For the Jewish Quarterly spring edition April 2016
Jews are driven by stories—our ultimate story is on Seder night—and in some respects storytelling could be said to reach back in time to the Written Torah and the Oral Tradition. Oddly, it is said not only that one— the written text—cannot be understood without the other—the transmission of knowledge from master to student—but also that it is the written text which is subject to misinterpretation. The Oral Tradition, say the rabbis, allows for questions. And Jews love to question.
Aside from rabbis on Shabbat morning, who tells us Jewish stories? For most of the last half century, the keeper of the flame, in Britain, has been the East End-raised Derek Reid. Reid, his wife Pippa and their daughter, Rachel Rose Reid, have become an extraordinary repository of stories, legends, music, and jokes, encompassing a huge span from the stories of the Midrash to tales borrowed from European folklore or Persian or Indian sources.
Frequently, say the Reids, they will be telling a story and a listener will say: “That’s my tradition!” In other words, the magpie nature of storytelling means that the dwarves and ogres of one story can often appear elsewhere, sometimes with a different name but just as recognisable.
And Jews, it seems, were just as prone to borrowing (aka outright thievery) in appropriating traditional stories and making them quintessentially Jewish. One of Reid’s favourite jester-heroes, Herschel of Ostropol, the equivalent of Jack and the Beanstalk, is the subject of hundreds of folk-tales from the Ukraine, but is now generally thought of as a completely Jewish figure. His main characteristic is that of one-upmanship: argue with Herschel and you’ll always come off worse.
Here’s Herschel at the market, flogging a blank canvas and claiming it to be a much-prized painting. “What is it?” asks an unwary buyer. And Herschel is off, spinning a tale.
“It’s a famous painting, showing the Jews crossing the Red Sea, with the Egyptians chasing them.”
“I don’t see any Jews”, says the customer. “No, they’ve crossed.”
“And where are the Egyptians?” “They haven’t arrived yet.”
And where’s the Red Sea, blurts the frustrated man? “Fool,” says Herschel, pocketing the money. “The Red Sea, of course, has parted!”
It turns out, additionally, that the stories of Chelm — the most famous town in Jewish folklore, where the inhabitants repeatedly behave like idiots — are actually taken from German Christian tales, first published in 1597. In Jewish Chelm, even the rabbi is a fool. He asks the carter to take him to the big city, and the carter, reckoning on a big tip, covers the rabbi with a tarpaulin, drives around in a circle for a few minutes or so, and then lets the rabbi climb down. Oh, says the rabbi, isn’t the big city just like Chelm? Truly, it could be said, the whole world is Chelm!
The original stories were published in Yiddish in 1700 and from then on assumed a life of their own, with Chelm—which is actually a real place—becoming a synonym for Jewish idiocy.
It’s a safe bet that during his lengthy career Derek Reid has dipped into Chelm a time or two—besides the vast library which he has assembled over the years, Reid has a prodigious memory for stories. It’s extremely hard to get him to talk about his own upbringing because every recollection reminds him of a story.
But eventually he paints a picture of himself, his brother and cousins, sitting in a semi-circle in front of their grandfather, who had a shoemaker’s bench in the basement of their family home. “Yiddish was my first language”, says Reid, “we spoke English at the front door.” The grandfather was a master storyteller, weaving tales of golems and fools to the fascinated children.
For both Reid and his daughter, it’s clear that Judaism is at the heart of what they do. “We gave the world the Old Testament and we gave the world the Midrash”, says Reid, “which [almost] literally fills in the holes in the stories. And we are one of the few peoples who use storytelling to remind people of who they are. Every Shabbat, there is a chapter from our history. But rather than leave it to the imagination of the storyteller, we have a mind-jogger, every man who tells this story has got to tell it the same way.”
“In a lot of our communities,” says Rachel Rose, “it doesn’t seem enough just to read the sedra. So people need to hear about it through new lenses, that stories are told about this story. New connections are made between us and this ancient thing.”
Derek Reid comes from a rabbinical family. He was born in Hackney in 1946 and the stories that he heard as a child go back to his great-grandfather, on his mother’s side, Dovid Masidlover, who came from Krakow. On his father’s side of the family there are documents dating back to 1800, to a man known as Ephraim Ha’Gabbai, popularly known as The Turk by his descendants.
