December 10, 2018

Beyond the Maccabees: Saving Your Family Stories

The author’s son, Ben Evans, in 1997, with the menorah designed by artist Bonnie Roth (aka Branah Layah)

Most families celebrate Hanukkah with familiar rituals. Candles are lit, prayers recited, gifts exchanged, dreidels spun, gelt counted and the Maccabee family history is recalled. 

This year, what if during Hanukkah we celebrated our own family’s history? 

As an oral historian, I too often hear this lament: “We kept meaning to record my grandparents’ stories, but we were too busy. Now it’s too late.” Sadly, most people don’t get around to preserving the memories of their older relatives, and these precious stories are lost, which is a tragedy.

Not only is it a loss for future generations that miss knowing about their heritage, it’s also a loss for the storyteller who doesn’t have the opportunity to leave this most important legacy behind.

“We don’t come from thin air. We come from somewhere,” said Danny Maseng, spiritual leader and founder of Makom LA. “If you don’t know where you come from, you are, in a sense, missing a whole element of yourself. That can come into true relief if you know the stories of those who came before you.”

This Hanukkah, I invite you to interview your older relatives, and record their life stories and memories.  

“I love this idea,” said Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “Unless people intentionally take the time to ask questions, we often don’t get to hear the stories. Hanukkah is a unique time when you have your elders gathered with the younger people in the family. Choose a certain night of Hanukkah that’s ‘story night.’ If the fifth night is for gathering stories, then that’s the gift.”

“Unless people intentionally take the time to ask questions, we often don’t get to hear the stories of our elders. Hanukkah is a unique time when you have your elders gathered with the younger people in the family. — Rabbi Susan Goldberg

When we ask an older relative to share life experiences, we honor them for who they are and the life they have lived. Some might object, saying they have nothing of interest to tell, but we can assure them that their personal stories and memories, whether they are joyous or painful, have tremendous value to us. 

“The story of Hanukkah is about conflict and tensions,” Goldberg said. “And that’s also a part of our family stories, because a lot of people’s lives are hard. So it’s not like, ‘Tell me just the good stuff.’ It’s, ‘I want to hear everything about your life.’ 

In ancient tribes, passing down family stories and values to the next generation was a natural part of life. Taking the time to record our relatives’ oral histories is a way to renew this tradition. 

“The connection to storytelling in Judaism is inextricable,” Maseng said. “So that you know where this happened, where you came from, why this happened. When you are aware of such histories, you are better prepared for life.”

When I became an oral historian, I interviewed my parents. My father was a wonderful storyteller. One of his memories has inspired me since childhood. Dad recalled, “During the Depression, I’d occasionally come home from school to find a strange, unshaven man, dressed in rags, sitting at our kitchen table. My grandmother was serving him an entire meal – from soup to dessert. This ritual greatly concerned my mother, since Bubbe was a tiny, frail woman. When Mom asked my grandmother why she did this, Bubbe simply said, ‘How could I not do this? He was hungry.’”

Everyone has a story. And they are worth saving.

Here are some specific suggestions for creating your own Hanukkah Story Night.

Before Hanukkah: 

1. Designate the night for the interviews and invite your family’s participation. Plan to have the storytelling before or after the meal, when there will not be the noise of silverware or dishes.

2. Ask relatives to come with 10 or more questions to ask older family members. Open-ended questions typically work best. For example, rather than asking, “Was your mother a good cook?” you might ask, “What sorts of things did your mother cook?” Examples could include: “What can you tell me about your own grandparents and their lives?” “How would you describe them?” “What do you know about your parents’ childhoods?” “How did they meet?” “What do you think drew them together? “What are your earliest memories? Frightening memories? Favorite family times?” “Memories of deliveries, radio, TV, movies?” “What was the importance of being Jewish and family traditions?” “What did you learn from your parents?” “What were the most impactful world events during your lifetime?” “Describe meeting your spouse. What made them the perfect mate? What have you appreciated about them over the years?” “What have been your biggest life challenges, and how did you get through those?” “What are favorite memories of your children? How was each one unique?” “What are your hopes for your grandchildren?” 

3. Encourage children to ask their grandparents questions. Examples could include: “What were your favorite toys? What did you like best or least in school? Did you ever get into trouble?” “What did you want to be when you grew up?” 

Questions from teenagers could include: “Favorite movies or music?” “First love?” “Challenges for teens in your day?” 

4. Ask the older relatives to list any stories and experiences they might want to share. This could include meaningful or amusing experiences growing up, life lessons or words of wisdom. If they express anxiety, reassure them that this isn’t a performance; it’s just a conversation, and a precious gift to the family. If they say they recall little of their past, tell them not to worry about making the list.

5. If you are the oldest relative in the family, invite your children and grandchildren to do the above. Make a list yourself of what you want to make sure your descendants know about those who came before them: their experiences, their values, their challenges and successes. What do you want to share about your own life and what has been most important and meaningful to you? This is your chance to give a priceless gift to your family.

6. Choose the audio and/or video recorder you’ll use. A teenager might be the perfect person to handle the equipment. Plan for enough storage (memory cards or flash drive) and power (batteries or electrical). Important! Practice first, to see how and if the equipment works. It’s also a good idea to record on two devices.

Story Night: 

1. If possible, seat the older relatives in one area, so that the microphones will capture all of their voices. Someone should make sure that the recorder is near the person speaking, especially for relatives who speak softly. When someone asks a question, don’t hesitate to ask follow up questions to get more details.

2. Many families have one or two more talkative people, so some other relatives might sit and listen during family gatherings. They might need encouragement to join in. Most older people love the chance to reminisce and be heard, and frequently family members are surprised at how much the “quiet ones” have to say.

 3. If you have relatives who grew up together (i.e., siblings or cousins) it’s fun to have them respond to questions together about shared childhood and family experiences, descriptions of family “characters,” memories of growing up together and values learned within the family. Amusing disagreements can also result (e.g. the name of the dog, or which uncle always told the same joke).

4. If a relative is unable to answer a question or has memory problems, please be patient. Don’t correct them. If it will help to jog their memory, gently remind them. Otherwise, just move on. Whatever they can remember is perfect. This should be a positive experience for everyone.

5. If family members experienced painful or challenging events in the past, you might consider asking them before the gathering if they are willing to talk about these memories. Often, parents and grandparents protect their family from hearing about their difficult times, but if they know you want to hear about their experiences, they are frequently relieved to share. If someone gets emotional, that’s OK.

6. Whether stories are “happy” or not, entertaining or not, let your relatives know how grateful you are for the chance to hear and save their recollections. Finally, ask, “Is there anything else we didn’t talk about that you’d like to say?” Most of all savor this time with your older relatives. We never know how long we’ll have them.

7. Make copies of the recordings for family members. Someone in the family might edit the recordings into a book or video — a great gift for next Hanukkah. Because, as Goldberg noted, “As a Jewish tradition, we really believe in the power of narrative. Story is what connects us as a people. We have come to form who we are based on the stories of Torah, based on our passing down the traditions from great-grandparents to children. It’s the core of who we are.” 

Happy Hanukkah!


Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and oral historian, and owner of LivingLegaciesFamilyHistories.com.