Jewish Ozzies' Inter.Net
The electronic voice of the Australian Jewish Community

Letters from Jewish Australia - No.57


March 4th, 1998

This Sunday, March 8th 1998, (Adar 3, 5758) is International Woman's Day. During this month, Adar, we also celebrate the festival of Purim and this is the month Jewish women in the USA have nominated as "Jewish Women's History Month". On Purim each of us is commanded to read and hear a Megilla (story) in which women play pivotal roles in the destiny of the Jewish people.

Besides biblical stories there are traditional Jewish stories which have travelled centuries and crossed continents, from mouth to ear they have grown and changed and evolved to reflect the different times and places in which they find themselves, giving them a unique flavour. That is how it is with the oral tradition.

Australian Jewish stories also speak of the common Jewish experience, but in a specifically Australian tone that makes them unique. Often stories of surviving the Holocaust, immigration, the strange customs, animals and flora. As always, they are stories to be told and passed on, to enrich the family who inherit the stories, and the greater family too, that of the Australian Jewish community.

The Aboriginal community, on the other hand, are still people of the word and their stories are only gradually being known among the rest of the population. Their traditional stories belong to different tribes, and for others to tell them is sacrilegious. The icons, the symbols, the myths belong to the people of that particular tribe and no one else may tell them. But the new stories, the stories they have gathered since White man's arrival - that is different. They are stories that must be told, and heard and repeated by us all. The stories of stolen children, of despair and dispossession are part of the new oral tradition. They belong to all of us.

Recently storytellers from all over multicultural Australia came together to tell with their stories of homelands, fantasies, and friendships. The Jewish and Aboriginal storytellers ended up sitting down together to discuss links between Jews and the Aboriginal people.

DONNA SIFE (e-mail: won first prize in the competition at this National Australian storytelling Festival, for her original Jewish story. It was a story that decribed Donna's experience of sitting at the Wall in Jerusalem, waiting for the courage to take her place beside the other women and pray. She then recalls her first prayer, on Shabbat one evening long ago when she was seven, when her mother inadvertently taught her about prayer. And only then could she find the heart to pray at the Wall.

What she prized most though, was the opportunity this event gave Australians of all backgrounds to listen to one another.

As "The Jewish Storyteller" she was part of the program entitled "Stories from Other Cultures" and shared the stage with indigenous people from New Zealand, Australia, and others from Japan, Korea, Borneo and Czechoslovakia.

Donna recounts this experience for us;

I told stories that I felt best encapsulated the values and ideas of Judaism, and felt a sense of responsibility to present as broad and honest view as possible. There were hundreds in the audience, some of whom had never met a Jewish person, or knew what we believed, what was our history. I told stories about tzedaka, respect, and human courage.

What struck me most was the golden thread that linked all these diverse cultures. That with a different name, a different place - the stories they told could just as easily be Jewish.

After the performance, I introduced myself to Aboriginal storyteller, Pauline McCleod. I was very moved by her stories and wanted to tell her. She looked up and grabbed my hand, said "Sit down sister" and we began a long and warm discussion about the links between Jews and the Aboriginal people. Our shared experience of genocide, our spiritual connection with the land, fighting for a homeland, dignity, being witness, honouring the memory of those who came before us. It is this kind of exchange that creates peace and understanding between people. It is this ability to see the uniqueness and the sameness amongst different cultures that is the gift that storytelling offers. As a finalist in the Original story competition, I heard four other storytellers from all over Australia offer their stories of homelands, fantasies, and friendships. My story was about my visit to the Western Wall, what I experienced there, and how it affected me and eventually how the story affected my mother and our relationship. I sang the blessings over the shabbat candles in the story, I said the Shema. It is a wonderful thing that such an essentially Jewish and personal story could win a National competition.

The letters I received in response to the stories and the workshops I ran at the Festival (one being entitled "What the Rabbis Say - an antidote to a world without boundaries) spoke of appreciation that now Judaism was more deeply understood, that they felt closer to the Jewish people, that I had dispelled misconceptions.

However, the most rewarding response was when a young girl of 20 came up to me with tears in her eyes and said that she had been struggling with Judaism for many years. She wanted a structure to guide her spiritual search but did not know which direction to go. "From this moment on", she said " I am a Jew".

The stories of the Rabbis, midrashim, from the shtetl, are our inheritance. They hold the secrets of who we are, where we have been and where we are going. We all hold stories within us, family stories of celebration, immigration, imagination. Tell your stories, because they may be exactly what the listener needed to hear. They can heal, teach, enlighten and guide us. They are to be shared. When asked why God created man, the great Shlomo Carlbach responded " Because God loves a good story". So do we all.

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