Preserving and passing on stories, songs

Preserving and passing on stories, songs

For Peninnah Schram, folklore a tradition to be shared in person

Peninnah Schram has published 10 books about Jewish storytelling and has made numerous recordings, but her preferred mode of communication is face to face. If people will sing along with her where the story allows, even better.

“I’m a Luddite,” she admitted, her mellifluous voice tinged with laughter. “I’m not totally against the new technology and all these gadgets — they do have their uses — but sharing stories in person is so much more satisfying.”

Schram will do just that at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville on Saturday evening, Feb. 2, when she and singer/guitarist Gerard Edery present “The Minstrel and the Storyteller.”

The two, who often perform together, recorded a CD of the same name in 1999. Adath Israel’s Cantor Arthur Katlin said that Edery “uses his expressive guitar playing and excellent vocal skills and musicianship to passionately deliver Jewish songs from the ‘wide-ranging music of the Sephardic Diaspora,’ bringing these songs from our precious and diverse heritage to life.” (See box.)

In a phone interview with NJ Jewish News, Schram, who lives in New York City, spoke of her passion for old stories, passed down from generation to generation, and for nigunim — Jewish religious melodies. She has been gathering, teaching, and telling stories for decades and collecting them in anthologies like Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another and Tales of Elijah the Prophet; her latest is the illustrated anthology The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales.

Schram is also a professor of speech and drama at Stern College of Yeshiva University, where she developed the first college course in Jewish storytelling and has produced three folklore festivals.

Occasionally, she makes up stories of her own when, she said, she feels she has “a message that will resonate.”

“That’s why we Jews read the Torah cyclically, reading and rereading the stories in it because they are so rich and have so many dimensions,” she said.

Now in her 70s and a grandmother of four, Schram is deeply involved in sustaining Jewish culture. Her father was a cantor, and her son is one — the fourth generation in the family to take up the mantle.

Rabbi Daniel Grossman said that last November, in Schram’s honor, Yeshiva University published Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration, Learning, and Discussion, which included original stories based on sacred values contributed by 60 prominent writers, rabbis, and teachers. Schram, he said, “is the foremost storyteller in the North American Jewish community.”

The program at Adath Israel — showcasing stories and songs drawn from Ashkenazi and Sephardi sources and the vibrant oral traditions of the Jewish people — will conclude with a Havdala ceremony.

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