Storytellers carry on teaching tradition

When Gail Rosen began storytelling a year and a half ago, she researched many sources for stories: American Indian, African, European.

"I didn't start out looking for Jewish stories, but they were the ones that really struck a chord for me," she said. "Using story to teach is very deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Yet I never knew of it. I grew up in Baltimore, had a Jewish education, was bat-mitzvahed, but I never knew about the wonderful stories. . . . I became entranced."


And now she entrances others.

Gail Rosen and Harriet Rosen (no relation) are professional storytellers who will be performing at the Jewish Book Fair tomorrow at the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills.


Harriet Rosen will tell stories for children ages 3 to 5, from 2 to 2:30 p.m. and 3 to 3:30 p.m. Gail Rosen will perform for older children, from 1:30 to 2 p.m. and 2:30 to 3 p.m.

In the last few years, storytelling has enjoyed a renaissance, so it's only natural that Jewish storytelling has surged in popularity. Stories and the Jewish tradition go way, way back. There's the Bible, for starters, as well as rabbinical sources such as the Midrash and the Talmud.

And the greatest Jewish storyteller of all was said to be Baal Shem Tov, whose teachings led to the founding of Hasidism. Born in Poland in the late 1690s, he taught that God should be worshiped through all activities, with a joyous heart, and he encouraged religious expression through dance and music.

Baal Shem Tov's stories are among those collected in expansive folklore archives in Israel. There are many different versions of the same stories told in different languages, with embellishments added by each teller.

"Most Jewish stories were folk tales; they were not meant to entertain children, they were meant to convey messages," said Gail Rosen. But those messages can be humorous. One of the stories she plans to tell at the JCC is "Meshka the Kvetch," by Carol Chapman.

Meshka is always complaining, about her children, her health, her home. One morning she wakes up, and her tongue has an itch. And suddenly, everything she says comes true. She complains that her lazy son is as useless as a wart on a pickle, and when she goes into his room, there's a pickle in his bed instead of him.

And so it goes -- she says her house is as small as a box, and the walls shrink in around her -- until she seeks out the rabbi and begs for a cure. He says there is no cure for the kvetch's itch, but that maybe it would help if she started praising all the things in her life.

Sure enough, when she points out all the positives about her family, her health and her home, everything returns to normal.


"When I tell that story at senior centers, the women elbow each other and you can almost hear them saying, 'She's talking about me,' " Gail Rosen said.

Gail Rosen tells stories to mixed groups. "Kids, grandparents and everyone in between," she said. "A lot of times when I'm telling for kids, adults who overhear will start pulling other adults into the room."

Harriet Rosen prefers to perform for younger children. "When they're listening and you can see their faces, they really give you energy," she said.

"I have found lots of Jewish stories, but they're not always written on a level for the little ones," Harriet Rosen said. "I try to adapt Jewish stories for a younger audience, using audience participation, because you can't expect 3- to 5-year-olds to sit still for long stories."

In a story she tells about King Solomon and the bee, for example, the kids provide the "buzz" sound effects. She also uses puppets and sings songs between the stories.

Harriet Rosen came to storytelling about four years ago, when she was living in Atlanta. Originally an actress and director -- she worked in productions from Pennsylvania to Florida, as well as in children's theater -- she has been teaching drama to children for 20 years. So storytelling was a natural for her.


"Every teacher is a storyteller," said Harriet Rosen, who now teaches fifth-grade general studies, plus drama, at Beth Tfiloh School. She became a professional storyteller this past year -- her company is known as Windows of Imagination -- and she also holds workshops for teachers who want to energize their teaching through use of storytelling and other dramatic techniques.

Gail Rosen began storytelling 18 months ago after taking a non-credit course on the subject, taught by Meliss Bunce at Towson State University. Gail Rosen now tells stories professionally when she's not busy withher retail business, Warm Rainbows, which sells personalized gifts for children.

She insists almost anyone can be a storyteller. "We all can tell stories when we're sitting with a friend over a cup of coffee, talking about the fight we had with our husband the night before," she said. "Then it's a matter of gaining the confidence to get up in front of people and perform.

"You can learn that," she said.

Jan Brett, whose award-winning picture books include "The Wild Christmas Reindeer," "Berlioz the Bear," "Annie and the Wild Animals" and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," will be in Washington Tuesday to autograph copies of her newest book, "Trouble With Trolls." She'll be at the Cheshire Cat Bookstore on Connecticut Avenue from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and at the Book Nook in Alexandria, Va., from 4 to 6 p.m.



The Jewish Book Fair runs Nov. 8-12 at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center and Nov. 15-22 at the Park Heights JCC. Tomorrow at the Owings Mills JCC, Sylvia Rouss, author of "Fun with Jewish Holiday Rhymes," will offer sessions about the holidays for children ages 3-6. And Lois Balser will teach kids how to create their own books. Both programs will run 1 to 4 p.m. At 3 p.m., author Shirley Brown will present a talk on "Tricks up authors' sleeves" for ages 7 to 9. Ms. Rouss and Ms. Brown will offer their programs again next Saturday at the Park Heights JCC.