Storytelling brings performer back to Jewish tales, traditions

Erica Lann-Clark has a theory about why so many Jews are natural-born storytellers:

"We've been shlepping the book around since the very beginning."

For her, storytelling is not only the ideal art form, because it combines writing and performance, it also became the vehicle that brought her back to her Jewish roots.

Lann-Clark discovered storytelling in 1988. "I had been doing it all my life, yet I had no idea that there was such a thing," she said.

The Soquel resident began as a generalist, spinning yarns about everything, including marine life at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

"I discovered if I had a few Jewish stories, I could go to synagogues," she said. Those shows reconnected her with the Jewish world, "and this show is out of that connection to my roots."

"This show" refers to "Once There Was a World: From the Shtetl to the 'Hood," which will take place two consecutive weekends in Santa Cruz, beginning June 1.

The performance will combine Lann-Clark's storytelling with music by Esther's Klezmer Band, an all-women group.

The main story of the show, by the Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz, is "The Reincarnation of a Melody." After she read it for the first time, Lann-Clark says she became obsessed by it. The story shows how a melody travels and affects people, and at the end, the melody becomes imbued with a soul of its own. It appealed to Lann-Clark because "It's such a gorgeous Chassidic story; it's so true to how people are and how they behave."

Lann-Clark is especially excited about the meshing of the klezmer musicians with her words.

The band wrote original music to accompany the story, and in the performance, some of the members become characters in the stories. "I found a band who was willing to try this," she said. "They're still a young enough band in their professional life to try something like this."

But, it's not like "Peter and the Wolf," she said. "It's not like the characters have their own motifs and it's not like a movie score. The instruments become characters and play in character and sing."

In addition to the Peretz story, the show will include some autobiographical material and what Lann-Clark describes as a "feminized traditional tale."

"I look into my own life, think of what have I lived through so that other people will go, 'Yeah, that's me.'"

When asked how she finds stories she wants to perform, she responded, "How do you meet someone you want to fall in love with?"

"You look, you hope, you pray, and as you're looking, someone catches your eye. I read and read and read."

That reading — and performing — brought her to the discovery of a culture with which she had little familiarity. Born in Vienna, Austria, Lann-Clark and her family fled to New York before the Holocaust. Raised in a German-speaking household, she had no exposure to Yiddish as a child.

"We were sophisticated, modern people," she said jokingly. "We didn't speak Yiddish, of course not."

While she isn't fluent in it, she peppers her performances with Yiddish words. "Out of the diaspora came two great cultures, Sephardic and Yiddish," she said. "Sephardic culture was stamped out by the Inquisition, and then Yiddish was utterly decimated" in the Holocaust.

Furthermore, Lann-Clark said, Yiddish was further rejected when Hebrew became the spoken language of Israel.

"About 20 years ago, I thought Yiddish was dead," she said. "But now there is such a resurgence in klezmer music, courses in Yiddish and the study of it. Yiddish is flowering again. It's reincarnating, it's really wonderful."

For a performer like herself, storytelling is the ideal art form. "Everybody is a natural storyteller, but Jews are willing to get into it seriously because of midrash," the oral tradition, she said. "Jews have been making midrash since the beginning."

Lann-Clark said that Jews and Native Americans share a tradition of storytelling. "All indigenous people are storytellers," she said. "We're a tribal people. Storytelling in native traditions is a potent spiritual tool. Also, in the beginning was the word. This is how we understand what happens to us."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."