Tale of the maggid: Jewish storytelling enters a new era

If Jews are the People of the Book, it stands to reason that telling stories is a Jewish tradition that has been around as long as the people itself.

But what is a Jewish storyteller, exactly? Is it nothing more than a Jew who tells stories?

In one sense, the Jewish storyteller fulfills the same function as the teller of tales in any culture — passing on stories to the next generation. That task takes on particular urgency for a culture in exile from its homeland.

“Like any tribe of people, when you all live together, you sit around and you tell your stories,” says Joel ben Izzy, a storyteller who’s known throughout the Bay Area for his lively, animated tellings of Jewish folk tales.

“But when you suddenly get dispersed — like, say, the Babylonian exile — there’s even more desire to hold on to the stories, to reach out and grab them and try to get them exactly right. To get their messages right … though of course those change with the setting, with the values of the tribe. But there’s a need to make sure [stories] keep getting told.”

Along with the Jewish storyteller, there is also the figure of the maggid — literally, a “sayer,” a teller of tales, certainly, but also a preacher, a teacher, an inspirational speaker. Not quite a rabbi and more than a court jester, with elements of both.

Sounds like something from days gone by, but the maggid is alive and well in the 21st-century Bay Area — leading story time for 4-year-olds at JCCs, participating in raucous improv-style performances for adults, serving as congregational leaders and even heading up nonprofits (Zelig Golden, the co-founder of Wilderness Torah, is a maggid).

But the role and purpose of the maggid has always been in flux.

The maggid emerged in Eastern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as an itinerant storyteller who interpreted text and delivered fire-and-brimstone homilies. In an era when many rabbis only delivered a few sermons a year, it was the maggid who came in contact with ordinary Jews most regularly, according to historians.

It was during the time of the Ba’al Shem Tov — the founder of Hassidism in the 1700s who famously disliked the austere style of rabbinic sermonizing popular at the time — that the word changed to reflect a shift in the maggid’s purpose.

Maggidim became storytellers with a purpose, traveling throughout Eastern Europe to spread non-judgmental, inspirational stories of the Jewish revival movement the Ba’al Shem Tov had founded. Most trained with a rabbi or elder maggid, studied Jewish text and received smicha (ordination) to make it their life’s work, serving as an accessible, often charismatic, plain-clothes counterpart of sorts to the scholarly rabbi.

Andrew Ramer

Some 300 years later, storytelling is going through a boom in secular as well as Jewish culture. Programs such as “The Moth” (true stories told without a script in front of an audience) and SMITH Magazine’s six-word memoir project are gaining cachet, especially among people in their 20s and 30s.  “Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life” is scheduled for Feb. 4 at the Elbo Room in San Francisco. And from March 3 through 5, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford will play host to a conference on “The Future of Jewish Storytelling.”

Like the traditional storyteller, the maggid is also enjoying a renaissance in American Jewish culture — it’s even becoming professionalized.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion around people thinking a maggid is just a storyteller. A maggid is somebody whose mission is to bring people to Judaism, to God,” says Yitzhak Buxbaum of New York, founder of the Jewish Spirit Maggid Training Program, the first formal educational program for maggidim.

Buxbaum, who was ordained as a maggid 25 years ago by Reb Shlomo Carlebach — the first known case of such ordination, he says — believes that such preachers are badly needed now to bring people back to Judaism, much in the way they helped spread Hassidism in the 1700s. (He’s not alone: In a 2007 issue of Tikkun magazine, writer and rabbi Rami Shapiro argued, “… to secure a vibrant Jewish future, we should be pouring serious thought, money, and effort into training, supporting, and promoting maggidim.”)

Buxbaum’s two-year program includes midrash study, training on inspirational speaking and storytelling, Hassidic tales and more. In the decade since he founded his non-denominational school, Buxbaum has ordained 34 maggids, including Orthodox rabbis, Jews who haven’t set foot inside a synagogue in decades, and Jewish folk musicians who want to add storytelling to their performances. Non-Jews can and have gone through the entire training program, but are not eligible to be ordaiend as maggidim.

