Jewish Storytellers Convene to Listen, Learn and … Tell Stories

Participants from Junction’s recent D&A share their perspectives on Judaism, storytelling, and their experiences discussing these topics with peers from across the world.

Photo by Phelia Barouh
Photo by Phelia Barouh

Stories and narratives have always shaped the way Jews remember their past, interpret their present and imagine their future.

For 3 days earlier this month, storytellers from Europe and around the world gathered in Berlin to discuss questions like: ‘Why do we tell stories?, What role do they play in our lives?, How to look at Jewish Europe today through many different lenses.’

The short conclusion after the weekend is that Jewish life in Europe is vibrant and exciting with many exciting projects in place, all part of our current Jewish narrative.


“‘Your situation anywhere else would be something remarkable, but among this group it’s the norm’ a participant at D&A remarked in response to the story of my history. Born in South Africa, – lived there for 9 years – I spent most of my childhood in Canada. My early twenties marked a few short term stints in Tel Aviv, and, finally, I ended up in Amsterdam. My mother is a South African, with Lithuanian roots; my father an Israeli whose parents come from Yemen. His ancestry Spanish.

‘Not unique?’ I thought to myself. It took a moment for me to digest what she had said; I looked around… I am among European Jews – she’s right!

It is this diversity that gives each and every single one of us a special story to tell. While the idea of a Jew having a colourful background is not especially unique, it is what makes us as a collective so fascinating. Within this mosaic, there are so many stories whose richness and complexities, I feel, is unparalleled in any other community. This is a realisation I came to during D&A. Sharing our pasts, stories of our families, where we live… it all comes together to create a beautiful tapestry that is the Jewish Story.

There is no single collective story line. It is the diversity that brings it to life, and what a privilege it is to have access to each and every single one of them!” Dean Medina, The Netherlands

Photo by Phelia Barouh
Photo by Phelia Barouh

“D&A showed me that stories, however grand or seemingly insignificant, really do mean something more when shared with others. Being able to share stories during the seminar, espeically Jewish stories with plenty of chutzpa, made the experience all the more powerful.” Elliot Zelmanovits, United Kingdom

“Jews and storytelling – that’s a pretty interesting combination, as Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger have pointed out in their book ‘Jews and Words.’ For me, who has studied Jewish literature and writes herself, the topic is even more compelling. When I read about the D&A seminar in Berlin, I was sure that I wanted to be there.

But as thrilling as the topic sounded to me, I was also a little worried. Seminars for young Jews usually promise thoughtful discussions and workshops, yet much too often they turn out to be rather uncomfortable dating platforms. Not that I mind matchmaking, but when you’re really enthusiastic about a challenging topic and then end up in a flirtatious group interested primarily in who’s still single, that can be a real downer.

D&A was different. I’m not saying that people were discouraged from getting to know each other beyond the seminar context. What really surprised me, though, was that many participants were very knowledgeable about storytelling and eager to learn more. So many moving, engaging, and hilarious stories were shared during those 2 ½ days, like the one by an admirer of Mendelssohn who has accidentally desecrated his idol’s library.

To me, an essential part of being Jewish is also questioning whatever you’ve been told so far. I was delighted that the discussions among us were never superficial, often critical, and always respectful and tolerant. Zvi Bekerman’s thought-provoking lecture certainly confused some people, but his constant reminder never to trust his narrative but to find out for ourselves what we believe was very valuable.

Yet most astonishing to me was the enormous energy of the group. You could have organized a seminar on this topic that would stretch out over five days. Doing it in only half the time seemed very, let’s say, brave to me. Certainly we’d be able to discuss storytelling and improve our skills. But would we also manage to develop a group spirit and, even more important, come up with something lasting, like an action plan? The last hours of the seminar surprisingly showed that all of our different experiences and ideas somehow neatly combined into smart concepts that could help us stay in touch with each other and support the Jewish communities in Europe.

Photo by Phelia Barouh
Photo by Phelia Barouh

I don’t exactly know how you, dear Junction team, managed to get us there. Yet I sincerely hope that we can continue where we left off at some point in the near future.” Nadine Grzeszick, Germany

Photo by Phelia Barouh
Photo by Phelia Barouh

“I will take a more conscious understanding of our storytelling as European Jews but also with the idea that each of us can shape this narrative. I was happily surprised by the dynamism of European communities in Easter Europe. From D&A, I will take with me the idea that I can shape my storytelling and give it this positive spin of living communities across Europe.” Emmanuelle Guthmann, France

“‘Let’s respect being different and share different stories’

Having a long delay at the Abu Dhabi Airport is for sure the right place to write about the experiences at D&A in Berlin!

I initially thought the event was about sharing my story ‘from a Dutch perspective.’ A country in which only 15,000 out of 150,000 Jews returned after the war (by comparison, Belgium lost ‘only’ about 40% and France 25% of its Jewish population). I thought the event would be about exchanging experiences how it is like to belong to the third generation (as a grandchild) of Holocaust survivors. This is the Jewish story of many Europeans and in fact it is my story.

However, D&A had a much broader scope. We as a group created in fact a story which stands alone. I learned about the power of silence and the third Eye which is always there when you are on stage and want to create change. Sarah Hurwitz taught us how it is like to work with the Obamas as a speechwriter and how she prepares the right ingredients to tell their story. Personalizing your message and connecting to your audience is of the essence.

The past days we all learned about the horrible news in Nice and we can only try to imagine the impact of these kind of events. Nevertheless, no one may ever think that their story or culture is better than others! And luckily I have a more positive example: being at the airport in Amsterdam a few hours before takeoff I entered a so-called prayers / meditation room out of curiosity. What I experienced created a smile on my face. Within the chaos of an airport I saw a Jew with a kippah and 2 Muslims silently praying together sitting in the same small room surrounded by Jewish, Muslim and other prayers books from all kind of religions. After a while the Jew left the room and said loudly ‘Shalom!’ The 2 Muslims responded together at the same time as well with ‘Shalom!’ This is how religions and being different in fact can come together peacefully. Let’s remember this story and use it as an example.

Photo by Phelia Barouh
Photo by Phelia Barouh

I left D&A and Berlin with a feeling of having met great people, and for sure – as such – I redefined my own story for the future; Thanks!” Marc Kraus, The Netherlands