs the importance of a licentious career against his love for her.
If you can write yourself into a relationship, it’s important to be able to write yourself out of one as well. She finishes her story, doing a little jig of satisfaction before heading back to her seat.
Israel, as a young country with a rich history, is the perfect environment for democratizing the titillating albeit humble art form of storytelling. At least that’s what Gelnik – who not only organizes the StorySlam English-language event but MCs it as well – believes it ought to become.
“Storytelling is a part of Israeli culture,” Gelnik tells me over an early-morning cup of coffee on a dismal winter’s day the week before the event. “We have so much history. Every single thing that happens is passed on in a personal, aggressive and opinionated manner.”
Tel Aviv’s StorySlam is based on New York City’s The Moth, a popular event founded by best-selling author and poet George Dawes Green. The American event has attracted celebrities and local personalities to the stage. Many of their stories are then broadcast through podcasts and on The Moth’s website.
Gelnik says The Moth was undoubtedly his inspiration for the event, adding that he has followed the series’ podcast for years.
“Everyone walks out imagining themselves telling a story,” the Israeli native but former New Jersey resident says he was told by friends who have attended the event. “It becomes a group experience.”
Unlike The Moth, however, StorySlam has not yet attracted celebrities or much media attention. Instead, it relies on a following of avid listeners and eager storytellers, many of who have become familiar faces at the self-proclaimed art hub at Café Xoho.
The inaugural event, centered around the theme of “First Timers,”inspired stories ranging from detailed exposés of pubescent development to the difficulties of maintaining the closest friends amid familial tragedies.
Gelnik says his event is “reinventing the wheel” because storytelling is such an important part of the human experience.
“Everybody knows how to tell a story,” he says. “Not everyone knows how to tell a great story.” And this is a part of StorySlam’s purpose: to take a common social activity and fine-tune it into an interactive art form.
While Gelnik contends that the event is “not competitive,” he has his own caveats about what makes a successful story and what often becomes a tangential monologue.
“Linear stories are nice,” he says, explaining that he has heard people tell stories with no plot, a choice that quickly dissolves the audience’s attention.
“You have to make sure you get to where you want to get and not get lost along the way,” he says, adding that while the audience generally appreciates a fair dose of humor, the platform should not be used as an excuse to test out a stand-up routine.
Storytellers often have their own reservations, he points out. “We’re at the awkward teenage years of our storytelling gig. I’m not sure how much people really want to tell.”
Still, he says. “people want to see the truth on stage,” which is clear when the audience reacts more positively to stories that many would be hard-pressed to tell anyone outside a close circle of friends.
On Tuesday night, after the final stories have concluded and the audience is slowly trickling out, Gelnik can be seen wrapping wires and fussing behind the drinks counter, seemingly excited at the success of his event.
He motions for me to come over to the counter and, leaning over, explains what he feels about the success of StorySlam using a line he heard from a friend who organizes Tel Aviv’s The Perfectly Marvelous Cabaret.
“It’s a great thing to give something to other people,” he says. “But it’s an even greater thing to allow other people the opportunity to give.”