When I first launched my YouTube Channel on June 4, 2020, I added a new story or song recording twice a week. This kept my story practice going during the pandemic when in person storytelling pretty much stopped.
I recorded stories once a week through the summer until, in the fall, a few opportunities for live storytelling by Zoom showed up. One thing led to another. Someone who watched me tell stories during the launch of our local Reform Temple, Kolot Mayim’s, “Building Jewish Culture” lecture series, hired me to tell stories to her niece and parents in Montreal for Hanukah. Someone else who sang with me at a virtual choir, invited me to tell a musical story to her Unitarian Church in North Carolina on the eve of the US election.
After that, my story recording pace slowed to once a month. I’ve hit snags like publishers or authors who, while they don’t mind live tellings, don’t want their stories recorded. I have by now recorded most of the stories I composed myself and besides, telling stories to a camera, well it’s just not the same.
My wise Maggid teacher in Brooklyn, on the other hand, was happy to have me record his stories when I called to check with him in November. Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum (z”l – zichrono l’bracha – may his memory be for a blessing) also told me he wasn’t doing very well.
Yitzhak died December 23, 2020 after many years of coping with Parkinson’s Disease and more recently, cancer. His death was not a surprise. He had even warned me about it when I called him. But still.
The story I recorded in December, was not one of Yitzhak’s. It’s by the Polish American author, Isaac Beshevis Singer, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978 & died 29 years ago. I didn’t think he would mind.
“Zlateh the Goat” is different than any other story I’ve recorded so far. Usually, I wing it. I practice a bit beforehand and then let the language flow from the images within the story itself. Zlateh was different. I wanted to get the words exactly right, to mirror the beautiful way Isaac Beshevis Singer wrote the tale.
Singer originally wrote his story in Yiddish so I was working from a translation. Yet even in the English version, the descriptions of the snow, the conversations between the resourceful boy and his spunky goat, and the emotional awareness that evolves between them were all so gorgeous. This process brought me to a deeper appreciation of the power of literary storytelling.
The story I recorded in January, 2021, on the other hand, was one of Yitzhak’s. It marked a return to my earlier more spontaneous style, only this time I didn’t practice at all. The recording is my first take on a story I’ve told since 2008 for Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. Yitzhak featured this tale in his book on the holiday, “A Person is Like a Tree: A Sourcebook for Tu Beshevat.”
Yitzhak, if I understood him correctly, felt that this underappreciated holiday is the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. Unlike most Jewish holidays, Tu BiShvat celebrates the future world instead of a historical moment.
Yitzhak felt that this was a holiday all people could celebrate, no matter what they believed or didn’t. It’s what we’re striving for; a time when all humanity will be one with the Source of all life, as soulful and complete as trees.
We get a glimpse of this time through the arboreal gifts we receive every day; the oxygen we breathe, the wood that surrounds us if we live in a wooden home, and the taste, texture and, most importantly, fragrance of the fruit that trees produce.
Stories are like that, too, in a way. Ephemeral at times as a delicious fragrance and yet so real. How we tell and receive them can, if we let it, change the world.