The power of storytelling

/ 12:08 AM October 30, 2016

I live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in New York, so that when a good friend, who is from Tel Aviv, was to visit, I asked her to bring me an ornament that adorned, it seemed, every apartment door in my building. My friend later told me it was called a mezuzah, which recalls the Exodus, when lamb’s blood smeared on the doorpost marked the homes that God’s angel of death would pass over during the plague of the firstborn.

When I first read that story as a child, I remember thinking how special these people were, that God would wreak havoc in their favor. Ironically, most of my neighbors, all descended from those slaves, dismissed outright this notion of a chosen people.


October marked the Jewish high holy days. During Yom Kippur services, my first ever, I felt embraced by a community whose forefathers my religion of birth accuses of murdering the son of God, an accusation that to this day is used by some groups to justify their bigotry.

The church I grew up in, the Jewish religion, and probably every other faith tradition in the world, have stories of light and of darkness at their center.


One story is by a Jewish mystic who gave it as a birthday present to his 4-year-old grandchild, the narrator: “In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident.  And the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand, thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day. Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again.”

Krista Tippett, to whom that story was told, said that when she told it to her then 7-year-old son, he listened raptly and said, “I like that.” I was fortunate to have a father who instilled in me a love of stories, even, or perhaps especially, fantastical ones. Lazy Sunday afternoons growing up were spent lying on the floor marveling at legends from Greek and Roman mythology compiled in “The Young Children’s Encyclopedia,” the latest exploit of Frank and Joe Hardy, or The Fantastic Four and the X-Men.

Stories touch and connect with our humanity in a profound way. “Self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling,” said Robert McKee. “The more you understand your own humanity, the more you can appreciate the humanity of others.”

Joel Villaseca ([email protected]) is a lawyer living in New York City. 

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TAGS: Humanity, Jews, mezuzah, Stories, storytelling
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