August 24, 2012

Life lessons taught through stories

By ROBIN CAUDELL, Press-Republican

---- — NEWCOMB — Tzipporah Marks-Barnett cannot account for it, but the notion presented itself that she become a maggida, an ordained Jewish storyteller.

Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum of Brooklyn was recommended to teach her the art.

“It was weekly classes over the phone,” said Marks-Barnett, who recently presented “Jewish Music and Stories through the Ages” with Rabbi Cantor Moshe Halfon and Herbert Chatzky at the Newcomb Methodist Church. “Once a semester, we go to his place in Brooklyn and have an intensive workshop.”

For two years, she studied ancient and modern texts, story collections, and Torah and Talmud interpretation. Buxbaum descends from the storytelling lineages of Rabbi Sholomo Carlebach and Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Marks-Barnett, a former trial attorney, was ordained in 2009. She lives in Santa Monica, Calif., where she is a labor arbitrator and hearing officer.


“Jewish storytellers are little bit unique,” she said. “They carry a teaching with them. They are not just for entertainment or to instruct on what life was like in a certain culture. There is a lesson there. It’s usually a spiritual/ethical lesson. In fact, I would say always.”

She tells her stories in English to reach many. Some are non-Jewish but are still embedded with teachings. Much of Jewish storytelling tradition hails from Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name, a 17th-century Jewish mystical rabbi in modern Ukraine.

“He was a brilliant rabbi, very well-trained and such a great scholar. He also had a great love for the common person. He began to notice the common Jews were being treated badly. They couldn’t read or write. They were very poor. He wanted to change this. What he did was, he would travel from town to town, village to village and never identify himself as a rabbi,” Marks-Barnett said.

Baal Shem Tov assumed humble positions, such as street sweeper.

“He would teach them by telling them stories, so they could learn about the ethical commands that are in the Torah and Talmud without them having to read it. It was lost to them. He was like an itinerant storyteller in Eastern Europe,” she said.


Marks-Barnett’s favorite story is the first she ever told while training to become a maggida.

“It’s about a young woman, a long time ago, who was raised by her father. Unfortunately, her mother dies when she was very young. Her father became responsible for all of her upbringing and education. Quite unusual for the times, he wanted her to be educated in all the religious ways as well. He, himself, taught her about the Torah and the Talmud. He taught her Hebrew and to write it. He also taught her by example. One of the things he taught her was the notion of the wheel of life,” she said.

The young woman had a hard time grasping that concept.

“She grew up. She was beautiful. Her reputation spread far and wide. Here was the ... beautiful, intelligent, young woman. Suitors came from all over the land to woo her. Finally, she settled on one man who was quite handsome and very rich. Little did she know that he was a miser. So, they got married. Within a few days, there was a knock on the door,” Marks-Barnett said.

The young woman opened the door. Immediately, she discerned he was a beggar.

“His clothes were in tatters. His face was dirty. He looked very tired. She did what her father had instructed her to do. She invited the beggar in and had him sit down at the dining room table,” she said.

She brought out the best china, finest silver and best food in the house.

“Not the leftovers,” she said. “She invited the beggar to satisfy his thirst and hunger. If he needed to rest, he could do that before he went on his way. Just as the beggar had the fork raised to his mouth to commence eating, in walked her husband, and he began to yell: ‘Who is this filthy being at my table with my china and my silver and eating my best food?’ He picked up the beggar by the scruff of his neck and threw him out the door.”

The young woman knew she had made a terrible mistake in her choice of husband.

“So she left this man and returned to the home of her father. Word quickly spread again that she was available, and the suitors started to come. But she didn’t want to make the same mistake again. She told each suitor how she would treat beggars who come to the house,” Marks-Barnett said.

The suitors fled in dismay, fearful she would throw all their money away.

“A day came, she told one more suitor, and he said, ‘Oh, how I love a woman with a generous heart.’ She knew that he was the one. So, they married,” she said. “And a few days after their marriage, there was a knock on the door. She opened the door. The sun was in her eyes. She couldn’t see the beggar’s face. She knew it was a beggar by the condition of his feet. The sun ducked behind the cloud. She could see his face. She fainted dead away.”

When she came to, the young woman was in the arms of her new husband.

“She said to him, ‘Oh, my darling, do you know who that was begging at the door? That was my first husband.’ Her new husband said, ‘You know who I am? I’m the beggar that your first husband threw out the door.’”

The young woman knew, at last, what the wheel of life meant.

“And, she knew that God was very much present in it,” Marks-Barnett said.

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