On Sunday afternoon, April 3, Congregation Etz Chaim hosted a special speaker, Rachel Sharansky Danziger, daughter of Anatole and Avital Sharansky, famous Russian refuseniks and human rights activists. This was the second of a three-part virtual lecture series. Rachel Sharansky spoke about the role of storytelling in redemption.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg of Congregation Etz Chaim welcomed everyone. He pointed out that the topic of Pesach is inexhaustible, and you always find new ideas. “There is so much yet to learn about Pesach.” This lecture was given in memory of Sima Shapiro, a”h.
Rachel Sharansky then briefly described her parents’ experience. Her father spent nine years in the Russian gulag. Her parents married, and the next day her father was sent to prison, and they were separated for 12 years. Her mother traveled around the world, speaking with world leaders and getting support from am Yisrael. She was on a mission to free her husband and Russian prisoners and to pressure the Soviet Union to let the Jewish people out of Russia. Year after year, rally after rally, letter after letter, she and the Jewish people persevered. It took decades until her father was liberated. She noted, “I grew up knowing that struggle led to my birth. My parents were always telling us the stories.” People all around the world shared their stories with her about her parents’ struggle. In her family, every year, they have a special event. They celebrate her father’s liberation day. They set the table with the best china and wear their Shabbos clothes. He wears a special kipah that a fellow inmate made for him from the inside of a boot. He wears that kipah on his liberation day and on Seder night.
She shared that she and her sister would ask their parents questions each year based on their own maturity level. “Our parents’ stories became part of our own internal landscape.” Rachel noted that when she became frustrated or felt hopeless, she would remind herself of the times her mother felt hopeless and her mother had to work her way out of it. “I feel like their memories are my memories.” Her family took a trip to Moscow to see the place her parents met and where her father was arrested. “I felt I’d been there before. It’s all part of who I am.”
It is a precious gift for her to teach her children about their grandparents’ story. When she first told her children their story, she used all her dramatic storytelling skills to make sure they felt the drama and excitement of the story. Her kids were very excited and asked to hear it again and then they asked to hear a fairytale. She realized she was missing something if they were putting the story on the shelf with fairy tale stories; then it wasn’t impacting them personally.
She is a professional storyteller, so she knows that in storytelling you are transported to a different world. A good story takes you in so fully you forget the world around you. She decided to look at the Haggadah to see how the authors of the Haggadah shared a story that would impact us for generations. She asked herself what they do that could apply to telling her own family her parents’ story.
Rachel Sharansky then showed specific ideas that the text in the Haggadah uses that help create that personal impact for us. In the beginning of the Haggadah, we start by saying that this is the “bread of affliction” our ancestors ate in Egypt. Then we make a declaration that whoever is hungry should come partake of the Pesach sacrifice. Then, all of a sudden, we start talking about the Seder in the first person. This year we are slaves, next year we will be free people. Next, we start asking questions. It seems like we are getting to the story. We recite that we were slaves to Pharaoh and Hashem took us out. Instead of continuing the story, we have a story of people who stayed up all night telling the story of the Exodus. Then we talk about what the sages said we should do. Following this, we have the section of the Four Sons. When we finally get to the story we first speak about Avraham, and then about Lavan. Here, there are verses from the Torah.
She explained that the Haggadah gives us an introduction and then it switches from third person to first. Then we have questions, and we say how important it is to tell the story and we read about how others told it. She asked, “Where are we supposed to lose ourselves in the story? Who are the characters?” Moshe isn’t mentioned. We are given a disjointed journey with quotes from different places. She taught that this engages us more as interpreters. “Perhaps that is the point! Not to transport the audience but to engage them.” She pointed out that the problem with a story that transports you is that it remains outside of you. The Haggadah forces us to bring the story into our own lives.
She then elaborated on three storytelling strategies that the Haggadah uses to help us to bring the story into our own lives. First, it forces us to change positions regarding what we are doing as readers. She explained that the act of reading is an active experience. Meaning happens in the interaction between the reader and the text. The author and reader share the game of imagination according to Wolfgang Iser, a literary scholar. Storytelling awakens the reader’s involvement. The reader’s enjoyment begins when he becomes productive. The Haggadah jumps from genre to genre and forces us to engage different faculties. When we say this is the “bread of affliction,” we are speakers engaging our leadership faculty. Then we move to saying anyone hungry should come and eat and we move to being a host.
Then, we say that now we are here, but next year we will be in Israel. This part says we are people in the throes of the experience of slavery. For this part, we need to engage our imagination. The text moves to first person. Saying that we are slaves invites our participation. Then we become scholars of the Mishnah and talk about things they did. We have to try to understand what the Sages are saying. We have to put on a hat as a detective. How does this passage relate to the part before?
The text employs imagination, speaking, storytelling, memory, and more. The next strategy is question and answer. The Seder is rooted in the idea that we tell the story in response to a question. There is engagement in a familial context. The Haggadah invites us to talk about the story in the context of us as a family entrusted to nurture the next generation.
She pointed out that one message of the Four Sons is that we aren’t supposed to tell the story the same way to each child.
The next strategy is gaps. Iser Wolfgang taught that process creates meaning only if there are gaps in the text. Gaps invite our imagination. They are also places that our expectations are frustrated. We have to compare expectation with what actually happened. We look forward; we look back – we decide. The Haggadah jumps. Every turn that jars us is another opportunity for us to consider bringing parts of ourselves to the story. “Every gap invites us to bring our own life experience to the story.” She taught that the Haggadah puts us in an active position.
She shared that when her parents told their story, she didn’t receive a polished narrative. They invited their children to ask questions that brought them to the table. Then her parents provided answers from their experiences. “We used this to produce our own narrative of ourselves.” Rachel Sharansky concluded, “If I want to pass the tradition of my parents on, then I have to let the story go and give my children bits and pieces and trust them to build their own story arc.” The goal, she explained is “to make my story transformative – to help them bring the stories into their lives.”
She concluded, “The Haggadah could have turned us into a captive audience. Instead, it is making us authors of our own national history.”
A lively Q&A followed the speech.
It was extremely meaningful to this writer personally to hear the daughter of Avital Sharansky speaking. I remember going to the Isaiah Wall when I was a student at Stern College to visit Avital Sharansky who was on a hunger fast to free her husband. Chasdei Hashem, to know and to see the y’shuah of Hashem. Thank you to Congregation Etz Chaim and Rabbi Rosenberg for this wonderful program. Rachel Sharansky Danziger will be sharing the third speech in this series on Tuesday, May 3, at 2 p.m. The theme is Reviving the Promised Land, Finding Freedom in the Dirt.
By Susie Garber