Let me tell you a story…
A long time ago in a town far away, there lived a family.
They were hard workers. The father was a tailor. The mother made beeswax candles to sell to the neighbors. They lived in a comfortable but humble house down the hill from the town square, near the synagogue and the hospital.
They had children: Samuel, Regina, Solomon, Rozia. The children attended the Jewish school, they practiced music and competed in sports.
Life wasn’t always easy, but it was good. The parents were proud of their children. The family had enough money to give to the poor and to have a special meal together together on Shabbat.
But there was trouble: they heard stories of violence against the Jews living in nearby towns. The government kept raising their taxes, making it harder and harder to survive. So when young Samuel grew up and finished his apprenticeship as a tailor, he decided to leave his hometown. He’d heard about America, the land of opportunity, and decided to go abroad to seek his fortune.
He arrived in New York in 1910 and his uncle helped him get a job as a waiter in a fancy hotel. Later, he moved to San Francisco and started his own family. One of his children was Nathan, my grandfather.
After I’d been living in Ukraine for a year, I found out that I had family history here: that my great grandfather, Samuel Blumenfeld, was from the town of Ternopil, Ukraine.
We don’t know much about what his life was like or why he left, but when I found out about this piece of my family story, I wanted to learn more. So I went to Ternopil. I rode the night train and met with a local historian. We went to the town archives and found records of Samuel’s parents, siblings, cousins, family name in the old, dusty ledgers.
I wanted to see what life was like in the town when my great grandfather lived there, but it was hard because most of the buildings had been destroyed during the wars. I used my imagination to fill in the blanks.
I got an old map and walked to the sites that were marked on it. I went to the old synagogue. It had been turned into a factory where they made busts of Lenin during the Soviet years.
I went to the Jewish cemetery, one of three that used to be in the town. It was abandoned and overgrown. There was graffiti on the gravestones and garbage piled between the graves.
I stood among the ancestors resting there and looked at the names. Although I didn’t find my family’s names, I still felt a close connection with the people there. These were my family’s neighbors and friends, the people they went to school with and greeted on the streets.
I asked them what their lives were like. What struggles did they experience? What did they hope for the future? I asked them how we, in the present, can avoid the pain and suffering that they went through, the trouble that struck that part of the world. How can we create a world where people treat one another with respect?
I heard that we need to learn our stories and share them proudly. We need to remember the past and the people who came before us. We need to listen to each others’ stories and respect people who are different from us.
Throughout history, people have always created the stories that defined them. These stories have always combined fact, creativity and aspiration.
Sometimes we don’t know the whole story. Sometimes the stories have been lost. The past is distant, and there are many pages missing from the archives.
When we don’t know the whole story, the best we can do is go and learn what we can, imagine what we can’t, and write it into some kind of coherent narrative.
Because we can choose the stories we tell about ourselves, it’s our responsibility to choose positive stories, stories that can heal the pain from centuries of division and hatred.
It’s our responsibility to listen respectfully to everyone’s unique story. Because our differences make us strong, and our similarities connect us into one human family.
This song is about telling stories. It was inspired by experiences in Ternopil, Ukraine, looking for my family roots.
Tell Me A Story
I want to listen to a story A story ‘bout a family A family of travelers Hopeful and wise I want to listen to a story A story ‘bout a family Traveling ancient roads Guided by love Tell me a story Mother, Father Where do we come from? What makes us special, the people that we are? Children, children We’ve walked a winding road We can’t remember it all but we’ll tell you the stories we know The past is a tangled thread Connected, neglected We’ll weave our story’s cloth We can be proud of this colorful costume Tell me a story Where do we come from? Tell me a story About who we are Tell me a story Where are we going? A story to guide me Shape and inspire me Tell me a story Brother, sister Let’s look for our long lost stories Let’s walk the ancient roads that lead to who we are Lover, lover We’ll write a brand new story We don’t know how it will end but we have a place to start We’ll follow the tangled threads Unwind them, align them We’ll weave our story’s cloth We can be proud of this colorful costume Tell me a story Where did we come from? Tell me a story About who we are Tell me a story Where are we going? A story to guide me Shape and inspire me Tell me a story Children, children Turn toward the future We’ll pick up pieces of the past at every bend in the road Mother, father We’ll share our story We’re proud of where we’ve been and what we’ve seen in the world The past is a tangled thread Connected, neglected We’ll weave our story’s cloth We can be proud of this colorful costume Tell me a story Where did we come from? Tell me a story About who we are Tell me a story Where are we going? A story to guide me Shape and inspire me Tell me a story I want to listen to a story A story ‘bout a family A family of travelers Hopeful and wise I want to listen to a story A story ‘bout a family Traveling unknown roads Guided by love Tell me a story