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Preserving Jewish stories, and passing them on
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Preserving Jewish stories, and passing them on

For Peninnah Schram, folklore is 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 when she serves as scholar-in-residence at Congregation Beth Israel, the Conservative synagogue in Scotch Plains, the weekend of Feb. 10-12. The program is free and open to the community, and all ages are welcome.

Schram, who is a professor of speech and drama at Stern College of Yeshiva University, will be telling “Sacred Stories for Shabbat” during services on Friday. Her presentation on Saturday morning, “On Eagles’ Wings,” will explore that week’s Torah portion, Yitro, which includes the giving of the Ten Commandments.

During Shabbat lunch, she will speak on “Stories One Generation Tells Another,” drawing on world folklore as well as Jewish sources.

On Sunday, her topic will be “Humor and Hokhma with a Detour through Chelm,” telling tales filled with wit and wisdom.

In a phone interview with NJ Jewish News on Jan. 27, Schram, who lives in New York City, told of her passion for old stories, passed down from generation to generation, and for niggunim — Jewish religious melodies. She had 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 book, an illustrated anthology, is The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, published in 2008. She has recorded a CD, The Minstrel and the Storyteller, with singer/guitarist Gerard Edery, who often performs with her.

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

“That’s why we Jews read the Torah cyclically, reading and reading 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.

Elly Bauman, CBI’s director of education, said, “We are really excited to be able to bring such a renowned Jewish educator and storyteller to our community. Peninnah Schram mixes humor, wit, songs, and dialogue into her folktales. Her presentations have mass appeal — they can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of age or educational background.”

Rabbi George Nudell, the religious leader of the congregation, described Schram as “one of today’s most captivating Jewish storytellers.” He pointed out that Jewish storytelling begins with Torah and midrash, and continues as a living process, with stories told to honor those lost in modern times.

“A really good Jewish story makes you think about how you live your own life and about the story you will leave behind for the next generation,” he wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. “Our ancestors told stories to each other, and we tell stories about them to transmit our most precious values and traditions. The Talmud often punctuates its legal arguments with stories drawn from real life, as if to bring the law alive and make it more understandable.

“And we, who have too often seen Jewish communities disrupted and exiled, preserve the memories of our brothers and sisters through the stories we tell.”

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