April 21, 2005
Tell Me a Story
Preserve family tales for future generations.
When I was growing up, my family's Passover gatherings were a joyful blend of holiday traditions, over-eating, stand-up comedy and most important of all -- storytelling by our "tribal elders."
For example, I was always moved by one of my Grandma Lena's stories from the Great Depression.
"So many people were hungry," she said. "Occasionally, I would come home from work and find a strange, unshaven man dressed in rags, sitting at our kitchen table. Your great-grandmother Leba would be serving him an entire meal -- from soup to dessert. It scared me that she let strangers into the house when she was alone; she was a tiny, frail woman. But when I asked her how she could this, she simply said, 'How could I not do this? He was hungry.'"
I never knew Leba Klein, but when my grandmother shared such memories, I learned something real about my ancestors.
I only wish we had recorded those stories.
Passover is a time for families to gather, to enjoy each other's company and to recall the story of our shared ancient history.
It is also the perfect time to preserve your family's greatest treasure: the memories and stories of your own family elders.
That's why this Passover (or Mother's or Father's Day), you should create a family project to interview your oldest relatives.
Recording these stories means that they will be available for future generations. Plus, you can avoid regret. I'm constantly hearing people say things like, "We kept meaning to interview my grandparents, but we just didn't have time. Now it's too late."
Also, every person should have a chance to tell his or her life story. One shouldn't have to have survived horrible experiences, or accomplished the extraordinary, or be a celebrity to have this opportunity.
When we take the time to ask a parent or grandparent to tell us about their past experiences, and truly listen to them, we are acknowledging them for who they are, and for the life they have lived. They deserve this.
And finally, involving children in this interview process creates a meaningful connection between them and their family elders, something that doesn't often happen these days. They will learn about their roots from a real person.
Not sure where to start? Here are some tips:
1. Get an audio cassette recorder or video camera and tripod. Bring a lot of tapes and back-up batteries. Get an external microphone, so that the recording will be clear. (Get advice from Radio Shack or Fry's for a microphone that will fit your specific machine and will capture the sound most effectively. Pay extra for a good one.) Be sure to test your equipment before you conduct the interview. Try out different locations for the placement of the microphone to capture all important voices.
2. Plan a family gathering, where the entire family can commit to a few hours together. That in itself is a challenge, I know. But it's worth it.
3. Determine the best interview subjects. Usually, this would be the eldest relatives who can not only talk about their own lives and experiences, but who also know the details and stories about your ancestors. You also want to choose people whose memories are intact. (My mother's dementia would sadly rule her out now as an appropriate interview subject.)
In many families there are Talkers and Listeners. Some of the Talkers are great storytellers; some of them are just dominating. Listeners rarely speak up family gatherings.
With Talkers, your job is to manage the conversation, so that the interview moves along. Having a list of interview questions will help.
With Listeners, your job is to make sure they know that you truly want to hear about their life and experiences. Make sure they have their moment in the spotlight by asking them a specific question, and kindly telling anyone who interrupts to please wait their turn.
4. Before your gathering, have everyone in the family write down a list of questions to ask. There isn't room here to give you an entire list of such questions, but you want to cover every generation that these interview subjects can speak about -- their ancestors, grandparents, parents and the subject him or herself.
Your questions should trigger memories and details about different aspects of a person's life: For example: names of important people, their personalities, the home, the city or town, daily activities, work, education, their experiences of being Jewish, how the family interacted, what they did for fun, what were their challenges and the events and times.
Ask all of the children in the family to make up questions, too. Depending on their ages, children often want to know grandparents' favorite toys, what school was like or how their grandparents met.
5. Someone may have to play "director" and make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk and that people aren't talking all at once (the result on your tape will be gobbledygook.)
6. Remember, this is something that deserves your family's time and energy. The payoff is a precious experience and a record of your heritage. Have fun!
Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and owner of Living Legacies Family Histories. She can be reached at email@example.com.