Thursday, December 9, 2010


Storytelling a piece by
“This past Shabbos was Shabbos Mevarchim (the Shabbos before a new month begins and therefore a new moon cycle).  Each month...”
Wait, wait, wait.  Stop the presses.
How can I write a story with universal appeal when I begin with words that almost no one can understand?  Having been living a religious jewish way of life for several years I cannot simply tell a story the way I would as when I am speaking to another religious jew who is accustomed to hearing these words.
Just the background of a story can be burdensome to a reader who is not familiar with the culture.  Take this for example:
I was with Fischel this past Shabbos at a Sholem Zochur of a friend he knows from California.  This week happened to be Shabbos Mevorchim, Teves.  Every Shabbos Mevorchim the yeshiva we study at has the full time and part time students all get together for a friday night meal. This coincided with third night of Chanukah this year.
I simply wanted to tell a short story of what happened when we went to a house for a 
friday night party.  But every few words of my telling of the story are words that would likely cause an ordinary reader to say, “Huh? What’s that?”
Okay, so Fischel is a name, Shabbos is the day of rest, a yeshiva is a school for jewish learning and Chanukah is that holiday where candles are lit.
But please tell me what a Sholem Zochur on Shabbos Mevorchim, Teves is?  That is just too far out there to wrap my mind around.  I may even have to resort to Google for that.
To a religious jew these words would make perfect sense providing the transliteration is recognizable.  These words are hebrew words that may look different when using the english letters.  It’s not so easy to transliterate the gutteral “ch” sound.  You just have to know that the “ch” is the one that sounds like you are clearing your throat.  English doesn’t have such a sound.  Most non-jews say Hanukah and don’t bother with the gutteral “ch” sound.   The true pronunciation is more like Ch-kh-kh-kh-anukah.
There’s just too much to define in order to describe what a Sholem Zochkhkhur on Shabbos Mevorchkhkhim is while at the same time keeping the reader interested in the main point of the story.
Before telling a story of the time me and Fischel went to the friday night party for the newborn baby boy I needed to first take a side track and define all of these new terms.  It makes for a tough story - especially in this world of soundbite storytelling.  If you miss a single beat the audience is ready to change the channel on you... [bell goes off- bing] “thank you for playing, next contestant please” [exit stage left].
In order to tell my story it really wasn’t necessary to know what a Sholem Zochur is (it literally means “hello, boy” - it is a celebration for a newly born jewish baby boy on the first friday night after he is born).  Nor was it necessary to know what Shabbos Mevorchim is (it is the shabbos just before the new month begins when the new month is blessed by the congregation in shul.)
Nor was it necessary to know that Teves is the name of the new month being blessed.
So, every sentence is a fight to keep the story moving.  The next word may be the last word before the reader gives up.  “And that’s all the time we have, thank you for playing.” - never getting to the main point of the story.
When we stopped by this Sholem Zochur, the family asked Fischel to recount a story that they remember him telling them once in California.
I heard him saying, “Oh, that’s a long story.  I don’t think I can tell that over here.”
“Yes you can,” hollers one of the brothers.
“Let’s here it,” shouts another brother.  “Tell us the story.  We want to hear it.”
Fischel knew that it wasn’t the time to tell the story.  But his protests fell on deaf ears.  And, he finally agreed to tell it.
Sure enough, it fell flat.  It became a burden for people to stop what they were doing to listen to Fischel tell this story.  I can’t remember the basic idea of the story let alone any of the details.  I think it had something to do with preparing someone’s tax return.  I just remember watching Fischel go through the motions of telling a story that they requested while no one cared to hear him tell it this time.  (Good thing they didn’t know about the Moped story or else they would have insisted on him telling that one too.)
The next day Fischel and I were invited to another friend’s house for a shabbos day meal.  At one point in the meal I was asked by the host what I thought about Chabad.  This was supposed to be answered in a word or two, I think.  There wasn’t much time to dally.  I thought of a short story to tell that might capture what I was feeling at the time.  I thought of a whole chunk of a story that wouldn’t be too long.  But as I began I could sense the tension.  “Is this going to be a long story?” the host asked.
“No.  It’s not very long at all,” I continued telling the story.  I can’t remember what I said because no one was interested in more than a five second answer.  I just wanted to get to the end of the story.  I stated when the story was over so that they could go back to whatever they were more interested in talking about.
After we left the house, Fischel commented on how funny the turn of events was.  I was asked to answer a very loaded question that shouldn’t be answered in a single word.
“First they ask you a question that you could write a thousand page novel about and still not get to any definitive conclusion.  Then they cut you off after the first sentence.  Your whole answer may have taken all of about 40 seconds.  And, their complaints about how long winded you were took up more time than your whole answer.”
I didn’t think about it that way until Fischel pointed out the exact timing from an accountant’s perspective.  40 seconds.  That’s all it was.  I try not to take up too much time when I write or speak.  But in their minds it was too long.
I could probably write a whole short story about this but this is all the time I have to write about this.  And, I perhaps this is all the time you have to read about this.

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