Using Stories to Transform the World

Photo credit: Jewish Women’s Archive

By Mikki Pugh

[This is the fourth article in a series about the role of storytelling in Jewish Education, written by grantees of The Covenant Foundation.]

What story will you tell?

Several months ago, I found myself driving through the roads that surrounded a peaceful condominium complex set back behind a noisy Massachusetts highway, with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I was headed to conduct an oral history interview, but while I had participated in and helped facilitate dozens of workshops on conducting such interviews, I felt unprepared. I doubted my ability to connect with the woman I would greet moments later, a perfect stranger.

Renowned anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff said, “stories told to oneself or others could transform the world.” I reminded myself of this charge as I greeted Phyllis, a Jewish woman with a story to share. I was there to add another vital narrative to the bank of stories we’re collecting at The Jewish Women’s Archive through Story Aperture, which engages people of all ages and backgrounds in identifying and interviewing Jewish women in their lives and adding them to the Archive.

Launched in January 2017 with funding from The Covenant Foundation, Story Aperture takes advantage of 21st century technology to bring attention to the crucial contributions and meaningful moments of ordinary and extraordinary women among us. Each story, while unique, has something to teach us about the larger Jewish narrative.

We all have stories to share. As educators, and as citizens of the world, it is our responsibility to provide the key to unlock them. By doing so, we draw nearer to one another, we understand each other in a deeper way, and we learn how to live, together.

That day, I listened as Phyllis shared her stories of growing up during the post-Depression era, crammed into a small apartment with her parents, grandparents, brother, and two uncles. They lived in Roxbury, “the center of Boston’s Jewish community,” and would go shopping on Blue Hill Avenue to visit the “pickle man, the herring man, the poultry man, and the baker.”

I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what this neighborhood – so close to where I myself grew up, and so different from the cultural mix that defines it now – must have felt like back then.

Listening to Phyllis’ story, I felt inspired anew to make sure that the connection between generations is not lost. Just a few moments diving back through history with Phyllis, and already my mind lit up with a deep curiosity to know more. Women’s stories – far too often untold or discounted – are at risk of being lost if we fail to draw them out of the shadows. Our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, nieces, and friends all have important stories to tell.

I hardly knew Phyllis, but she let me in on the intimate details of her life, from her family relationships to her career to her sense of self as a Jewish woman. Memories poured out of her; she was happy to relive them, and I was grateful to record them. Women have both a right and a responsibility to make their stories known. How else will we create a true and complete account of our shared history?

So, ask a Jewish woman the questions you’ve been longing to ask. Take the time. Invite the conversation you’ve been afraid to have. And then share what you’ve learned with JWA. Only once we learn that listening to stories is as important as telling them, can we build a strong and compassionate Jewish community where women’s voices truly matter.

Mikki Pugh is the Director of Programs and Education at the Jewish Women’s Archive. A native of Boston, MA, Mikki holds a BA in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Skidmore College, MSW from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is a certified yoga instructor. She currently lives in Roslindale with her husband, dog, and soon-to-be baby boy.