On a Saturday night, November 4th 1995, I stood on a rooftop in Jerusalem and decided to devote my life to storytelling – the ambitious attempt of a 26 year old to save of the soul of society through the power of stories. Last night, in midtown Manhattan I got to retell the story.
From the roof of that apartment building I had been living in, right in the center of Jerusalem, I was able to see a sea of candles lit in Zion Square. Hours earlier Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv. Within that grief and shock I kept thinking of the story I had been studying that year at the Elul Study Center in Jerusalem: The Binding of Isaac. One of the first statements released by Rabin’s killer, Yigal Amir, was his assertion that he followed Divine orders to kill Rabin in order to save the Land of Israel. So too did Abraham believe he was following God’s voice, preserving the covenant rather than the life of a single person. But unlike Abraham, Amir followed through.
In this terrible sequel no angel intervened and Isaac, not bound, was killed only minutes after singing for peace in the square now bearing his name. Standing on the roof that night I realized how powerful our stories were, how they carried values and instructions often hidden from our conscious recollections, how they were embedded into our lives far deeper than I had known before. From knowing our stories Amir was able to interpret our stories, in a way that made sense to his beliefs – and which made history. The peace process has stalled, frustrations are palpable, violence is on the rise yet again; Amir’s interpretation has interrupted all of our lives.
I was working at the time as a Jewish educator and so was keenly aware of how rare this knowledge of our sacred stories was among the larger Jewish population – in Israel and abroad. Deprived of Judaic literacy, the majority of Jews, 20 years ago and still today, rely on the interpretation of teachers and rabbis who themselves are often guided by interpretations that are specific, narrow-minded, and do not stand up to progressive, liberal and democratic perspectives. To reflect our evolution, to stand up for revised values and fresh choices, one must know, understand and own our stories.
I understood that night. Knowledge is power and power is change. Amir had knowledge. So few on the Israeli left had humanistic religious ammunition with which to refute his lethal claim and dismiss his reading of our sacred story and Jewish law. Change the way we tell our stories and you’ll change the way we live our lives.
In 1995 I was already engaged in the work of education as a high school teacher. But I was now resolved to focus on the art of storytelling and the act of delving deeper into making our inherited stories and the ways we tell them matter more to modern generations. I became a storyteller. That night was the seed that would flourish a few years later as I founded the Storahtelling Company, which would later evolve into Lab/Shul.
And here I am, 20 years later, with a group of young B Mitzvah students at a special pop-up museum exhibit from Israel that Lab/Shul hosted called “Remembering Rabin,” talking about stories, histories and why their upcoming ritual matters: stories hold what matters most to a community. By teaching them how to tell stories with intention we are equipping them with the tools of knowledge and power, which they can use to wrestle with our complex tradition, make sense of antiquity in modern times, and shape the “here and now” to be better for the “there and then.”
Here and now, 20 years later, violence and fear still rule the streets Rabin tried so hard to fill with peace. Last week, the square now named for him brought together 100,000 people committed to reconciliation and the call for peace. Many of those present were not there when he was killed. Like our young B Mitzvah students here in NYC, they rely on us, the storytellers, to expose them to the questions and challenges ahead.
Rabin’s legacy was honored last night, the kids and their parents asked good questions, and we sang the song of peace, that last one Rabin ever sang. 20 years later, I recall the moment that changed so many lives and altered my life’s path, with awe, and with appreciation. “The story is old” Morrissey sang way back in the 90’s, “I know, but it goes on.”