Telling stories
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Telling stories

Master storyteller Peninnah Schram tells Jewish tales of love and marriage

To be able to sit alone with Peninnah Schram, to listen to her tell a story just to you, just for you, is to be transfixed.

Ms. Schram is a small, silver-haired woman, straight-backed, soft-voiced, and clear-eyed. She sits in her Upper West Side apartment, her home for decades, full of artwork and Judaica, a lived-in, personal place, and looks directly at you as she speaks.

There’s magic in the way she tells the story — the rhythm she uses, the way she varies her voice, the way she looks directly at you and responds to you as you react to her.

Although Ms. Schram tells stories that have descended through the oral tradition, she also has written books. (She also has a distinguished academic career; before she retired last year she spent four decades teaching speech and drama at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and in 1995 she won the Covenant award, given to outstanding Jewish educators.) Her most recent book, “Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage,” co-written with Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, is just out, and she loves talking about it.

There are differences between telling stories aloud and reading them, Ms. Schram said, and Jewish culture reveres both. Much of our tradition is oral; the center of religious services on Shabbat, holidays, and Mondays and Thursdays — the point toward which they aim and from which they reverentially retreat, with pomp and velvet and silver and parades — is when the Torah is unscrolled and read aloud. For many centuries many Jews were barely or not at all literate; even when they were able to read in their vernaculars, for much of our history only a small group could read Hebrew. Oral transmission was paramount.

And, of course, we read aloud from other texts as well — the haftarah on Shabbat, the megillot on holidays, the Hagaddah on Passover. The written is transformed into the oral; each retelling is slightly different, filtered through the tropes and melodies and inflections of its teller and the teller’s culture.

“Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage,” like Ms. Schram’s other books, is a compilation of Jewish folk tales from around the world.

The book is divided into three sections. The first looks at biblical and rabbinic love stories, the stories that formed the background understanding of love for centuries of Jews. The second is folktales, still very old but dating from after the rabbinic period. The third is love letters, ranging from one from medieval India to correspondence between Ms. Schram’s own parents, Cantor Samuel E. Manchester and Dora Markman. The fourth is contemporary love stories, and the fifth is instructions on how to write your own love story. (Of course, instructions for finding love are not included. Those instructions, for readers wise enough to recognize them, are in the book’s earlier sections.)

There are many themes from Jewish tales that have made their way around the world, and others, from outside, that have made their way into Jewish stories. “It is hard to trace them, but sometimes you can tell by the ending,” Ms. Schram said. She told one of her favorites, which appears in this book as “The Man and Woman From Sidon.”

For much of our history only a small group could read Hebrew. Oral transmission was paramount.

In the story, which comes from the midrash — Pesikta de Rab Kahana, to be specific — a man and woman who have been married for 10 years, are happy with each other, in fact genuinely love one another and have many material goods — but no children — reluctantly decide to divorce. That way, they figure, either or both can remarry and maybe be blessed with children. Reluctantly but with great resolve, they ask their rabbi for permission to divorce.

You may do so, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said, but only if they end the marriage as they began it, with a celebration. Then the wife could retreat to her father’s house. Puzzled and unhappy but obedient, they comply. Drowning his sorrows, the man drank until he was drunk. Just before he passed out, he told his not-yet-ex-wife, “My beloved, choose anything in my house that you desire and take it with you to your father’s house.”

Once he was dead to the world, his wife instructed her servants to carry him to her father’s house. When he awoke, puzzled, asking why he was there, his wife told him that she had followed his demand. “There is nothing in the world I desire more than you,” she told him.

That story that has traveled and returned to the Jewish world; “what marks it as having come under the Jewish influence or filter” — what marks it as a Jewish story — “is the ending,” she said.

At the end of the story, the couple returns to the rabbi, telling him that they love each other far too much to separate. And then, it concludes, “The rabbi prayed for them, and before long the woman became pregnant and gave birth to a child.”

This story, Ms. Schram said, is a prime example of “the clever young woman” and a “quintessential Jewish love story.” (It might even sound particularly familiar to close readers of this newspaper; in July, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck and his company, National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene, in partnership with Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, put on a one-night-only performance of “Di Goldene Kale.” The golden bride in question was the very smart — albeit adopted, but still it counts — daughter of an innkeeper. And the trope is so powerful that the opera soon will reopen off Broadway, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.)

Ms. Schram came to storytelling through her own parents. She grew up in New London, Connecticut, where her father, the community’s cantor, saw to all its needs, physical and spiritual; also was New London’s mohel, who did circumcisions; its shochet, who was in charge of its ritual slaughter and therefore much of its food, and a composer of classical music.

He also was a storyteller, whose voice, rhythms, and deep passion for the stories of our people formed some of his daughter’s earlier memories. “The stories told, read, and heard in childhood fill the storehouse of memories from which a person can draw the needed wisdom, perhaps many years later,” Ms. Schram wrote. Peninnah’s mother told stories too; while Chazan Manchester’s were more inspirational, Ms. Manchester’s were practical life lessons. She often minded them at the time, Ms. Schram said, “but she was always right, even if I often didn’t realize it until much later.”

Through both her parents, she drew the “nourishment and stimulation that a creative imagination needs,” she said. “Images stay in your mind longer than lessons taught in other ways manage to do.”

Ms. Schram graduated from the University of Connecticut and then from Columbia, and began working in Jewish theater, creating plays for children, teaching college students, and recording books for the Jewish Braille Institute. Soon, she developed her interest in Jewish storytelling into a career, trailblazing a new field into which other storytellers have followed her.

Like her parents and now her own son and daughter, she was married happily, but unlike them she was widowed young. Her daughter, Rebecca, married an Israeli and made aliyah; she is now the mother of three children. Her son, Mordechai, a cantor like his grandfather, and his wife have a son as well.

There are so many stories there! (In fact, Sonia Gordon-Walinsky tells the story of her marriage to Mordechai in visual images in her mother-in-law’s book.)

Sometimes stories can be told without words. Here and on the cover, Penninah Schram’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gordon-Walinsky, draws the very Jewish love story that united her and her husband, Mordechai Schram. (Sonia Gordon-Walinsky, Sukkat Shalom: A Micrographic Love Story, 2014, Ink and paper, 7x5, Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage.)
Sometimes stories can be told without words. Here and on the cover, Peninnah Schram’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gordon-Walinsky, draws the very Jewish love story that united her and her husband, Mordechai Schram. (Sonia Gordon-Walinsky, Sukkat Shalom: A Micrographic Love Story, 2014, Ink and paper, 7×5, Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage.)

In the end, though, despite the lure and very real value of written or drawn or danced or filmed or sung stories, “there is no substitute for a human voice telling a story,” Ms. Schram said.

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