As a 5-year-old sitting on his great-grandmother's knee in the 1950s in Philadelphia, Marc Young listened patiently as she whispered in broken English the same two sentences she would come to repeat in a weekly ritual for years.
"God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. Ever since, the Jews are a special people to God," Grandma Rose would tell him in her thick Ukrainian accent while gently rubbing his forearm with hands gnarled by years of menial labor.
"She wasn't so much stroking my arm as she was trying to grind her message into my chromosomes," recalled Young, a longtime Columbia resident who is now 62.
The outcome of her wish — that her great-grandson take her place in passing along stories of Jewish history, culture and folklore — will be on display when he takes part in "Tales of Nature: An Afternoon of Professional Storytelling." The event will be held Jan. 19 at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock, a 300-year-old farm that is home to a nature reserve and educational facility.
Young, chief learning officer for a federal science agency by day and a storyteller on the side, will be joined at the first-ever conservancy event for all ages by full-time storytellers Adam Booth of West Virginia and Diane Macklin of Baltimore.
"In some areas of the country, there are really nifty traditions of storytelling, often involving Mother Nature and Earth's creatures," said Marianne Alexander, immediate past president of the conservancy's board of directors and a member of the program committee.
"This will be a neat way to bring those rich traditions to themes we all care about — the environment and nature — and to sample storytelling from three different traditions," said Alexander, an Ellicott City resident. "Maybe we can start something here."
The three storytellers have distinct approaches to their art, which is geared toward adults as well as children.
Booth is a four-time West Virginia champion in his home state's "Liars Contest" for telling stories from his Appalachian and Jewish heritage, and is also a musician. Macklin specializes in sharing stories of African-American culture and folklore, frequently playing the kalimba, a hand-held African instrument often referred to as a thumb piano.
While many of Young's stories hinge on his Jewish faith, he also tells tales from other cultures. He plans to tell a story that was originally published in Yiddish called "The Wind Who Lost His Temper," as well as a Native American folktale that roughly translates into "His Mother Was A Wolverine." If time permits, he might add a humorous Jewish story about a beekeeper.
Young has focused on returning stories to the oral performance tradition that has been around as long as the Bible, he said. Some of these stories were abandoned by immigrants who jettisoned their culture and customs to reinvent themselves as American citizens, he added.
"I'm trying to recapture, reburnish and reinvigorate that lost treasure and present it to new ears," he said.
To accomplish that, he has sought out teachers in many disciplines, from tai chi to qigong to mime and beyond. They have helped polish his tone, gestures and timing to elevate his performances.
A storyteller's ability to appear to speak extemporaneously comes from "being so familiar with the story's elements that we don't have to think about how it all fits together," he said. "When I've got that down bone-deep, then I call tell the story conversationally."
'Connecting with others'
Macklin first encountered the art of storytelling when she met storyteller Tracy Leavitt in 1992, prompting Macklin to ask incredulously, "You can do this for a living?"
After graduating the next year with an English degree, the New York native worked in administration at a nonprofit for a while until her boss introduced her to his wife, who was none other than Leavitt.
"I believe in divine intervention, but that [coincidence] felt like a pipe dream," she said.
Leavitt had trouble convincing Macklin that she, too, could tell stories, but once she agreed to give it a try, "the story flew out of me like my breath, and I wanted to have that feeling again," she recalled.
Still, she decided to earn her master's degree in teaching and took a job at Sidwell Friends School in Washington. After five years, she realized storytelling was the missing component in her life and left teaching to pursue her art full-time.
Macklin, who describes her style as dramatic, asserts that "storytelling has to pick you."
"You have to be called into it. It's more than performing, it's connecting with others," she said. "When we're in the moment, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic factors — they all go away, and we are one village with a common story that connects us all."
'Based on true events'
Booth entered his first storytelling competition 11 years ago when he was 20, though he grew up hearing stories his whole life from his great-grandparents and other relatives in West Virginia, where he can trace his family back to the 1850s.
"I'm on the younger side of the spectrum in storytelling, usually by a couple of decades," he said. "And I don't tell a lot of true stories, but tell stories based on true events."
Booth said he draws upon his college degrees in music composition and musicology to craft his stories. He's working on a retelling of Cinderella set in the early days of country music.
"It can be a challenge to weave music into storytelling without taking the audience away from the story," he said. "And we are so reliant upon our connection to the audience."
Booth says family stories are disappearing because our society is inundated with technology.
"Imagination isn't used as much today, but we can make anything happen in our brains," he said. "When people tell me I took them to another world, that's as much as I can hope for."
'Most important story'
In other settings, Young often shares a 45-minute original story rooted in Jewish folklore that is more serious in nature.
In the story, upon discovering her body has been invaded by a golem — a mud or clay figure that comes to life after a mystic breathes into its mouth — a young woman works obsessively to expel the invader through starvation, excessive workouts and cutting herself.
"A golem acts as a mindless servant, much like the Frankenstein monster, and it needs to be destroyed, though that's easier said than done," he said.
Howard County Times: Top stories
As the story progresses, it becomes clearer to the audience that the golem is a metaphor. He said the cautionary tale is based on his then-teenage daughter's battle with bulimia, an eating disorder centered on bingeing and purging.
"This is a story I've been working on for several years, and it may be the most important story I tell or ever have to tell," said Young, who has two sons with his wife, Judy. He has told it at Towson University in a women's studies class.
He incorporates elements of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" into the telling, which keeps evolving as his own understanding of the health problem's destructive impact deepens.
Young calls the tale "an example of what the art can convey at its highest." But that's not to discount the equally valuable contributions of humor and joy.
"As a storyteller, I've got to trust that a well-crafted story will exert its own pull if I don't get in its way."
If you go
"Tales of Nature: An Afternoon of Professional Storytelling" will be held from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19, at the Howard County Conservancy, 10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock. Admission is $5 per person or $15 per family. Preregistration is required and can be done on the website, hcconservancy.org, or by calling 410-465-8877.