StoryCorps booth at S.F. Jewish museum: intimate family moments

When Kentfield resident Vickie Feldstein sat down to interview her father about her family’s history a few years ago, she knew it was a conversation neither of them would ever forget.

Cindy Levitas and Jim Sinkinson

That’s because their exchange, which took place in a small, soundproof booth at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, was professionally recorded as part of San Francisco StoryCorps, then added to the project’s permanent archive.

StoryCorps is a 10-year-old national oral history project that allows people to collect, preserve and share their stories on a variety of topics. Until recently, the CJM was one of just a handful of StoryCorps recording locations across the country.

Feldstein and her father, Bernie, spoke around the time of his 75th birthday. “My motivation was to get my dad to talk about the people, my bubbe and zayde, who my kids are named after,” said Feldstein.

Feldstein said the Jewish tradition of naming children after departed family members is about keeping stories alive, so StoryCorps was a perfect fit.

“[My dad and I] both saw the opportunity to put on record some of the stories of the now deceased, and my dad was a conduit for their stories,” said Feldstein.

Bernie and Vickie Feldstein

Also important to her was having her father tell the stories in his own voice, something future generations will be able to listen to. StoryCorps is “an opportunity to honor the next generation, and hearing the voice and the accents is a part of it,” she said.

The Feldstein interview was one of 3,000 conversations recorded at the CJM’s StoryCorps booth before its February relocation to the San Francisco Public Library at 100 Larkin St. For five years, the museum hosted a diverse array of StoryCorps participants, and then offered them free museum admission for the day.

The protocol is similar at every StoryCorps location: Conversations are 40 minutes and take place in an 8-by-8-foot soundproof pod. Usually one person interviews the other. A trained facilitator is available to guide the interview and handles the technical aspects. One copy of the completed recording is filed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., one copy is given to the participants, and excerpts of selected pieces are aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

“There’s something very intimate about having a conversation with someone for 40 minutes and being fully focused on the person in front of you,” said Natalia Fidelholtz, StoryCorps’ San Francisco Bay Area manager. “Being in the booth, without other distractions, is like no other time.”

“The cube,” as Fidelholtz calls it, has been referred to as a “sacred space” by participants. It’s where Jim Sinkinson of Oakland recorded a conversation with his spouse, Cindy Levitas, five years ago, shortly after the San Francisco booth was set up at the CJM.

Bob Fink and Elizheva Hurvich

“[The booth] reduces inhibitions and feels very private and personal,” Sinkinson said in a phone interview. “It allows you to talk about the things that are deeply moving to you, and it certainly had that effect on us.”

Sinkinson and Levitas, who have been together for 34 years, used their time in the booth to talk about their Jewish journey. “We really wanted to talk about how we came to Judaism and created a Jewish life together,” he explained.

Levitas was raised in a Reform household in Cincinnati and Sinkinson was a “nominal Christian,” he said, until he had a revelation after a few High Holy Day services with Cindy and decided he was Jewish. He converted in 1982.

After going through the conversion process with Rabbi Ted Alexander of Conservative Congregation B’nai Emunah in San Francisco, Sinkinson had a nontraditional mikvah experience — the “California conversion,” he laughs — in his redwood hot tub.

StoryCorps was founded in 2003 by radio producer David Isay, who was inspired by Studs Terkel, the late broadcaster, author and historian who is credited with transforming oral history into a popular literary form.

Nationally, more than 80,000 people have recorded 50,000 conversations at booths and on-site mobile stations. StoryCorps launched the National Day of Listening in 2008, encouraging people to interview a loved one the day after Thanksgiving, and has added special outreach programs to capture stories representing specific populations — for instance, StoryCorps OutLoud, which aims to preserve stories from the LGBTQ community, and the Historias Initiative, which collects living histories from the country’s Latino communities.

The 8-by-8-foot booth where StoryCorps interviews take place photo/courtesy storycorps

When Elizheva Hurvich and Bob Fink signed up for StoryCorps in 2013, they wanted to document their adopted son’s first year. The Oakland couple talked about the anticipation of their now 21-month-old’s birth, meeting his birth mother, and the conflict Hurvich and Fink had over whether to circumcise.

“We didn’t want anyone to question if he was part of the tribe,” Hurvich explained.  “We interviewed a lot of mohels and ended up flying one in from L.A.”

But what the couple and many others say they did not expect from the experience was their emotional response once in the pod. “We definitely cried,” Hurvich recalled. “The truth is, you’re in this small room where you talk to each other. We didn’t go there to talk about the weather.”

Feldstein also found the experience deeply moving and said it benefited her relationship with her father. “It was true for us,” she said. “You end the session saying ‘thank you’ and ‘I love you.’ ”

Abra Cohen