Storytelling is an ancient art that gives voice to our values and our history. Through our stories, we build our communities. But we can only appreciate the depth of these communities when we tell the stories of the individual people who make up the community.
I have always loved listening to storytellers. At the NewCAJE conference in Connecticut last month, I had the opportunity to listen to some of the greatest Jewish storytellers of our time. Listening to their stories, I found myself thinking about how stories can illuminate or conceal the complexity of a community, depending on how they are told.
A story about stories
A story was told about a king who loved his daughter very much. For her wedding, he asked all his people to bring a bottle of their best wine. He asked them to empty the wine into a giant vat, from which he would toast his daughter’s wedding with the combined good will of all the community.
While this is a lovely sentiment, as someone with some experience in wine making, I was horrified. Vintners can spend months tweaking their mixture to get the exact combination of grapes to give them the perfect flavor. Wine made by pouring all these bottles together would have an indistinct, muddy taste. More importantly, good vintners pour their passion and their experience into each vintage. By asking them to mix their wines together, the king is missing the hard work and individuality each person put into making the perfect wine.
A minor variation of the story may make this point a little clearer. Consider if instead of asking everyone to bring a bottle of wine, the king had asked everyone to bring a jar of paint. “Bring a colorful paint that represents everything you are and all the hard work you have done this year,” the king might have proclaimed. “We will mix all the paints together in one big bucket, and then I will paint the wall of my beloved daughter’s new home with the combined love of all my people.” As all the people put in their beautiful colors and mixed them together, what color would the bucket end up? Mud brown, of course. All the beautiful individual colors would be lost.
By mixing the hard work of an entire community into one bucket, we lose the individuality of each person in the community. What if the king gave this instruction instead: “Everyone take their jar of paint and place a single dot of color on the wall. Thus we will paint the wall with the hard work and love of everyone in the community.” Imagine the spectacular mosaic that would result.
Community stories are made of individual stories
A community does not happen because people merge into one indistinguishable whole. A community happens because the individual passions of many people combine into a beautiful mosaic.
Through our stories, we build our communities. Through the stories of the past, we understand our history and the communities that are lost across time.
To truly understand a community, however, we must tell the story of the community through the stories of individuals. By telling the stories of the individuals in those communities, we piece together the beautiful mosaic that shows us the entire community in all its depth and complexity.
Telling the story of the ghetto
I could, for instance, tell you that the ghetto was a difficult place where many people lived too closely together and life was hard. I could tell you how in spite of the difficulty, communities managed to come together to help each other and to hold on to their humanity and their Judaism as best they could.
Or I could tell you the story of Yitzhok Rudashevski.
Yitzhok Rudashevski grew up in Vilna, Lithuania, the only child of educated, enlightened, and influential parents. He was 14 when they were forced to move into the ghetto in September 1941. The day they entered the ghetto, Yitzhok wrote in his diary, “I feel that I have been robbed, my freedom is being robbed from me, my home, and the familiar Vilna streets I love so much. I have been cut off from all that is dear and precious to me.”
The next day, he continued in the same vein, “The first ghetto day begins. I run right into the street. The little streets are still full of a restless mass of people. It is hard to push your way through. I feel as if I were in a box. There is no air to breathe. Wherever you go you encounter a gate that hems you in.”
Over time, though, Yitzhok began to find balance within ghetto life. On December 13, 1942, he wrote, “Today the ghetto celebrated the circulation of the hundred thousandth book in the ghetto library… Hundreds of people read in the ghetto. The reading of books in the ghetto is the greatest pleasure for me. The book unites us with the future; the book unites us with the world.”
By March 1943, he had found a way to live in the ghetto as the teenager he was. “I often reflect, this is supposedly the ghetto yet I have such a rich life of intellectual work: I study, I read, I visit club circles. Time runs by so quickly and there is so much work to be done, lectures, social gatherings. I often forget I am in the ghetto.” he wrote.
Although the ghetto seemed an airless trap when he first entered it, Yitzhok found that life goes on. In spite of the misery inherent to the ghetto, he learned to live and work with what he had. His story shines a clear light on both the hardship of the ghetto and the strength with which people met that hardship.
Yitzhok’s writings bring to life one teenager’s story of how ghetto life was for him. His is one dot of color in this community’s mosaic. The stories of other ghetto residents, a mother, a father, a rabbi, a child, a teacher, would each show us a different aspect of life in the ghetto, a different dot of color. By bringing these individual stories together, we create a rich picture of ghetto life that we could never get by describing the community as a whole.
 Yitzhok did not survive the war. When the ghetto residents were rounded up, Yitzhok’s family went into hiding. Their hiding place was discovered only two weeks later. They were all murdered at the killing pits of Ponar. Yitzhok’s cousin, Sarah Voloshin, managed to escape and joined the partisans. During the liberation of Vilna, she found their family’s hiding place and Yitzhok’s diary.