Born to tell stories

Husky-voiced and with a commanding presence, Limor Shiponi takes her profession very, very seriously.

Limor Shiponi 521 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Limor Shiponi 521
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Whether we like it or not, we have to admit that stereotypes often contain at least a grain of truth. Ask most Jewish parents what they would like their children to be when they grow up, and you may very likely hear: doctor, lawyer, successful business person or corporate executive.
These days, of course, you might just as likely find parents who look at their kids and dream of future software engineers, systems integrators and network administrators.
Whatever the answer, though, you can be reasonably certain that no parent in his or her right mind is going to gaze off into the middle distance, sigh, smile hopefully, and say, “I want my child to someday be… a professional storyteller!” And yet a professional storyteller is precisely what Limor Shiponi became, much to the eventual delight of her parents.
“I don’t know if they had wished for a lawyer or doctor, but I do know they wished for something serious, something honorable, and something one could make a living out of,” Shiponi recalls.
“I remember one day my father, who died about six years ago, coming out of a storytelling performance that I gave and saying, ‘You know what? Now I understand that this is honorable, serious and worthwhile.’ “But it took many years until he said that. It took both my parents a long time to realize that if you’re doing it right, storytelling is interesting, moving and something worthwhile to do.”
She certainly looks the part.
At age 49, Shiponi is what might be called “eccentrically beautiful.”
Her long gray hair is wild and highlighted by streaks of white. Her face is natural, innocent of makeup, and becomes animated by a myriad different moods and expressions while she speaks. If it weren’t for the jeans and denim shirts she says she wears virtually everywhere, she could almost be a storytelling character from the Brothers Grimm.
The voice is husky and strong, big enough to fill a room full of noisy children or distracted adults. And she speaks with a peculiar accent – almost British, but not quite; and almost Israeli, but not exactly – that is unique to her.
Born in Israel, Shiponi was taken to England by her parents at the age of three months and spent the first five years of her life there. And, as one might expect, how she became a professional storyteller is a story in itself.
Shiponi explains, “I’m a musician by training, from a very young age, an oboe player. After I got out of the army, I went back to the music academy I had studied at before the army. The academy teachers invited me to play in an early music group. Together with one of the players, we created a performance for children in schools. We were running around playing early music to Israeli children with costumes and restored instruments.
“Obviously, these performances had to come with some explanation.
So I was telling these little anecdotes about the instruments, the people who wrote the music, the context – which is tremendously different from later Western music.
“One day after about 10 years of playing,” she remembers, “we finished a performance in an elementary school, for third- and fourth-grade students. Usually, at the end of a performance, children would gather around the stage to say something, to hug you, to touch the instruments, to do something.
“There was a little girl standing in line to get to the stage – a fierce redhead – with a book under her arm and a very solemn look on her face. When her turn came, she looked at me with this very serious expression and said with this regal attitude, ‘Do you know, you play very beautifully.’ And I said, ‘Why, thank you.”
Then she said, ‘Why don’t you tell stories?’ and turned around and left.
“I was struck, stunned. I just stood there at the edge of the stage, as though I was in some kind of bubble. Other kids approached me, but I didn’t notice them. They had to go speak to the other player.
“I just stood there wondering about the connection between the two remarks, and why had the little girl said that? “I went home, and it still bothered me. At the end of the week, I saw an advertisement in Yediot Aharonot for a storytelling course at the Tel Aviv Public Library. That’s how it started. The rest is history.
“I tell this story very often during my performances, hoping to meet that girl again. She would be around 28 or 29 now – and definitely a redhead.”
SO WHAT kind of stories does Shiponi tell? She tells stories of medieval romance and adventure, Arthurian legends – specifically “the nine female characters in Arthurian legends and what we can learn from them”; Israeli stories –“different from Jewish stories”; Mediterranean love stories, wine stories, bawdy stories, folktales from many cultures, and what she calls “wisdom tales.”
Are there any kinds of stories she will not tell? “I won’t tell stories that try to indoctrinate, or that have a message built into the story. My job is to tell a story, not to tell you what to think. And I won’t tell stories that are about one group against another group.”
Although she loves telling stories to children and adolescents, Shiponi says that most of her audiences are adult.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Shiponi is conservative to the point of being almost reactionary about what is and what is not a “story.”
She says: “A story is an idea that is transformed into words. You need words to express a story. When an idea goes out of your mind, in order for other people to receive it, it needs to take a form that a listener can decode.
“It sits in this kind of form that creates a capsule, something that can move around the world. And as it moves from place to place, people can capture the idea.
“But now people are saying, ‘A story is whatever I think it is.’ That’s what we have come to. And people say, ‘This is lovely. It’s democratic. Everybody has a chance, a voice.’ “Yes, but many people get lost, and I don’t think that chaos is democracy. I don’t think that 15-yearolds doing something on with software – applying pictures and music – is a story. It might be something very interesting to their friends, but it’s not a story.
