Jewish Journal

‘Hanukkah Monologues’ Spotlights Personal Stories

People attend the lighting ceremony of Europe’s largest Hanukkah menorah at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

This Hanukkah, Joel and Fran Grossman shared the story of a food-related miracle, but in their case, it wasn’t a cruse of pure oil — it was tuna noodle casserole.

The couple’s “food of love” started simply as something kosher that Joel could prepare and Fran could eat, and evolved into a pathway back to observant Jewish life for Joel.

“Thirty-nine years later, I know that the tuna noodle casserole sparked something in me that I didn’t even know I was missing,” Joel said as part of a Dec. 10 storytelling event at Temple Beth Am.

The evening, known as “The Hanukkah Monologues,” featured eight stories on the theme of heroism, light and miracles. Each story represented one of the candles in the hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah.

Written and performed by community members of all ages, the stories were workshopped by the event’s director, Stuart K. Robinson, who also wrote and directed “Freedom Song,” a Beit T’shuvah play juxtaposing stories of addiction, rehab and recovery with the Passover theme of freedom and redemption. The venue, Robertson Art Space, was packed to capacity with 120 audience members.

“The intention of ‘The Hanukkah Monologues’ was to bring to light some of the personal, yet also universally relatable, stories that exist within our community,” said Lia Mandelbaum, Temple Beth Am’s director of programming and engagement, and also one of the storytellers. “Sharing and receiving each other’s genuine and sometimes vulnerable life experiences can be such a powerful platform for creating connection, empowerment and transformation.”

The evening featured eight stories on the theme of heroism, light and miracles.

Mandelbaum identified storytellers of various backgrounds and ages, choosing people who would be open to the “process of self-discovery, growth and teamwork.” Over the course of a month, the storytellers prepared; feedback from the others challenged them to shape and focus the tales for clarity and impact.

All but one of the stories were about family, with many focusing on children’s relationships with their fathers. Father-and-daughter duo Rabbi Chaim and Adina Singer-Frankes alternated telling sections of their stories, about how each of them and their respective dads relate to the Holocaust as historical and personal Jewish event. Negin Yamini, who grew up in Iran, Pakistan, Austria, Israel and the United States, shared her complicated family history in which her parents’ bitter custody battle kept her separated from her father for much of her life.

Some stories featured experiences that the storytellers had as children. Rachel Duboff, Pressman Academy’s library assistant, talked about how the butterfly effect of her not getting her dream job as a camp counselor led to the amazing experiences that occurred thereafter. Mary Kohav, vice president of community engagement programs at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, provided a window into her childhood and the Coleman cooler that accompanied her family on trips, including one to Disney World that never happened due to a threat against her Persian family. And Jonah Reinis, a seventh-grader at Pressman Academy, told a story about falling into the ocean in Sweden when he was 6.

Other storytellers told tales of their parents’ perseverance and strength. Mandelbaum talked about how, after her mother crashed her bicycle after getting a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, “the first thing she said after she stood back up was, ‘It’s enough. I refuse to let this disease win, to define my life. I will take back control, and I will have a great life.’ Twenty years later, she still says the same thing.”

And Avi Peretz, executive vice president of Temple Beth Am, noted that finding out how his late father had worked to bring over the rest of his Moroccan family from North Africa to their home in Canada made him regret not having appreciated him at a younger age.

“Perhaps the lesson is that all around us are people that may be doing extraordinary things, right under our noses,” he said. “Maybe we’re the ones doing those things. … Maybe we also need to look a little harder because the extraordinary — maybe even the miraculous — may be right in front of us. Perhaps that’s part of the message, and part of the miracle, of Hanukkah.”