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Telling Your Family's Story

November 24, 2019 | by Emuna Braverman

From generation to generation, the Jewish people have been telling their story.

Besides eating huge quantities of turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, it has become popular to use Thanksgiving as an occasion for telling family stories. Studies show that kids absorb a lot of information from family stories. And that the best ones include life lessons.

“They have a very important function in teaching children, ‘I belong here. I’m part of these stories.’ They provide not just a script for life, but a set of values and guideposts”, says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor and director of Emory University’s Institute for Liberal Arts. (WSJ 11/12/19)

Of course this is something the Jewish people has known for a long time, this is a tradition that we fulfill every week, every year. Family stories are the very backbone of our existence. They sustain us and nurture us, they educate us and lead us.

Our family story, of course, is our Torah, our instruction for living, our moral compass. It's our gift from the Almighty and our inheritance from our family. We just think of family in a much larger sense than the author of the article.

She cites the example of grandparents and the stories of their lives and challenges as having a profound effect on their grandchildren - but Jews go back even farther. We're inspired and moved by the actions of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and by our matriarchs Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. And by all their descendants.

Our family stories are told in the Torah, read weekly over and over again and passed down from generation to generation. The Almighty understands the power of stories. He could have given us a dry document just listing the commandments. But He knows that stories are engaging; they beg to be told and retold. They are subject to layers of interpretation and understanding. We can make them our own.

And stories never get old. There is always something new to learn, to discover, an insight to glean, a question to ask. There is something there for every age and every generation. We don’t get bored as we get older; we just go deeper.

There are many family stories that can be inspiring, many that can be uplifting, many that should provoke gratitude, many that definitely should be told and passed on.

I happen to enjoy going to shiva houses (I know this sounds weird but bear with me) because I love hearing about the lives lived by the parents of my friends and acquaintances, people who I never met or barely knew. Each one is a world.

I recently heard a whole tale of someone’s travels from Germany to Shanghai to America to Bolivia and back to America again. It was fascinating. It was a whole world, so much to learn. We should never stop telling those stories and asking the questions to elicit them.

But what a shame to save important family history for once a year (what a shame to get together so rarely!). And how lucky are we that we tell our family story constantly. In Ethics of Our Fathers, we are admonished to never be satiated with our learning. Who ever tires of a good story?

I love all stories - from Dr. Seuss through Tolstoy - but the stories of our family, the stories of what shaped us are the best of all. Young children clamor for stories of when their parents were young (and particularly when we got into trouble!). They can learn, they can grow, they can be reassured by our experiences. But the best story of all is the one the Almighty gave us, the history of our people and our special relationship with the King of the Universe.

So get your pajamas on and get comfortable; do I have a tale for you!


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