COVER STORY:Jewish storytellers converge to trade their tales

“Do you have some change? For this story I need some change.”

Joel ben Izzy fumbles in his blue jeans for some loose coins, and, upon locating 36 cents, is ready to begin.

One morning, a palsied old lady wandered past the window of the best bread baker in Old Jerusalem. And she stood in front of his bakery and smelled the delicious bread.
The baker ran out and yelled, “Hey, lady, what are you doing? That’s my bread you’re smelling. Pay up!”
Now, that’s a ridiculous claim, but you know that you don’t need a reasonable claim to start a fight, especially in the Middle East, and after some pushing and shoving, everyone said this is a case to bring to King Solomon.
The baker insisted to the king that he owned the bread and the old woman needed to pay for the smell. And everyone laughed, but King Solomon didn’t laugh. He said to the old woman, “This baker owns the bread, and, therefore, he also owns the smell. So, if you admit you smelled the bread, you must pay up. It’s only fair.”
The court was completely stunned. Solomon asked the old woman how much she had. “Half a shekel,” she croaked.

Ben Izzy jingled his coins like a craps player on a lucky streak ready to let the dice fly.

King Solomon turned to the baker. “There! Did you hear the coins? The sound of the coins is the payment for the smell of your bread.”

Ben Izzy put his change back in his pocket and cracks a grin.

He is one of a handful of professional Jewish storytellers in the Bay Area, an occupation for which, he quips, “there is no category on the tax form.”

The stories these storytellers have to tell about how they landed in their unique line of work are every bit as outrageous as pricing the smell of bread. Berkeley resident ben Izzy, a former trombonist for the Stanford band, had a career as a street mime end abruptly when a car jumped the curb and ran him over. Nina Auslander of Marin, an actress, was inspired by her seventh-grade Hebrew teacher — Joel ben Izzy. And Steve Sanfield, the only Jewish storyteller in Nevada City, began spinning yarns to avoid a boot to the head.

“Growing up in Massachusetts, I used to get beat up a lot by local bullies. And I’d like to tell you it was because I was more handsome than anyone else, but it was because I was ‘a dirty Jew,’ ‘a kike,’ ‘a Christ-killer.’ But I discovered that I could keep the bullies interested with stories, and they’d take more pleasure in that than they would in beating me up,” Sanfield recalls.

“The beautiful irony did not strike me until later — what kind of stories was I telling them but Jewish stories I got from my grandfather. ‘Tell us another! Tell us another!’ they’d say. But the irony didn’t strike me until later. I did it to save my ass.”

A quintet of storytellers that includes Sanfield, ben Izzy, Erica Lann-Clark of Santa Cruz, Jane Golbert of Berkeley and New Yorker Roslyn Bresnick-Perry will gather at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center on Sunday, Oct. 10, for “Kol Sippur: An All-Day Festival of Jewish Storytelling.” Organizers believe this is the Bay Area’s first festival devoted exclusively to Jewish storytelling.

And, as Americans’ technological savvy and attention spans meet each other while traveling in different directions, the storytellers say their job is getting harder. But they aren’t ready to step aside and cede the day to television and video games.

“OK, I’d like you to imagine a 300-pound cat,” says Lann-Clark.

Seriously, take a minute and try to imagine a cat the size of Chris Farley.

“What did your cat look like? Five other people will have five other cats. And you don’t get that with television, movies or those hypnotic gizmos with the widgets that blow up” — i.e., video games.

Lann-Clark, an Austrian-born infant Holocaust refugee, compares telling a story to riding a pair of horses simultaneously. You must maintain a balance between the two steeds: the story and the audience.

And if things aren’t going well with the latter, you’ll know.

“When you’re telling a story to a listener, it’s like you’re writing on their faces,” she says.

“You feel it immediately. You get white-hot feedback from your listener. No mirror or tape-recorder will teach you as much. And I love to see people with that look in their eyes. I love the look somebody has when they’ve gotten something they didn’t have before.”

For more than a few Jewish storytellers, their bread and butter — or, more appropriately, bagels and lox — is the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

One of Lann-Clark’s standby stories is Singer’s “Zlateh the goat.” Auslander’s all-time favorite is “Ole and Trufa,” the tale of two leaves madly in love with one another.

And everyone has a favorite Chelm story.

Unlike the other storytellers interviewed for this story, however, Bresnick-Perry relies almost solely upon autobiographical tales. And, when you emigrated from a shtetl in Belarus to the United States just a month or two ahead of the Great Depression, why not?

“Peculiarly, most of my audiences are not Jewish people. Sometimes, I come into a place and the only Jews they know own big department stores. So I ask [the audience], ‘How many of you know of a poor Jew?’ and that makes them uncomfortable. They titter. And then I ask how many people have ever met a dumb Jew. And that also makes them uncomfortable. So, I say to them, ‘Are you lucky? I’ll tell you stories about poor, dumb Jews,'” she says with a laugh.

“I never have to tell a story I’ve made up. These things really happened.”

Tales often harken from childhood memories of her small hamlet of Wysoke Litovsk, home of 3,000 Jews and a non-Jewish mayor, chief of police and jailer. All that now exists of her birthplace are her memories — which she’s shared with thousands.

