The Necessity of Telling Stories
Stephen Gynberg is a member of the Wexner Heritage Program Los Angeles 09 group. Stephen is a filmmaker and writer. His latest film is the award winning feature documentary, A Life Ascending. He can be reached at email@example.com.
My parents flew to Los Angeles this past Yom Kippur to be with my family. My mother brought her mandel braut as usual and my father brought his Torah. That was a first.
My father is a holocaust survivor. At the age of eight, he spent almost two years hiding in a barn with his parents. One day the peasant family that was harboring them brought a meal that my grandmother, a doctor, suspected of being poisoned. She warned the family if they tried it again she would turn them all in to the Nazis. This was the one story my father told me about the war, and with it came the lesson: you can’t trust anyone.
So it was a surprise, twelve years ago, after decades of mostly silence, that my father agreed to travel back to his hometown. Our whole family flew to Brest–Litovsk and found his childhood home, his grandparent’s house, his mother’s pharmacy and the shul where he prayed with his father.
And then we set out into the countryside to find the barn. When we pulled our van up to the frozen-in-time village of Pshtenayi, my father approached an elderly woman, telling her in Russian that he was there once as a child. The woman grew wide-eyed and asked, “Are you the Jewish boy?” Not only did she remember him but she told us how she had brought food to him and his parents while they were hiding. She showed us an abandoned school where my father first hid under the foundation. And then she took us to where the barn once stood.
By this time, others had come to see what was happening. One by one, the town elders approached my father and through tears of joy and sorrow, they shared their memories of him and those trying times. As we drove away my father turned to me and said, “You know, everyone in the town knew we were hiding and none of them said a word.” And like that, a new mythology was born in my family, one of gratitude and not distrust.
The following day we toured Krakow. In an antique shop we found a badly damaged Torah scroll dating back to the 1800’s that had recently been discovered between the attic and roof of a house in Lodz. My father was immediately drawn to it like a kindred spirit. He bought it and brought it home to Denver. There, his rabbi examined it and told him it was unusable, that he could either bury the Torah or spend a lot of money restoring it.
For my father there was no choice. The Torah, like him, would survive. He hired a scribe in Brooklyn and for almost a year the Torah was slowly and methodically brought back to life.
When my father called me to tell me he wanted to bring the Torah to LA for my synagogue to use for the year, I knew it was a tremendous opportunity. So on Yom Kippur morning, in front of the entire congregation, I told the family story of my father and the Torah. I then brought my father up on the Bimah and we uncovered the Torah which had been sitting hidden under a tallis. With the rabbi, we dressed the Torah in holiday whites. Then, after the Shema, we carried the Torah through the congregation as a family.
Our stories are our stories: the placeholders of our memories; the definers of our experience. But they become more than that when we let them out into the world away from the silence.
I knew in this story that there was a parable about “investing” in Judaism and not letting it die that felt important to share, especially given the financial struggles of my synagogue. But what I didn’t expect was how this story would reach so far beyond my sense of it, how it would touch others the way it did and how it would become a galvanizing symbol for the entire community.
People have since shared with me intimate tales of their parents and grandparents, about their own changing mythologies, about the meaning of their Jewish identity.
And now, this small Torah, which lived in the dark and damp of fear and silence for 70 years is surrounded by the joy, gratitude and song of this vibrant congregation.
As we finished the last lines of one Torah at Simchah Torah, I stood and watched as my family’s Torah was opened and the opening words from Bereshit were read from its pages. And now today it is the Torah we read from each week at Ohr Hatorah in Los Angeles, revealing its stories, spreading its light and allowing its listeners to find themselves in its words.