Telling Our Stories

There’s a line in the Haggadah for Passover that epitomizes something very distinctive about Jewish culture. Shortly after the Four Questions comes the phrase mitzvah aleinu l’saper: it is a commandment for us to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. This command applies, we are told, even if we’re all wise and intelligent and learned. In other words, the point is not to report the facts, but rather to understand meaning through story-telling.

This is an especially important distinction in an era when so much of contemporary culture is fact-based. Reality television, political discourse based on talking points, and the decline in the publishing of fiction are all signs that the imagination is less valued than it used to be. Even ostensibly imaginative films like Avatar convey a lightly disguised political message.

The Haggadah, on the other hand, exemplifies the midrashic approach of narrative invention. Around the Seder table, eyes may roll when we hear that there were really 200 or 250 plagues, but the fantastic dimension of those commentaries suggests that the unbounded, miraculous quality of the Exodus can’t be contained by merely listing Ten Plagues. That sense of creativity and wonder has enormous power to evoke feelings and make memories.

Such an experience is not supposed to be limited to the Seder night, of course. We are always poorer when we try to do without metaphor, allusion, and inventiveness to communicate values and meaning. And with modern means of communication, the impact of Jewish creativity can now be more immediate and widespread than it has ever been.

In the middle of the last century, America’s then-largest Jewish movement used the electronic media to convey Jewish values through the power of the imagination. Beginning in 1944 the Jewish Theological Seminary produced a weekly program called The Eternal Light on the NBC Radio Network, which at the time had the greatest reach of any mass medium in the United States. The program’s purpose, according to its producer, “was to interpret Jewish life and keep traditions alive by bringing to audiences an awareness of the many aspects of our culture through the centuries.” It used drama, and sometimes conversation and music, to impart a sense of the meaning of the Jewish experience and the values underlying it.

Occasionally the mass media still do something similar. Examples from the last decade include the Yiddish Radio Project, aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, and The Jewish Americans on PBS. But these have been only occasional, and today there is nothing like the sustained, high-profile presence of The Eternal Light as an outlet for the Jewish imagination.

A source of Jewish culture adapted to today’s media would do wonders to promote intellectual and emotional engagement with Jewish identity – not with more news, or even more reporting on and critiquing of culture, but rather with fresh music, drama, fiction, poetry, and visual art on a regular basis. Tablet does present fiction from time to time, and Zeek’s print edition for years has presented poetry, fiction, and images, but these are exceptions. An online showcase of Jewish creativity in multiple media, continually updated with new submissions, would be a very contemporary way to fulfill the ancient commandment to keep telling our stories from generation to generation.

Bob Goldfarb, vice-president of Zeek Media, is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He is also a frequent book critic for Jewish Book World, as well as a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Bob lives in Jerusalem.