Since Buxbaum founded his program, a few others like it have sprung up — notably one in Ashland, Ore., run by Rabbi David Zaslow and his wife, maggidah Devorah Zaslow, which began in the spring of 2012. Berkeley congregation Chochmat HaLev offered maggid training up until 2008 and also used to host an annual maggidic conference.

One of Buxbaum’s graduates is maggidah Liora Brosbe, who tells (and sings) stories for audiences around the Bay Area — most recently, at the Jewish LearningWorks’ “One Bay One Book” storytelling program kickoff at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

She calls what she does “performance-based” storytelling; she likes adapting Ba’al Shem Tov stories as well as “telling stories from the Torah in a way that makes them a little more modern.”

“My thinking is: Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many stories in the Jewish tradition that are so rich and deep and dynamic?” she says, crediting her parents — who raised her on interactive, theatrical Passover seders — for some of her creative gift. In addition to running a bi-monthly Shabbat morning program for families with small children at Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, Brosbe works full-time as a family therapist. She found that, though she doesn’t work much with Jewish families (Brosbe’s an in-demand bilingual therapist, so many of her clients are Latino), the skills she’s gained through Buxbaum’s training and her storytelling experiences are ones she puts to use almost every day in her practice.

Liora Brosbe

“Telling stories absolutely informs my work,” she says. As for being in something of a minority as a female maggidah (there’s no evidence that the title was ever given to women until the 20th century), Brosbe says she doesn’t consider herself a rarity.

“So many systems of leadership have been reserved for men for so long, but the idea of a woman in the community telling stories and teaching and giving advice is as old as Devorah, if not older,” she says. “And I would certainly not ignore the informal role that rebbetzins have in giving advice … especially when you look at people like [author] Esther Jungreis. It’s just now that it’s becoming more formalized.”

The drive to update stories — to retell the oldest stories in the world in a way that resonates in the year 2013 — is something Brosbe shares with San Francisco maggid Andrew Ramer. An author and an LGBT activist who most recently has been hosting storytelling events and services at San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, Ramer says he struggled with the question of whether or not to become a rabbi for decades. It wasn’t until 2012 that he realized the word “maggid” sounded more natural in front of his name than “rabbi.” It just felt more like home, he says.

“I feel like my mission as a maggid is to tell stories that shake things up. The role of the maggid is to tell stories so that we don’t lose them, because that’s our inheritance … but in a lot of cases I think that means telling new stories, or finding new ways to re-tell the old ones,” says Ramer, whose work includes gay and feminist interpretations of biblical passages. “Especially in an area where something like 75 percent of Jews are unaffiliated, clearly the stories we’re telling aren’t working. So for me it becomes about, ‘How do we tell stories that are big enough containers to hold someone who observes Shabbat but might also be a Buddhist on Tuesday, an atheist on Wednesday?’

“How do we tell stories that are grounded in Judaism but are inventive enough to allow for new possibilities?”

Buxbaum says he has the utmost respect for people who are carrying on the tradition of ad-hoc Jewish storytelling — but having guidelines about who gets to call him or herself a maggid is important, he says.

“I think it’s possible to be a wonderful storyteller, but that doesn’t make a person a maggid,” he says. “It should be respected. It’s when people take it lightly that it becomes an issue.”

Berkeley maggid Jhos Singer isn’t so sure about the formal education part. “Some people will probably disagree with me on this, but I really don’t think it’s a learned skill,” says Singer, the primary spiritual leader of Coastside Jewish Community in Half Moon Bay since 2000. “It’s always been a part of who I am; it’s the way I relate to the world. I get through a bad situation by reminding myself that it’ll make a good story later.”

Singer, who holds an undergraduate degree in music from UCLA and a master’s degree in Jewish studies from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, was studying for the rabbinate in the mid-90s when he had a realization.

Joel ben Izzy

“At a certain point, it was just: I don’t want that authority. That’s not what I’m about,” he says. “I don’t want to tell people what’s right and wrong, and I’m not excited about gaining the skills to talk someone through a halachic [Jewish law] dilemma … I’m much more about helping them find the strength or the humor to get through it, or just being with them in that very human place and being able to learn from it.”

