Storyteller shares tools of trade at Jewish Book Month

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Once upon a time in a place not so far away — Los Angeles, to be exact — there lived a storyteller named Karen Golden.

Like storytellers before her –often hired by kings and queens — Golden strung together words of mystery, intrigue and humor for the delight of others. She told folktales from many lands and stories from her own life.

She shares both in the Bay Area Sunday, Nov. 12 during the Jewish Storytelling Festival at the Marin Jewish Community Center. Golden and Nevada City storyteller Steve Sanfield will perform and conduct workshops throughout the day in celebration of Jewish Book Month.

In "Jewish Stories From Up Your Street and Around the World," Golden will tell stories from the Bible, North Africa, Eastern Europe and beyond. She flavors her performances with the sounds of the saxophone, the recorder, the ocarina — a tiny hand-held wind instrument — and the accordion.

In the workshop entitled "Spice up Your Jewish Storytelling Skills," Golden will teach how to extrapolate a cohesive tale from life experiences and established lore.

"We all tell stories. We do it every day. You come home and say `You will not believe what happened…' That's a story," Golden said. "We just don't often recognize them as such."

As a child in Flint, Mich., she quickly discovered the value of telling a good tale.

Her parents set an example. Gathering six children around the dinner table each evening, her father spoke of his early life in Eastern Europe. Her mother talked about growing up in Milwaukee and being a woman doctor in the '30s.

As soon as young Karen could string together full sentences, she contributed her own stories to the family repertoire.

She "embraced the oral tradition" and earned a master's degree in communications from Hebrew University. But it wasn't until 1986 that she realized she could make a career of doing what came naturally.

While interviewing a professional storyteller on the radio, she suddenly realized storytelling was "what I'd been doing all my life."

Golden, 36, started rewriting her own tales.

Six years ago she moved to Los Angeles, where she married and began teaching at the University of Judaism and UCLA. Recently she became a mother.

"I'm sure my stories will be enriched with the stories of [my daughter's] life," she said.

Golden's stories come from a wide range of sources, and she's as likely to treat an audience to personal narratives about midwifery and childbirth as to traditional North African folktales. But Jewish stories are among her favorites.

"Actually, they're all my favorites or I wouldn't bother telling them," she said. "Jewish stories are more comfortable."

Golden speaks fluent Hebrew and "salt-and-pepper Yiddish," some of which she uses in her stories. "Just the spicy words," she said.

But a story doesn't have to include these languages — or characters named Moishe or Yenta — to be Jewish, she added. Citing criteria established by Indiana story collector Howard Schwartz, Golden said a Jewish story must include a moral or lesson and be told in a Jewish context.

Thus, "I could take a story from the news and tell it on Yom Kippur and it becomes Jewish," Golden said.