But many of Bresnick-Perry’s best-loved stories are of a more recent vintage, such as her misadventure in leading a group of seniors to a Lincoln Center performance of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

After the fiery conductor halted the performance to upbraid the seniors for crinkling their brown bags and eating their tuna sandwiches during the middle of the performance, an older gent’s loud stumbling across the aisle toward the restroom induced Bernstein to cut off the orchestra once again.

“He was mad. He yelled, ‘What is going on here?'” Bresnick-Perry recalled.

“So he says, ‘Everyone who has to go to the john, go now! The Philharmonic will wait!’ The whole audience was in an uproar laughing. You can’t make up such a story.”

And if you think you heard Bresnick-Perry tell that one on NPR, you’re right. And, since NPR isn’t often a repository for kids’ stories, Bresnick-Perry and other storytellers would like to remind you that storytelling isn’t just for the young.

That’s not to say one story fits all. When Auslander tells “Ole and Trufa,” there’s a world of difference between the versions aimed at 5-year-olds and 75-year olds.

Recreating the “5-year-old” version, she managed to test the soundproof nature of the office walls of j., simulating the sound of a wild windstorm and a creaking tree, all while gesticulating more wildly than a football analyst.

Telling a version of the story aimed at senior citizens, however, Auslander went at about 3/4 the speed, and cut down the hand gestures and body language — basically the difference between speaking to adults and children.

But the most important factor in telling stories to seniors: “Use a microphone.”

“I got into storytelling thinking about telling stories to children, but grownups need to hear good stories as much as children. Maybe more,” confirms Lann-Clark.

Adds ben Izzy: “Judaism is built layer upon layer. Holidays like Chanukah are fun for kids, you light candles and eat gelt and play dreidel. But, in fact, it has meaning for us as adults. People who see storytelling as only for kids probably stopped growing at some point Jewishly and culturally.”

In fact, what is Jewish tradition if not a rich collection of stories?

“Look at the Bible stories, especially Genesis and Exodus,” says Golbert, a former professional dancer who intersperses her storytelling with choreography.

“Many of the stories told by rabbis are parables or teaching stories designed to educate people and teach points of Torah.”

The Maggid of Dubnow was famous in 17th century Europe for utilizing seemingly silly stories to illustrate deep points.

Golbert takes a shot at one:

Once upon a time, a nobleman wanted to learn to become an expert marksman. He learned to handle all weapons. He went to a school and became a crack sharpshooter. He won many awards.
One day, when he was traveling home on his horse, he saw a barn with 100 circles on its side, and in the middle of every circle was a bullet hole. One hundred bulls-eyes!
He asked the villagers to bring him the man who shot those bulls-eyes so he might congratulate him. And, a few minutes later, he was amazed when they presented him with a small boy.
“Young boy, I must congratulate you. You are a better shot than I am. How do you do it?” asked the nobleman.
“Sir,” stammered the boy, “you don’t understand. What I do is, first I shoot at the wall, then I draw a circle around it.”

Golbert smiles. The Maggid used this story to explain his approach to storytelling.

“He said, ‘That is how it is with me. I listen to many stories and I remember the ones I want to remember, and when I want to teach a point of Torah, that leads me into the perfect story.'”

But storytelling isn’t just good for illustrating the Torah. Joel ben Izzy may not wear his trademark fedora and suspenders when he tutors high-powered lawyers, CEOs and even the folks at Pixar Studios on storytelling, but he teaches the same lessons you might pick up at one of his gigs at a JCC.

“Lawyers and CEOs are always a little reluctant about storytelling, but I always think the bigger they are, the harder they fall. They realize the power of a story, they’re touched by it and then they’re hooked. If lawyers hear about how another lawyer lost a case because the opposition had a better story, then they start to appreciate it,” he says.

“You can have a CEO who realizes he can dot the I’s and cross the T’s and count beans and push papers all day, but he cannot figure out why his workforce is not really inspired. They’re ready to hear a story.”

Ben Izzy encourages potential Jewish storytellers to get into the business; he’s overbooked, so he figures the demand must be there. Not bad for a guy who, early in his career, had a show that not one single person showed up for.

“And I didn’t get paid,” he adds with a sigh.

“As a Stanford graduate trying to figure out what to do, It didn’t occur to me to find a job. I know it’s strange and I had a bundle of student loans to pay, but I really found that if I started to tell stories, doors opened,” he says.

“I guess I didn’t fully take in what a ridiculous career I was embarking on. … It was always about storytelling. Somehow, it always worked.”

Daylong festival at JCC

“Kol Sippur: A Festival of Jewish Storytelling” featuring Joel ben Izzy, Roslyn Bresnick-Perry, Steve Sanfield, Erica Lann-Clark and Jane Golbert will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10, at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Admission: $25 public/$18 co-sponsors, or, for families, $70 for public or $56 for co-sponsors. After 1 p.m., admission is $18/$15 and, for families, $40/$30. Admission to solely the children’s performance from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. is $6. Information: (510) 848-0237, ext. 110, or

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.