NPRs oral history project to take root on first floor

Whenever I visit my grandparents, the conversation inevitably turns to the past. They tell me about how they survived World War II by hiding out in Kazakhstan, about how my great-grandmother Ana collected tobacco leaves from abandoned fields and rolled them into cigarettes that she sold to soldiers on their way to the front.

I hear about how that same great-grandmother suffered a heart attack in a train station as she traveled to visit her newborn grandson and about the violin concerts my great-grandfather Simon was famous for.

Each and every one of us has a story, a complex narrative that ties us to the past. But unless these stories are recorded, they risk being forgotten.

That’s the idea behind National Public Radio’s StoryCorps, an oral history project that gives ordinary people an opportunity to interview their loved ones and record their stories. Since 2003, more than 30,000 people have participated in this project as it travels around the country.

Bay Area residents will soon have an opportunity to tell their tales, when StoryCorps settles into the new Contemporary Jewish Museum on Oct. 12.

“Storytelling is crucial to Jewish culture, especially our emphasis on the older generation passing down their stories,” says Dan Schifrin, director of public programs at the museum. “The museum is not only a place of Jewish art, but also ideas, culture and conversation, and StoryCorps is a big part of that.”

Housed on the first floor of the museum, the StoryCorps outpost will be a mini-radio studio in which participants of any faith and background will get 40 minutes to conduct interviews (tips on preparing for the interview are on the StoryCorps Web site). Participants will receive a copy of the interview and, if they allow it, another copy will be sent to the Library of Congress. Select segments might also be broadcast on NPR stations.

The CJM is the first museum in the country to have a StoryCorps booth; it will remain there for one year. Right now, only two other cities have a stationary StoryCorps booth: New York (permanent) and Nashville, Tenn. (through September).

In 2005, two years after the program launched in New York, NPR starting taking two sound-proof, mobile recording studios (housed in silver motor home shells) on the road, so far visiting 46 states. There was a 2005 stop in San Francisco and one in earlier this year in Sacramento.

The idea to house the exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum was born out of a friendship between museum Director and CEO Connie Wolf and Dave Isay, founder and executive Director of StoryCorps.

“Creating venues for meaningful connection is vital,” Wolf said. “It’s not doing something online, but coming together, looking into each other’s eyes and really listening. That’s something that we’ve forgotten how to do.”

A few years ago Wolf and Isay collaborated on the “Yiddish Radio Project,” which was broadcast on NPR. The project compiled Yiddish radio clips (along with archival photos for the CD version) from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. It won the Peabody Award, a top award for radio journalism, in 2002.

Schifrin, the former director of literary programs at the Foundation for Jewish Cul-ture in New York and a columnist for New York’s Jewish Week, hopes Story-Corps will create another incentive for dialogue about the Jewish experience in the United States.

“It’s an outreach tool for the museum to bring people in and start conversations about Jewish cultural life,” Schifrin said.

For more information on StoryCorps, visit or the “Exhibits” page at The exhibit opens Oct. 12 and will run for one year; reservations for interview times will be available later this year.