Singer says that he is in a unique position as a maggid who heads a congregation. While he has nothing but respect for his colleagues who are rabbis without being preachers or maggidim, he feels that in some cases he’s able to provide congregants with a human-to-human experience that seminary-trained rabbis who are experts with text — and who have responsibilities that go well beyond tending to congregants — cannot.

“I’m kind of an all-purpose preacher,” Singer says. “I definitely use humor as a way to untie knots, to get to the core of a situation. I try to take little bits of the Torah and make them come alive, to flesh out or contemporize something that might be really dry, to bring relevance to something that might seem really far away or in the past.”

As far as maggid schools are concerned, Singer says he’s not sure if someone can just “decide to be a maggid” if it’s not part of who they are as a person. On the other hand, he’s in favor of anything that helps people accept the important role the maggid fills.

“I think [the professionalization] shows that there’s a desire to have that category of leadership,” he says. “We have a cantor who really holds down the religious rite, the musical trope … and if you are a person whose Judaism really speaks in the worship realm, the minute you hear certain songs, that literally sets the tone of the service. Rabbis are still trained to really know the law and to really master the hermeneutic techniques and the philosophical logic, to get from a big problem to a simple solution, and that’s an incredible skill set.

“What’s been missing, what I think people are starving for, is somebody who bridges those two worlds,” Singer continues. “Who is able to combine the emotional spiritual piece with the intellectual, experiential piece, to create a framework or a context for what people are going through. To kind of make it a little bit more human.”

Singer’s ability to do just that is confirmed by his legions of fans — including ben Izzy, the longtime Bay Area storyteller (and Coastside Jewish Community member).

“We have something of a mutual admiration society,” says ben Izzy. “But for my part, it’s fascinating to watch him wrestle with the text with such knowledge, and such humanity … he has this ability to draw real personal meaning out of things that can seem dense or difficult.”

Ben Izzy, a Berkeley resident, is the author of “The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness,” and has put out six CDs of Jewish-themed stories. His stories often tend toward the lighter end of the spectrum, sometimes taking the form of the “Chelm” tales told by authors such as Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

“Here’s your typical Chelm story,” ben Izzy obliges. “There are two guys walking along and there are big storm clouds overhead, and one of them has an umbrella and one of them doesn’t. Next thing, the sky opens up and it’s pouring, and the guy without the umbrella says to the other guy, ‘Open up your umbrella!’ And the guy says, ‘Oh there’s no point, it’s full of holes.’ And the other guy says ‘Well why did you bring it, then?’ And the guy says ‘I didn’t think it was going to rain.’”

“A Chelm story is silly, but it teaches,” he says. “Sometimes it teaches us to laugh.”

Ben Izzy makes clear the distinction between his line of work and that of a maggid. But to hear him explain how he came to storytelling — and what he’s gotten out of it — one can’t help but notice some overlap.

“As a kid growing up 30 years ago in the suburbs of L.A., Hebrew school felt like: How can we take this really important, dynamic stuff and suck all the life out of it?” he says, laughing. “Judaism as an experience had left me feeling cold, and like I had missed something good. And that something good, I found in Chelm stories.”

Ben Izzy has traveled the world, studying with maggidim and secular storytellers alike. Along the way, through the power of storytelling, he became passionate about Judaism for the first time — something he hears echoes of nearly every day from people who enjoy his work.

“There are many people who for whatever reason have been turned off to Judaism, but will sit down and listen to a story. It can absolutely be a way back.”

It’s energizing, he says, to watch storytelling as an art form take off among the younger generation. But it’s not surprising.

“Storytelling is the most human of the arts — it’s between a teller and the audience,” ben Izzy says.  “I think especially as the world gets more high tech, people are also becoming more hungry for that. People are realizing that the acts of talking and listening can be spiritual, can be healing.”

“They say when the heart overflows, it comes out through the mouth.”

on the cover

photo/cathleen maclearie

Berkeley maggid Jhos Singer

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.