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The Power of Stories

Today's blogpost was written by Mo Branchfeld, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Lod.

Stories are the glue that connects us and makes us human, different from other animals. That is the theory of Israeli historian Yuval Harari, who you might know from his books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus. While I don’t have Harari’s background in history, I agree with his belief on the importance of stories.

Stories have always been an important part of my life. My mother is a storyteller by profession, and I used to travel with my parents all over North America when they did artist in residence weekends at synagogues. One type of stories my mother tells are “how and why stories,” that is, “why things are the way they are, and how they got to be that way.” These are stories like the dog who didn’t quite fit inside Noah’s ark, leaving his nose sticking out through the door to become the cold wet dog nose we know today. Or the turtle whose own greed led him to be dropped to the ground, cracking his shell, leaving the rough patterns we can still see.

My mother referred to these stories specifically as “how and why stories,” but to an extent all stories are how and why stories. They are what help us make sense of the world around us, grapple with challenging issues, better understand ourselves and each other. The stories we tell about ourselves shape the people we are and the people we wish to become. The stories we tell about others effects how we relate to them. In a world full of gray, stories give us black and white. In a world full of black and white, stories give us shades in between. That’s the magical thing about stories - they have the capacity to give clarity or ambiguity.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard Noa Baum tell her story, A Land Twice Promised. I recently read her book by the same title. The book, and the story she tells, follow her life as a Jewish Israeli, the life of her friend, a Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem, and both of their mothers. Reading it on busses and trains as I traveled on Yahel seminars and to visit family in Jerusalem, glancing out the window to take in the view of the very places she was writing about was very profound. Baum doesn’t pretend to be telling every narrative available, she is just giving window into a few different experiences of people who all grew up so close and yet so far from one another.

I am often asked what my takeaways from this year will be, and I think stories are a huge part of that. During this year, especially on the Yahel seminars, I got to meet so many people with diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences, and had the opportunity to hear their stories. I learned (or perhaps struggled to remember) the importance of listening to someone’s story to understand where they are coming from, even, or especially if, I didn’t agree with the views of the person telling their story.

In the United States, the issues of Israel and “The Conflict” are often thrown around in conversation as something black and white, but every issue here is complex. There are so many different identities. People are multifaceted far beyond Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian. There is no such thing as “The Arab perspective” or “What all of the religious Jews think” about a particular issue - there is so much diversity within all of the different groups. However, there are the diverse personal perspectives and stories, shared with me through lectures and seminars, people at placements, or around a dinner table. Despite pressure from all directions to pick a side, one of the most impactful parts of my time here has been hearing individual stories and connecting on a human level to people with completely different views or life experiences. It is my belief that that is how real change will be made.

“The same story can have different meanings when you hear it at different times in your life.”

- Noa Baum, A Land Twice Promised

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