On Becoming a Maggid

(Special Gift- A story gift is found at the end of this Bio.)

I discovered the magic of storytelling over 20 years ago, as a beginning teacher.  When I began to tell a story, I noticed calmness and deep concentration sweep over groups of fidgeters.  My first story was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, and I was amazed as warmth, intimacy, trust and delight were generated within the listeners for the world inside the story.

Since that time I have brought stories to life from throughout Jewish tradition:  Biblical tales, Rabbinic tales, mystical tales, medieval folk, fairy, and animal tales, Hasidic wonder tales, Yiddish tales, immigration tales, and modern tales of destruction and hope.  I have watched stories leap directly into the hearts of toddling four year olds, rowdy sixth graders, the coolest of teens, and serious adults, and expand their imagination and love of Jewish life.  I have witnessed the power of story to allow individuals to encounter Jewish heroes and myths on their own terms and deepen their connection with Jewish tradition.

My relationship with Jewish stories deepened during the mid 1990’s when I participated in a Jewish community that was adding songs, chants, and meditations to worship.  We were openly forging “Neo-Hasidic” paths in the landscape of Judaism.  I began to learn about Hasidism the same way the Jews in Eastern Europe during the mid 1700’s learned of Hasidism- from listening to teachers with passion, and of course, through stories.

First, I found the stories by Elie Wiesel and Martin Buber.  Then, I found visionary essays by Martin Buber and Rabbi Art Green describing how Hasidic ideas could be used to bring in a new era of Jewish life.   I discovered within Hasidic story a fierce everyday spirit that is filled with great friendship and care for all life; with joy and dance; with song and silence; and rooted with the belief in direct connection and partnership with the Source of All.  It is this numinous power of story that still quickens my heart.

In addition, as I began to learn the history of Hasidism, I realized that these stories were rooted in past Jewish experiences: Jewish mysticism from Safed of the1500’s and 1200’s Spain; a millennium of ancient Midrash, the Talmud from the first centuries of the Common Era; and of course the Torah herself.   I realized that to bring these stories to life to the best of my ability, I also needed to become a serious student of the history of Jewish life and practice.  I have enjoyed courses in Hasidism and Jewish mysticism at Hebrew college’s Hasidic Text Institute, UMass Amherst, and Mt. Holyoke College.

Interestingly, working as a professional storyteller, I found I was mostly perceived as an entertainer, and mostly invited to share at holiday parties for kids and their families.  While I love this playful side of story, I wanted more.  I wanted to find ways to connect the power of stories with listener’s emotional and spiritual lives.

Based on this, I began sharing stories that moved me for my synagogue community at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer services. I took the further step to go to my synagogue board, with the blessing of our Rabbi, to ask permission to renew the role of Maggid (Mah-geed; storyteller) for our synagogue.  I shared a brief history of the Maggidim and their historic role weaving story-filled sermons.  I reassured them that I would not be offering traditional Maggid fare, “finger- wagging” admonitions filled with an incitement to behave.  Instead, I am interested in renewing the role of Maggid for our generation and offering stories as gifts, to be perceived and revealed in ways unique to each persons own heart.

They heartily agreed, and ever since 2003 I’ve been reclaiming the role of Maggid and sharing stories throughout the year- including Holocaust Memorial Day, Sukkot- the festival of booths, Shavuot learning sessions, as well as monthly family services, community programs, and interfaith events.  I have since produced a CD of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur stories titled, The Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe.

I have also created a full length storytelling performance based upon the life of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Rabbi Shapiro wrote with depth and unflinching honesty of his spiritual struggles and slowly developed a creative theology of weeping.   Though Rabbi Shapiro did not survive the war, he buried his writings in a milk jug which was found in 1954.  His cover letter requested that these “Teachings from the Time of Wrath” reach a wider audience.

This performance shares a series of imagined letters, using mostly Rabbi Shapiro’s own words, addressed to the Master of the World.  The letters provide a portrait of his life, the pain he endured, and share how he remained a compassionate leader even then, even there.  This story earned the Charles Hildebrandt award given for exceptional, holocaust themed, artistic works.  This story has been shared at holocaust memorials locally, nationally, and internationally at Poland’s International Storytelling Festival.  Amazingly, this festival was located south of Warsaw, just two kilometers from Piasecne, where Rabbi Shapiro was the community Rabbi.

My teaching style, like my storytelling, has grown from my roots in experiential education.  First, I traveled to Jerusalem where I lived and learned in a traditional Yeshiva (orthodox school) for a year after graduating from Michigan State University.  Our curriculum delved into ancient Jewish texts to learn Jewish history, philosophy, ethics, and practice.  I experienced daily prayer and ritual and I discovered that they can be reminders for spirit, intention, and our connection with the natural world.  Intense study without testing was so freeing.  It showed me the excitement of learning through questions, and the pleasure and depth of studying with a partner.

After Jerusalem, I entered Lesley College’s graduate program, the Audubon Expedition Institute, a two year master’s degree in Environmental Education.  This learning expedition traveled throughout North America learning from environmental activists, Native Americans, farmers, loggers, landscapes, and each other along the way.  We created our curriculum based upon our direct experience with regional environmental issues.  This program, rooted in the values of experiential education, lived and taught all of us budding teachers, what John Dewey stated so many years ago: that reflection of experience is at the heart of transformative education.

I brought these principles with me as I taught high school at an innovative high school that operated like a community college.   Here, along with teaching a variety of classes, I facilitated a wide range of students to create projects that connected with their educational requirements.  I developed environments that allowed students to listen to each other, listen to their own inner voices, take appropriate risks, and achieve their goals.  I learned that every class is a unique, individualized learning environment, dependent upon the students present and materials and architecture in use.

The foundation of all of this is that I believe my role as a teacher and workshop leader is to set up positive learning experiences and direct students in exploring, thinking, asking questions, listening to each other, sharing their unique viewpoint, and finally, building meaning into their everyday life.  I look forward to bringing all of my energy and enthusiasms with me to your community.

To contact Maggid David, please click here.

PS  Thank you for reading my biography.  Here is a gift of story! One from Eastern Europe and the other from Africa.  May I learn to set aflame hearts like these storytellers of old.

The Kotzker told: “Where I lived there was an old man who shared wonderful stories of Jewish passion.  He told what he knew, and I heard what I needed.”  (From Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim)

The older storytellers share:

Once a young anthropologist witnessed a remote African village receive their very first television.  They set it up in the market place and everyone came around and watched.  All work stopped for three days as they watched and watched all the shows on all the channels.  And then, after three days, they turned the TV off.

“But why” asked the young anthropologist?

“Because we have a storyteller” answered a villager.

“Surely the TV knows many more stories than your storyteller”,

“Yes, but the storyteller knows me”

(source unknown)

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