Interview with The Australian Storytelling Guild

When people ask Donna Jaocbs Sife when she became a storyteller she has two responses.

The first one tells of the short cut she used when walking to school as a little girl. It was called ‘fairy walk’ and was a magical trail of bush and arching trees, all dark and mysterious. Donna says she wanted to see the fairies that the walk must clearly have been named after, so she got up increasingly early, but always seemed to miss them. So one morning she got up before dawn, dressed in her school uniform and headed out to catch the fairies. She entered ‘Fairy Walk’ just as the sun was beginning to rise, and half way in - she saw them! That was the moment she became a storyteller.

The second response recalls the time when she was twelve, and decided to stop talking, which she did for several months, only writing things down if she had something to say. She says in retrospect that she stopped talking because no-one was listening to her. That was the moment she became a storyteller she says - to make sure she was listened to. She likes the idea of being The Mute Storyteller.

What these two little tales do is illustrate the kind of storyteller Donna is. One is full of mystery and wonder, the other a penetrating example of the struggles we all experience, and the fitting together of the big picture that makes up a life.

There is another story about how Donna became a storyteller, but less interesting. When her children were little she began teaching jewish studies to them at their local school. Stories became the main source of her teaching, and soon others wanted to come to her class. By the end of five years, Donna had taught the majority of children who lived in Castlecrag - ninety percent of whom were not Jewish - all about being Jewish, and listening to stories. As a singer and performer since school days, it was a natural progression to move from telling stories in classrooms for free - doing her apprenticeship as she calls it - to some years later making the final transition to full time professional telling.

Donna has told stories all around the world, winning scholarships to perform in Israel, San Fracisco and the U.K. She tells at festivals and conferences, at corporate events, religious instiutions, schools, celebrations and seminars. Endowed with a spiritual nature, she tells wisdom tales, and sacred tales from all the great traditions. She tells stories that are mythic and deep, interspersed with little penetrating stories that make you laugh and think and learn.

Donna has utter faith in the power of story. She believes they inform the soul in a way that nothing else can. They can comfort, sustain, broaden, enlighten, and save us. They can fight racism, prejudice, ignorance and fear. They can instill compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. Whether it be a little memory a mother tells a child, or a story of epic proportion, they are gems of transformation and powerful tools for self realization.

As a peace activist, she has found herself in recent times being invited to tell at Reconciliation events, at Peace Rallies, and very often at inter-religious gatherings, specifically Ba Hai, Uniting and Catholic churches, The Buddhist Temple and Library, and of course for the Jewish community. An accredited artist with the Department of Education, she has travelled widely over the last few years, all around Australia and New Zealand, in a little rented camper van, her performance being a celebration of difference, of tolerance, of purpose and of truth. She has travelled to the States, to Israel, and to the UK teaching and telling for teachers, for children, for refugees - at festivals, conferences, seminars and concerts.

Her own stories are usually of a deeply personal nature, one of which, entitled "The Wall" won first place at the National Storytelling Festival in Sydney, in 1996. She is a well known writer, being a popular columnist in the Australian Jewish News, and appears in other journals and anthologies.

When asked about the hightlight of her career she says it could be one of two things. Performing at an anti-discrimination event with Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1999 comes to mind; or perhaps performing at sunset, at the Hebrew University - overlooking the Old City, but in the end, she says, nothing beats the eyes of a child lost in the wonder of story.

Her favourite tale?

"If I had only one story to tell it would be this one" she says.


Once, the great Hassidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.
"Zusia, what's the matter? You look frightened!"
"The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will ask me when I stand at the Gates of Heaven."
The followers were puzzled. "Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?"
Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?'"
His followers persisted. "So, what will they ask you?"
"And I have learned," Zusia sighed, "that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'"
One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia's shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, "But what will they ask you?"
"They will say to me, 'Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.' They will say, 'Zusia, why weren't you Zusia?'"