Storytelling: a Jewish ritual

By Josh Yudkin

Hector Abad Faciolince’s “El Olvido Que Seremos” (“Forgotten We Will Be”) is an authentic recollection and celebration of Abad Faciolince’s father, a leading physician, population-health scientist and human rights activist in Medellin, Colombia who was assassinated during the armed conflict in Colombia in the second half of the 20th century. For those Spanish speakers in our community, I strongly recommend you consider giving this novel a read!

This book is a religious read as well. At its core, it is a Jewish story. Rabbi and Professor Yosef Yerushalmi explains that to forget is to commit the cardinal sin in Judaism. In fact, Yerushalmi affirms that Jewish law, halachah, was established to be a fortress against forgetting and to protect the Torah. Echoing the importance of remembering (or not forgetting), Abad Faciolince writes, “I do not say this to avenge his death, but yes, at least, to tell of it.” Abad Faciolince codifies his father’s memory and legacy in this book so it will not be forgotten. Moreover, he reinserts himself into his father’s living legacy via storytelling, reenforcing his father’s mission to help others and fight for human rights.

Storytelling is an active endeavor. In the same way that helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity is a form of tikkun olam or lighting the candles is a way to celebrate Shabbat, storytelling is an active and inherently Jewish activity — just look at the iconic Passover seder. We tell stories of the Holocaust so that it will “Never Again” happen. We tell stories of Jewish life in the Former Soviet Union to celebrate our resilience. We engage in storytelling to fight against the “Forgottenness.”

Professor Peninnah Schram wrote, “The Jews are a Storytelling People.” Echoing, or perhaps supporting, multiple commandments in the Torah to remember, Jewish ritual (both religious and cultural) provides experiential ways to aid us in remembering. In other words, the Jewish way of life propagates storytelling to help remember fully. We see this even in the Hebrew verbiage. Rabbi and Professor Yerushalmi explained that the word “halachah” has the same three shoresh, or root letters, as the verb to go (הלך), re-enforcing that halachah, the fortress against forgetting, is the way we should live our lives. Storytelling is the Jewish way of life. 

But storytelling is not only a Jewish activity. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, storytelling is one of the many gifts Jews have given “as a light of all the nations” to the world. Tapping into the Jewish tradition, Faciolince demonstrates that storytelling is a bidirectional activity that demands not only that the storyteller remember and share but also that the recipient find meaning in it. As the reader,  we actively engage in remembering his father, Abad Gómez. We now share the responsibility to continue his father’s fight for human rights and dignity for all, and we are reminded of our obligation to safeguard our shared values of practicing decent dialogue and demonstrating relentless respect for all, always. 

Storytelling is an inherently Jewish activity that takes place between people. In the words of the poet Chaim Nahman Bialik, storytelling “serves as a permanent home for the spirit and soul of our people.” It requires active participation by both the storyteller and listener. Rebbitzen Dena Weinberg wrote, “Torah is not education, it’s transformation.” By proxy, the timeless Jewish practice of storytelling is not education, it’s transformation.

Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and is a co-founder of JUST Conversations. He is an epidemiologist by training who was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and works at the intersection of community building and public health.

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