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Remembering a Favorite Storyteller

Caren Neile
August 8, 2015

Roslyn Bresnick-Perry, 1922-2015

by Caren Schnur Neile

rozLAST NOVEMBER I was invited to present as a storyteller/scholar at the annual conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs in Boca Raton, Florida. I had no trouble coming up with a topic: My dear friend and colleague Roslyn Bresnick-Perry, born in Belarus, fit the theme of “Yiddish Heroes” to a “t.” In fact, I have never met anyone for whom the term was more appropriate.

Roslyn, who died just yesterday afternoon, the day before her 93rd birthday, was born on August 8, 1922, in the shtetl Wysokie-Litewsk in the former Soviet Union. Raizele Kolner arrived, sea-green with seasickness, in the Bronx, New York, at age 7 — just before the 1929 stock market crash. Her book, I Loved My Mother on Saturdays and Other Tales from the Shtetl and Beyond (Ben Yehuda), overflows with her stories of a young childhood spent in the arms of a vibrant extended family, with a father slaving in the U.S. to make enough money for the ship’s passage for his wife and daughter to join him. The stories recreate a life and community overrun by the Nazis and overtaken by modernity. We see a little girl so humiliated to be wearing her New York cousin’s fancy cast-offs in her tiny village that she not-so-inadvertently stains them with paint. We meet ill-fated young lovers on a sleigh ride under a crisp cold moon. We taste an immigrant child’s first banana, and feel her pain at having an accent too strong for a grade-school play. We understand the bitter longing of a grandmother who watches her world, and her authority, evaporate before her eyes.

But I am giving the impression that Roslyn was a writer, and in fact, that is not where her greatest talents lay. She was that most common and rare of performing artists, a storyteller, in the style of the maggidim of the old country. The maggid (literally, “teller”) carried the news among the shtelakh of Eastern Europe like a relay race contestant with an egg yolk on a spoon — perhaps losing a drip or three along the way, but always showing up with the gist. That ability to conjure up a lost world and make it not only understandable, but recognizable, is a gift that Roslyn bestowed upon her audiences for decades.

Roslyn spoke very little of the Shoah in her storytelling, but it was the subterranean foundation of every story she told. With the humility of a survivor, she did not pretend to know the horrors that her family endured. Her special gift was life, and she exhibited it in the liveliness of her personality (she was a Jewish ham, to be sure) and in the lives she celebrated.

WHAT IS A PROFESSIONAL STORYTELLER? First, let me tell you what a professional storyteller is not. She is not an actor, although she may use her face, voice, and body in a theatrical way. She is not an interpretive reader, because she does not hold a script in front of her or, generally, make much use of memorization. She is not a stand-up comedian, because she only speaks in narrative, she may never make a joke, and her goal is not to “kill” or to refrain from “dying” on stage. Nor is she a public speaker, because her palette is colored with a type of intimacy, interaction, and above all artistry that is beyond the ken of most denizens of the podium.

A professional storyteller is the conscience and the mirror of her people, the historian with a pass to create characters and connections, the artist who co-creates with her audience. Roslyn, who began her career as a dyslexic fashion designer in New York City’s garment district and went to college in her 50s and 60s, had planned to continue on for a doctorate. But a wise adviser at Columbia University suggested that due to her age and her natural abilities, she become a storyteller instead, and the professional storytelling community embraced her immediately. She was awarded the National Storytelling Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and while in Havana with her years ago, I watched her receive the Storytellers’ Choice award at an international storytelling festival.

I have stated that Roslyn was a hero, but at a time when even John McCain’s heroism is challenged, perhaps I should clarify the point. In the simplest of Jungian terms, a hero leaves the community to take a journey fraught with challenges to his or her identity, character and, often, corporeal existence. After vanquishing the foe, fulfilling the quest or simply scratching the itch, the hero either returns to the community to teach the lessons learned, or moves on to another. Thus a hero can be not only a warrior and adventurer, but also a teacher.

Here are two small samples from her oeuvre:

My paternal grandmother Shaine Kolner never liked me. I once asked her to name her favorite grandchildren, and she put me at the end of a list of seventeen. It made me feel real bad. So I asked her right out, “Bubbe, why don’t you like me?”

She answered me without hesitation: “Vile du bist a shtik foon dien mamme. Because you are just like your mother.”

“What’s wrong with my mother?” I said, putting my hands on my hips, my legs spread apart. I was ready to defend my mother with my life.

“Aw! Aw!” said my gloating grandmother, pointing a finger at me. “You see, just like your mother.”

In another story, Roslyn repeated a ghostly story from the same grandmother, who was this time in a better mood:

There was a terrible outbreak of cholera in our town. Why it suddenly should happen in the middle of the winter was a mystery. Usually an epidemic like this came in the summertime. What was going on? So it was decided that some spirit was probably offended and was causing this catastrophe. What could be done to placate this evil spirit? ... The rebbe was asked if he could arrange a marriage that would take place in the cemetery. The spirits like nothing better than a wedding, and the townspeople were sure that it would please the soul that was causing all the trouble. Many people related stories they had heard from their grandfathers or grandmothers of similar incidents and how a wedding on the cemetery was the only thing that helped. The rebbe definitely did not like the whole idea. Who in their right mind would agree to be married in a graveyard? However, he could not dissuade the crowd of people that had come to him in fear and determination.

Roslyn Bresnick-Perry reminded us that our people were just that — people. Her book, Coming to America, captured the Jewish immigrant experience for children in a pitch-perfect way. Her “Naughty, Bawdy Stories,” about aging and sexuality, which occupied some of her late-in-life performances, were honest, funny, and very sexy.

It is my great pleasure and privilege to be her colleague.

Caren Schnur Neile, Ph.D., MFA, is a professional storyteller and teaches storytelling studies at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. She appears weekly on South Florida public radio WLRN and writes a column on storytelling for the Florida Jewish Journal.