When she meets someone for the first time, Carol Appel always says: “Tell me your Jewish story.”
The Big Tent Judaism concierge for Sonoma County took that question to a new level when she hosted a Jewish story slam Aug. 21 in Petaluma, where community members told their Jewish stories in front of an audience.
Think “The Moth” storytelling series in which average folks — some experienced storytellers, others not so much — divulge sometimes funny, sometimes tear-jerking true stories from their lives to a room full of strangers. Now imagine a Sonoma County café full of Jews, or those affiliated with Jews, a heap of rugelach and a mic in front of an eager audience.
“I think Jews want to hang out with each other and mingle outside the institutions,” Appel said as folks around her were doing just that in the Aqus Café.
The story slam attracted seven storytellers, who shared their tales with a full house in the event’s nod to Tu B’Av, the Jewish holiday of love.
Appel introduced the event by spelling out the rules: Each participant’s name would be drawn at random and the person would be given five minutes to tell an original story (with or without notes). At the end, the audience would pick the best story by a show of applause.
That award went to Norman Eisley of Santa Rosa, a practiced storyteller with a fresh tale about his grandparents’ love that held the audience rapt and received hearty applause.
Eisley, who serves on the board of the JCC of Sonoma County, said events like the story slam give local Jews an opportunity to gather and connect without being under the banner of an institution.
“Coming up with new ways [to connect] is gold,” he said. “This is breathing additional life into the community and attracts people who are on the margins who don’t feel they’re in the community but want to be. This gives them a voice.”
Eisley was followed by German-born Petra Gordon, a self-proclaimed shiksa, who told a story about falling in love with a Jewish American and his Jewish family and moving to California to be together. Her story, sprinkled with Yiddishkeit and told in a thick German accent, brought levity to the room.
Another story, told by Laurie Reaume of Santa Rosa, detailed a loving gift her father gave to her mother upon his death. Reaume, who is not Jewish, said she tells stories fairly often and appreciated coming to the Jewish story slam. “I could feel there was a sense of community,” she said. “I felt welcome, but I’m glad I wasn’t asked to quote Yiddish.”
This slam was the third in a series of five events. Appel said the program is creating a snowball effect in which the story quality improves and the audience grows each time.
The next Jewish story slam will take place Oct. 9, a few days before Yom Kippur, with the theme, “Got Guilt?” A location has not yet been set. A fifth slam will coincide with Hanukkah and will be themed “Miracle of Miracles.”
In her role as concierge, Appel said her job is to bring Jews together. And in Sonoma County, that means casting a wide net to gather far-flung Jews who are unaffiliated with a congregation or organized group but want to connect with each other in a fun and different way.
“It vitalizes our collective life,” she said.