Many of us listen to NPR when we listen to radio, and of those of us who listen, we have long listened to the snippets of stories presented by StoryCorp. What fewer people know is that I earn a living (well, something close enough to a living to squeak by) by working for an organization that does often-similar work, the Jewish Women's Archive. Among our projects, we work with local historical societies to help uncover, gather, disseminate, and preserve North American Jewish women's stories. We are always looking for better ways that a small organization (us) can facilitate the uncovering of more stories (so very many).
I was thinking about that work this morning as I listened to NPR talk about StoryCorp's "National Day of Listening" project, in which all of us are invited to spend the day after Thanksgiving, not shopping, but listening to someone significant in our lives—gathering their stories and preserving them for our kids and grandkids. They even have a great, downloadable guide to recording these stories. (If you are having trouble starting the conversation, it just so happens that the Jewish Women's Archive has a useful webpage, "20 Questions to Ask the Important Women in Your Life"). Sounds quaint and homey until you realize how significant specific Jewish women have been to our extant sense of Jewish culture.
Some of the women we celebrate include Ruth Rubin, whose recordings and books of Jewish folk songs were the first entry point for so many. Start with a few of her articles on the KlezmerShack. Bronya Sakina, whose life has never been adequately documented, passed on many songs to Michael Alpert and others before passing away. We have living treasures such as Flory Jagoda and Bayle Schaechter-Gottesman, both National Medal of Honor winners for their contributions to Sephardic and Yiddish poetry and folksinging. Drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts is the mother of the next musical link in the family chain, Susan. Younger women who have played critical roles in the revival of Yiddish culture include Adrienne Cooper and Alicia Svigals—catch them while they are still vigorous, still teaching!
But the point isn't to honor famous Jewish women (or more generally, famous people). It is to gather the stories and wisdom of the people around you, from your grandparents and teachers; from people you meet at schools & synagogues—wherever people gather and share culture that they, in turn, learned from their elders.
While I'm at it, let me also encourage people to upload their own performances and share them. Both YouTube and the Internet Archive accept recordings for free, and make them universally available to anyone around the world who has access to the internet.
On Passover, we will retell a story about an ancient exodus from Egypt, but we are commanded, as part of the mitzvah, to retell it every year, in our times. The "National Day of Listening" is part of how one realizes that mitzvah. By learning and preserving the stories of those who came before us, we also give ourselves deeper knowledge and fertile soil in which to grow the stories that capture our own times. Often, our new stories will be retellings and reimaginings that come directly from those we learn from others. Some are new and could only have been sung or told today. But even the new, needs the old for context, lest it be seen and understood as just more digital detritis.
So, do some listening this coming Friday. Where possible, do some recording. If you post stories online, write me and let me know. I'll post some links here on the KlezmerShack to help get the word out. To be Jewish, or to understand Jewish culture, after all, is to have both past and future richly part of the present.
Oh, and while I have your attention? Like all non-profits, the Jewish Women's Archive relies on your help, and actual donations to keep the doors open and the website online. Once you have done some listening this week, do take a moment to participate in our year-end appeal.