By Joshua S. Yudkin
Is there a tipping point where the official narrative is no longer official? What might it take to create the space so that there can be an alternative way to tell and understand your own story? In a unique and often unexplored intersection, both the Jewish and Eastern traditions offer similar alternatives to the modern conceptualization of history and storytelling. Importantly, they offer a way in which, as agents, we relive, retell and reconstruct our history in an empowering way that inspires us to be our best.
From an outside and marginalized perspective, both Jewish and classic Chinese traditions look at the rigid and unchangeable linear notion of history as an inherently Western concept. As explained in classic texts like Yosef Yerushalmi’s “Zachor,” the Jewish tradition teaches that Jews are retelling and reliving the story of ancestors so that, as Jews, we can remember our story and inspire us to build a better world. Similarly, Puett and Gross-Loh’s “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life” explains how the classic Chinese tradition of Daoism teaches that you can reconstruct your own narrative through artifices like ancestor worship so that you can lead your best life. While there are certainly nuanced differences, both traditions offer a malleable and personalized methodology to engage with your past in order to better your future.
While both these traditions predate the modern conceptualization of history by at least a millennium, their shared therapeutic and empowering nature to storytelling and narrative has largely gone unnoticed or been discarded or distorted. In fact, their shared nuanced and contextualized approach intentionally designed to perpetuate and inspire goodness has only recently started regaining traction. A rabbi once shared how the letters of the Torah are alive, because each time they are read, they transform and take on a different meaning to each person who is listening.
Through returning to our shared traditions, we can, together, change history — literally. Following in the footsteps of Laozi, Abraham Lincoln rewrote the American narrative. Mirroring the teachings of Xunzi, our Jewish tradition also propagates the important role of ritual. Through our shared beliefs and similar practices, we repeatedly reinvent a better version of ourselves and our society.
There have been too many hateful words spoken and hate-inspired actions taken. Dialogue can defuse. Decent discourse can defeat divides. Daring declarations to defend and celebrate our diversity and democracy deconstruct hate. There is an immediate opportunity to tap into our shared roots and retell and reinvent our narrative to be one of unity and coexistence rather than one of difference and divisive diction. Storytelling is The Way.
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.