Tales from the Edge: When the Storytellers Leave

In the land where nobody sits on the fence without eventually falling off, the story of whence we came is as least as important as the story of whither we go. There are countries where this is not true. I come from one of them. A predictable, grey and rainy place where north is north, nothing is surreal, and little is demanded of its citizens except to be just that.

But here in Israel our compass constantly spins and our boat forever rocks. Collective experiences orient us. We strap on our stories and beliefs each morning to do battle with the other. Here, in this land, stories connect and bind and divide us. Stories of history and fact and fiction. And stories that are both fact and fiction depending upon whom you ask.

And now the storytellers are leaving us, a huge hole where they stood. It’s not new. We have centuries of knowledge and beliefs and traditions handed to us by wonderful and learned people no longer with us. But lately, the storytellers that leave are taking a piece of Israel with them as they go, and no story of their stories can make us what we were.

Simcha Rotem, the last fighter of the Warsaw ghetto uprising just left us. He left his testimony, but he took his eyes. And now only two eyes in our country remain to tell the sight of that time and that place, those of 89-year-old Aliza Vitis-Shomron. And soon, we won’t be able to show our children and grandchildren the original history tellers, we’ll only be storytellers of history that was.

And Rona Ramon, who shared more stories than a single human being is meant to carry without stumbling.  A story of her and her husband and a nation for whom the sky is never the limit, a story of all the bereaved mothers who stand in a line far too long and too constant. Though her story remains for her children’s telling, her light, her firsthand account, like the torch she lit, will be no more.

And Amos Oz. I travelled in Japan with my husband and kids, and as we dangled our feet in a river on a hot day in a faraway place that few tourists reach, a Japanese man turned to us in broken Hebrew. He learned it from the novels of Amos Oz and the bible and a Japanese/Hebrew dictionary, and I wondered if he knew how much he’d taught himself of Israel with just those two sources, and not just of the language we speak. Amos Oz wound his stories around us in a complex and difficult way, using language that as an immigrant makes you want to cry for the Hebrew you’ll never speak. Sharing his Israel and her story and his story. Words that you do or don’t agree with, given and received as an offering from someone who loved and observed and understood, in a way I as an immigrant never will, this weird and nuanced place and all the kinks in her fabric.

My roots are in Ireland, where storytelling runs deep and seanchaithe (shanachies) passed on traditions and stories through a turbulent and uncertain history. But the seanchaidhe are no more, and so it could be here. How will we tell more stories in a country and world where no one listens, where books are no longer common currency, where news is fake, and information is filtered to ensure we read only that with which we agree. Where history is fluid, and revisionism mixes up fact and fiction to rewrite what was. Where here, in the land in which we’ve staked our claim, we’re unable to bridge the gaps between us. Preferring instead to push others into boxes closed tight so we don’t hear stories from the other side.

In most countries, history and stories of what went before are unconnected to everyday life. But here’s the rub. We don’t have the privilege of sitting on that fence. We stand on ground propped up by the past and live in a present shaped by our history, and stories are the armor by which we define ourselves. Yet, we all swim in the humid pot of chicken soup that is Israel, and we must hear the other. The right, the left, the charedim, the chilonim, and all those in the middle. From those in the periphery to those in the kingdom of Tel Aviv.  We have no luxury of living in a postmodern, millennial world where individualism reigns. The collective binds us, we can’t manage here alone. And if I need the other, I must acknowledge that his or her story is a view of Israel that I can’t or won’t or don’t want to perceive. My kids, and all our kids, need a thousand good reasons for living in this impossible place, and alongside those reasons they need stories. Mine and yours and everyone else’s. But the storytellers are leaving, and I fear their like won’t be seen here again.

About the Author
Rayne Wiselman is a writer living in a kibbutz in the Galilee. Never quite sure how she ended up here, she mostly loves and never tires of living in this marvelous messy country.
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