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How many storytellers does it take to fix a light bulb? (as in, tell, together, a single story?)
And how many is too much?
It’s been a while since I’ve attended an academic conference, the ones with chaired sessions and scholars reading papers on panels and lots of coffee. Here I was, at a prestigious onference on The Future of Jewish Storytelling held on the lush campus of Standford University for two full days of stories about stories. And a lot of coffee. But something was missing.
I was honored to attend and be invited to present. I heard insightful talks, met fascinating people, reconnected with old friends, made some new, delved into important conversations that now linger on.
But at the of the day it reminded me of Plato’s story of people trying to describe an elephant by feeling it, part by part, in a dark cave. They describe a trunk, big legs, but not the thing itself. What’s the big picture. what is IT about? I get this doubt about the formats of ‘conference’, and similar forms of gathering that bring us together, sort of, almost, to delve deeper into what life’s all about.
Many stories were told at the conference, and theories shared, important seeds planted for future conversations, but the one big story, the big ‘why does this really matter’ remained, I think, the elephant in the room. When talking about future – our future – what’s at stake – how is the Jewish literacy related to global concerns? how can our myths be in the service of a greater good?
It came up at one of the most interesting sessions – the most current now and next – digital tools for storytelling – including video games, vids and apps. The awesome Sarah Lefton showcased g-dcast’s new game LEVITICUS!
But why spend time and money on recycling sacrificial systems? Why focus on these ancient stories at all? Is it about advancing Jewish learning – or should the future of our storytelling be about what they are deeply about – increasing our capacity to think, to feel, to love, to grow? Can we aim for both? for all?
The challenge is not just about content but also, very much so, about context: How to use the purpose and power of storytelling – real connection – in a screen base mode that at least in some ways perpetuates the tech-isolation that comes from ireality? We are all in the same room – but each glued, increasingly more often, to our private screen.
The ancient art of storytelling, the HOW and WHERE of telling stories, not just what stories we choose to tell, can be the very thing that brings us back together, unplugged and connected.
And that’s exactly what this weekly installments of our old story is about – the final touches of construction on the Hebraic container for sacred conversations, story, ritual, connection. The weekly Torah text, Vaykhel-Pikuedi sums up the creation of the mobile, pop up place for the human-divine interaction. The Mishkan. It starts with the verb Vaykhel – Moses gathered, or assembled, the people, instructing them of sacred time and sacred space and how to come, and stay, together. Ex. 35:1
That sanctuary evolved with time to become our synagogues. What happens at many of these modern sanctuaries is not unlike what happens at academic conference – all the part are there but the big wow is somehow missing.
I’m excited to be thinking, working, visioning, with many others on this next phase of our collective gatherings, re-imagining why we gather where, and when, and how.
The origin of storytelling is around campfires and in forest clearings, people huddled to tap into meaning through the myths and memories of elders and magic makers of the spoken word. Rituals evolved around these stories, sacrifices, songs and pageants, sacred spaces, holy days.
If Jewish (and all other) storytelling has a future it’s about a reconnection to this primal past, the spirit of the campfire, even in its digital formation. The art of storytelling, changed, evolved but not forgotten is still what brings us closer – and what will help us truly reconnect.
We need new ways to tell our oldest stories. We need new ways to come together and connect to our truth, to the BIG story, to what has to be done so that we each wake up up to live out loud and make this fast-heating planet livable and just for all.
I don’t know how many storytellers it takes or not to fix a light bulb but I do know that the only way to get our future fixed is for as many of us as possible to gather, and tell a single story of nothing less than our soul’s salvation. Starting now.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org