“Storytelling to me is oral. And the only reason I insist on that criterion is because of the importance of physical presence. Physical presence is not just about me meeting another person and giving him a story. Physical presence, the storyteller’s need to hold the audience’s attention through every sentence of the story, influences the creation of the story, second after second. This doesn’t happen any other way.
“When I tell you a story, you are changing the story.
I am changing the story because of your presence.
And the presence of the story is changing me.
“You can’t say that about any other form of story dissemination. Not cinema, for example. You can’t change the movie while you’re watching it.”
Some might argue, however, that you can change a story on your computer, with the current array of storytelling software and virtual environments on the Internet such as “Second Life.”
Shiponi vehemently disagrees.
“People are getting enthralled about the possibility of taking a couple of lines, creating a figure, giving the software commands to move its arms. People are saying, ‘This is so cool! You can craft the story!’ “You can’t craft anything but that lousy figure on the screen. You have all these armies of software engineers who talk about the endless possibilities for humanity to tell their stories through technology. I can see endless possibilities only for those charging humanity through their credit cards.
“All this computerized crap is just a way to take a deeply immersive experience that is natural to humans and connect it to a cashier. Storytelling is oral and physical. That’s that.”
Shiponi believes that the natural “good size” of a storytelling audience is around 150 people. “It could be 200, 250 – we call it ‘How far does your magic reach?’ “What you want is to be able to see the eyes of everyone in your audience. You have these storytelling festivals in the US where stories are told in front of 2,000 people. That’s when the storytelling has to become a bit more theatrical, because you don’t have eye connection with everyone.”
The best storytelling festivals, she says, are in Europe, because they are usually in front of much smaller audiences.
WHEREVER IN the world they may be, however, storytellers are confronted by the same reality that afflicts actors, artists, writers, and others of society’s ‘free spirits’: Sooner or later, they have to pay the bills and buy groceries.
Shiponi, a divorced mother raising three daughters, has dealt with the problem by marketing her storytelling skills to the business sector. By means of interactive lectures, workshops, conferences, consulting and coaching, Shiponi and a small team of other storytellers called the Storytelling Company, Inc. assist businesses in using stories for advertising and marketing, for branding and presence on social media, and to create a compelling organizational culture.
“I enjoy working with the business community very much,” she says. “though it’s not easy at all. It wasn’t easy getting into the market.”
Shiponi also provides presentations and training for professionals in therapy, coaching, consulting and education. A recent client was the entire faculty of The Open University’s English department.
Shiponi’s first love, however, remains the art of storytelling for its own sake. Her travels consist largely of going to storytelling festivals around the world, like one in Wales that she attends regularly.
When asked who the world’s best storytellers are, Shiponi’s reply is immediate. “The Irish. They are truly a storytelling culture. If you tell a story there to a kid five years old, a half-hour story, that kid will then turn around and tell the story to someone else.
“And it’s not word for word. They perform the story. It’s natural because they listen. Kids there can sit on their butts for three hours listening to stories, and they can tell stories fluently.
“In Ireland, it’s everywhere. You ask someone on the street for the time, and you’ll get a story. I have a friend from Northern Ireland who told me, ‘When I was a little kid, whenever I did something wrong, my mother, instead of punishing me, would tell me a story. By the time I was six, I knew hundreds of stories.’ The Irish are storytelling creatures.”
Asked if we Jews are also “storytelling creatures,” Shiponi replies, “We used to be. Most of us have lost it, but it survives and thrives among the haredim.
In places like Mea She’arim and Bnei Brak, there is still an audience that gets its understanding of the world through stories, stories told by their rabbis.”
Shiponi is nonetheless optimistic that storytelling can once again become a part of the lives of all Israelis.
“There are about 150 active storytellers in Israel, running around the country telling stories, 500 who are somewhat active, and way more who have studied storytelling. But it’s still just the beginning. And many people are coming to learn storytelling every year, in various places where it is taught.
“It’s taught in south Tel Aviv, it’s taught in Pardess Hanna. My group teaches at the Mediatech in Holon.
And there are private gatherings where people learn how to tell stories.
“Few of these people eventually become storytellers.
When you start learning, you have no idea about the topic. It is a long voyage, if you’re taking it seriously. Many people just want to learn how to incorporate storytelling into their daily communications.”
Along with a handful of other storytellers, Shiponi has even started a professional association for storytellers here in Israel, called Amuta Lekidum Umanut Mesaprei Hasipurim Beyisrael, with around 35 members so far.
Regarding the group’s name, Shiponi says, “There is no single word for ‘storyteller’ in Hebrew. I even wrote to the Hebrew Language Academy asking for a word, and they said, ‘Sorry. It will have to be mesaprei sipurim’ [tellers of stories].”
There are seven and a half million stories in the Land of Israel. This has been one of them.
For further information about Limor Shiponi and the art of storytelling in Israel, visit her website, Limor’s Storytelling Agora, at