Where God is a Dirty Word

By Donna Jacobs Sife

Recently I was accredited by the Department of Education and Training as a Performing Artist. A professional storyteller for many years now, I decided to branch out a little, get an agent and work in the public school system. I spoke to my friend, Moses Aaron, a leading storyteller in Australia - "What will you wear?" he asked , "How old will the children be?", "What is your program?" I told him that I plan to tell a personal story about me when I was little, then a Japanese version of The Fisherman and His Wife. I would follow that with an African tale about the spider Anansi, and how he got his little head. No problems so far. It was when I said that I would tell David and Goliath that Moses said emphatically "Don't". "Pardon?" "They hate bible stories" said Moses. "They love them", I argued. But he was not speaking of the children, he was referring to the Department of Education.

Of course Moses was being far too sensitive, it simply wasn't possible that bible stories were not acceptable. Not tell Noah? Or the story of Jonah? Besides, the program was so multicultural - how could they possibly object. I added two more stories to the program, a story called Something from Nothing, which was a Jewish folktale, but had no reference to anything Jewish, and finally a story about an Apple tree. The focus of the stories was personal development, and I sent follow up notes, lessons and activities for the teachers.

The performance went well. Later that afternoon, I received a phone call from the Department to say that I have the accreditation, but they were concerned about the Jewish aspect of the show. I held the phone to my ear and fished through the papers on my desk to reassure myself of what I had told. Had Elijah slipped in without my noticing? Had I forgotten myself and said "Oy vey" instead of "good heavens"? I asked her what she meant. "All the Jewish stories" she said matter of factly. I was getting confused. "You know" I slowly began, "I only told one bible story." "Are you sure?" I was sure. "What about that one about the coat" she asked. She was referring to the Jewish folktale. "Yes, it is a Jewish folktale, but not one mention of anything Jewish in the entire story." She told me it was the way I moved my hands. And the accent, it was definitely a Jewish accent. "Well, I am Jewish. Even an African story will come out a bit Jewish " I said in a slight Yiddish accent. "And the Apple Tree story" she said, not amused. "It had God in it. That's two stories with God." "You don't want God?" I was beginning to get depressed.

It seems that pagan stories, ancient myths, dreamtime legends, tribal folklore - these are welcome sources for storytelling in the public schools. I can beat the drum, ring the Tibetan bell, play the African calimba, but I can't tell a story from my own tradition without being politically incorrect. I can speak of the rainbow serpent, Ishtar, Anansi, Gilgamesh but not of God. There must be no reference to religion, and in particular no reference to Judeo-Christianity. But where does mythology end and religion begin? Why is aboriginal legend, buddhist parable, and Greek myth not considered 'religion'? When did a hand movement and a yiddish accent become religion? I do not think for a moment that this is anti-semitism. It seems that the sensitivity is about Western religion generally.

How far we have come. I remember how the school I attended was 'non-denominational' - which meant you could be any kind of Christian you liked. There was no question that Christmas and Easter were an intrinsic part of every students' life. I was expected to kneel and pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ every morning. As a border, I had to go to church.

Is there something insidious about this, or is it my imagination? It seems that we are in exactly the same place as we were thirty years ago, just in reverse. Surely multiculturalism (how tired I am of that word) means freedom of expression and delighting in all traditions, all religions, all cultures. Must I hide what I am? And would the department dare to say to an indigenous person "You're a bit too Aboriginal, its the way you move your feet."?

Are we creating a new genre of storytelling - "world story" in which, like the "world music" equivalent, it will be impossible to identify any one tradition? All the cultures will be woven into one, each represented with equanimity and reverence, until all the colours are mixed into a rather sickening gray.

I am left with a decision to make. Do I want to take away the gestures that make me what I am? Must I practice an African accent in the car at the red lights? Learn a short Indian dance, play a Japanese tune on the bamboo flute? And what am I doing all this for anyway? I came to this work because I wanted to share Judaism with those who wished to listen, to encourage tolerance and understanding amongst Jews and the general community. And the truth is there are many opportunities for me to do that. The Catholic schools association love Jewish stories, I tell regularly for the Uniting Church, I am included on multi-cultural programs, festivals, conferences. And of course the Jewish community is of great support - and I can move my hands and invite Elijah in any time I want.

When Lisa Likpin, friend and New York storyteller read this article she responded, " Don't your administrators get it? Don't they realize that storytelling is about emotional, not factual truth? That what you were actually doing was sharing universal feelings with children? I absolutely hate the literalism that seems to be invading everyone's brain cells these days..... When a school system does what they did to you....in my mind, it's the ultimate act of cynicism. It says, "we have no faith in children to discern between what is religious coersion, and what is simply a story."

I have to agree.