John Melmed has been part of a Toastmasters group for 20 years. Tikvat Israel in Rockville lets his group meet there, so for the last seven years, he’s put together a storytelling event called True Stories.
He said he chooses storytellers if they can tell a story well, if they have a good story to tell and if he’s heard them before.
“I hardly remember a story,” said Melmed, who has performed at Story District and other venues. “When you remember a story, it tells me that it’s a quality story.”
On Nov. 10, Melmed, his fellow storytellers and their audience gathered at Tikvat Israel for True Stories. The stories were full of drama, tension and humor — including Melmed’s.
His story, called “Kaddish,” was about a time he drove all around town looking for a synagogue just to say Kaddish for his mother’s yahrzeit, a ritual he had kept every year. During his story, Melmed noted how all Jewish occasions include food.
“At a ritual circumcision of an 8-day-old Jewish boy, food is eaten. Why?! Of all the Jewish rituals, the circumcision is the one least likely to stimulate your appetite,” Melmed said to an audience roaring with laughter. “The moment the mohel puts his pruning shears down, he says, ‘Let’s eat!’”
A rabbi ended up directing him to a stranger’s home, where the family was sitting shivah and saying Kaddish.
Melmed described the spiritual experience of being welcomed by strangers — then becoming somewhat of a celebrity because he made a thankful speech at the end of the evening.
Professional storyteller and author Noa Baum told a story called “My Shidduch,” about how after she moved back to Israel from New York, her mother and grandmother started pressuring her to get married. She went on a blind date with an American — “an AMERICAN!” — and kept refusing to tell her best friend his name.
She explained to her friend, “I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to do that thing where you put our names together.”
But after several dates, she finally told her friend his name. And her friend put the two together. She said, “Noa … Baum. That’s not so bad!”
Adam Rubin, a molecular biologist who has twice won The Moth story slam, told “Electile Dysfunction.” In his fourth-grade class elections, he ran for messenger. But he wasn’t a popular kid. His only claim to fame was the fruit snacks packed in his lunch every day.
So on their election day, a kid in his class came up to him and said, “If you give me one of your fruit snacks, I’ll vote for you.” This went on until Rubin’s pack of fruit snacks was empty. When it came time to vote, he only received four raised hands.
“FOUR!” Rubin exclaimed.
Storytellers talked of being overprotective parents, being the children of immigrants, being at low points in life and even about raccoons.
Before the event, Baum taught a storytelling workshop. She taught people how to craft their stories and “how to find the wisdom in it,” Melmed said.
“You had an amazing group of storytellers here tonight, and they were each extremely good in knowing their craft and crafting their story,” Baum said after the event. “But if you’ve ever had to witness storytellers that get up on stage and don’t do that … then it’s really about ‘me’ and it’s not about ‘us.’”
It takes time and practice to craft a story, Baum said, and making a connection with the audience depends on what a person does with his or her story.
“You have to take your experience and you have to give it some sort of shape. And you have to discover what does that mean to you,” Baum said. “And when you know what it means to you, and when it has the shape that you create, then it becomes meaningful for the audience.”