Downstairs in the shoemaker’s basement, the young Reid and his brother Michael sat enthralled as their grandfather spun stories. “My mother would come down and say, Dad, you’ve got all this work! But he would just wave her away and say, while the kids are here, I’m not working. And he would go on with the stories.”
For six or seven hours at a time, says Reid, his grandfather would tell stories, usually in Yiddish—“he did tell the occasional story in English, but I think he felt that was a step down”—and without repeating himself within the session.
Both the Reids, father and daughter, still tell some of the shoemaker’s stories today—Derek Reid, in particular, using the funniest where he can. “When people come into clubs they want to be entertained, so I usually try to tell the humorous stories.” And, his daughter interjects: “In clubs and pubs you’re only likely to get a 10 minute slot, so they have to be fairly tight”.
As she listens to her father, Rachel Rose marvels slightly that he grew up in a family which had no compunction about playing about with the so-called “sacred” stories of the Midrash and extending them into the storytelling genre. For the Reids, it was a perfectly natural progression, but it is still unusual, she believes. “Did you feel that storytelling was separate from religion, or was there a crossover?” she asks her father.
“There was a crossover”, Reid replies. And, inevitably, he follows with a story—of how when he would sit beside his father in synagogue, the father would sometimes point to the name of someone in the text of the service and tell “a completely secular” story about him.
Reid describes himself as a romantic. “I had a wonderful, privileged childhood and although I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school, I know I wanted to be somebody—and I knew I wanted to preserve and record all the stories I had heard.”
“You were very much a story-keeper or guardian,” interjects Rachel Rose. “You recorded people singing songs and telling stories. I see you shining a light on what was given to you, and working out how best to transmit that so that people would want to listen.”
One of the most important influences on Reid was the Yiddish poet Avraham Stencl, whom Reid befriended in the last years of his life. Together, the two men forged a determination to keep the Jewish folktales alive, and even though Stencl died in 1983 his name resonates still with both Reid and his wife and daughter. Rachel Rose often performs a song cycle— with music written by her mother Pippa—based on Stencl’s poetry, and Derek Reid positively glows when speaking of his mentor.
To Reid’s peers, it should be acknowledged, Stencl and the whole Jewish folklore experience was something of a mystery. Reid wrote a one-man show in 1974, Mamaloshen, a celebration of Yiddish songs, stories and culture. But none of Reid’s contemporaries could match his background or depth of knowledge and it is only in recent years that people have been rediscovering the rich Jewish tradition which Reid has nursed all these years.
If Derek Reid is a curator—he is a founder of the annual National Storytelling Week in Britain—his daughter is an innovator. A founder of the London Moishe House, aimed at providing meaningful Jewish spiritual experiences for young adults, Rachel Rose now carries the title of “Kohenet”, or priestess, after studying at an American institution in Connecticut. She has broadened out the art of storytelling and often acts as a consultant to companies which enjoy storytelling as an aid to team-bonding and networking.
She has, of course, been heavily influenced by the way in which her parents took their love of Judaism and storytelling beyond Jewish culture. “I grew up going to the Sidmouth Festival [for Folk Arts], and they used to have dancers and singers, and some storytelling, but they mainly had [acts] that you didn’t need language at first to understand. So they would have you come up on stage and learn how to dance with a troupe from Russia, or learn to sing with a group from South Africa.”
“I found really early on that it was possible to connect with people that you might think you had nothing in common with—and you could do it via folk culture. It was not a dusty old thing, but when it got locked in books, then maybe it was dusty. But when it becomes a living tradition, then it’s an incredible bridge between people.
“My role”, she says, “is to get these people [in the audience], with all their different backgrounds and all the jingle-jangle of their day, to harmonise when I tell them a story.” In that respect, she believes, she is offering a 21st century version of chazanut, where the chazan is acting as a kind of spiritual conductor during synagogue services.
So how do you pitch a story, how do you engage the audience and hook them in? Derek Reid reckons that part of it is physical. “As you build various images for the audience, they will follow you; and if you lean in to them, they will lean forward, too. You start a story, almost like coming out of the mist. There is a journey to be made, and obstacles. They will go through that.”
His daughter agrees. “It’s got to matter to the audience that they are there. They need to feel that the story wouldn’t live without them. Stories need ears”. — JQ