Storytelling Review: More Alike Than Not: Stories of Three Americans – Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim

Storytellers Gerald Fierst, Susan O’Halloran, and Arif Choudhury

On Thursday night I drove to the Arthur M. Glick Jewish Community Center to hear three professional storytellers present “More Alike Than Not: Stories of Three Americans – Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim.”

This program was the result of a wonderful collaboration.  It was presented by the Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, the Jewish Community Center, the Muslim Re-entry Network of Indiana, the Pacer Foundation, St. Luke’s Methodist Church, Storytelling Arts of Indiana, and the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis.  The planning committee included Betty Brandt (St. Luke’s), Michele Goodrich (YMCA), Shari Lipp-Levine (Beth-El Zedeck), Ellen Munds (Storytelling Arts), Khabir Shareef (Muslim Re-entry Network), and Naomi Troup (Ann Katz Festival of Books.)

It was supported by the Performing Arts Fund, a program of Arts Midwest funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, “which believes that a great nation deserves great art,” with additional contributions by the Indiana Arts Commission, General Mills Foundation, and Land O’Lakes Foundation.

I am very grateful to all of these people and organizations because this free evening of live, professional storytelling for adults was a real treat.

I had expected it to be three separate pieces, but it was much richer than that.  As one of the tellers, Gerald Fierst, said afterwards, they wanted it to be a conversation rather than an olio. 

(An olio is a program in which first one teller tells a story, then another teller tells a different story, and then another tells a different story and so on.  The stories are usually only loosely related, or not related at all except by accident or divine intervention or whatever.) 

This was a single, beautifully woven piece that included funny, insightful, and personal stories from each of the three tellers around a variety of themes related to living as Americans in our pluralistic society.

First each teller told a little about his or her background.  Fierst grew up in an all-Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Susan O’Halloran grew up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood in Chicago.  Arif Choudhury grew up in one of very few Bangladeshi-Muslim immigrant families in north suburban Chicago.  Each was careful to say that he or she could not speak for all Jews or all Christians or all Muslims.

Each told, also, about times when they had felt “not enough” – not Jewish enough, not Catholic enough, not Muslim enough.

They told about their own prejudices and about experiencing the prejudices of people outside their groups.  “A prejudice can feel natural and normal…until you have an experience where you are the Other,” O’Halloran said in preface to one of her stories.

They also told stories that illustrated their shared values as Americans and the values that their diverse religions share. 

The program was more about cultural diversity than spirituality per se, but during the intermission, the tellers took an informal survey of who was in the audience.  Most of the audience raised their hands as being Christian, with the second largest group Jewish, and only a very few Muslims.  Choudhury asked if there were any other religions represented, such as Buddhist, Hindu, Zorastrian, etc.  A few people called out “Pagan.” 

When O’Halloran asked if there were any atheists or agnostics, several hands went up.  This seemed to be O’Halloran’s cue to tell her own story of turning away from God and then finding her way back through expressing her anger at Him/Her/It.  It didn’t feel creepy or evangelical to me, though, just honest.  All three tellers told stories of how their individual religious traditions help them to feel not only connected to their own families but connected to the human family.

The program was definitely scripted, but it was also organic enough to allow the tellers to respond in the moment to the reactions of their audience and to each other.  It also included some subtle touches of audience participation beyond active listening. 

For example, O’Halloran, talking about the role that saints had played in her Catholic upbringing, said, “Who can name the patron saint of lost items?”

“Saint Anthony!” someone in the audience called out.

“You know the prayer.  Say it with me if you want,” O’Halloran said, and all of the Catholics and recovering Catholics in the audience chanted along:  “Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around!  Something is lost and must be found!”

“It really works!” O’Halloran told the rest of us.

At another point in the program, Choudhury told about meeting some Jewish children as a child and learning a song about a special, four-sided top.  “Sing it with me if you know it,” he said, and those of who knew it chimed in with “I have a little dreidel,  I made it out of clay, and when it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I will play.”

After this part, O’Halloran laughed and said, “I love that I learned a Jewish song from a Muslim.”

Fierst incorporated Yiddish and Hebrew words into his stories.  He did this very naturally and easily.  I loved the extra layer of auditory texture that they gave to the piece.

In fact, although I responded to the well-balanced harmony of the piece as a whole, I also loved the many subtle differences in telling style between the three tellers, differences that went beyond the differences in the content of their stories.  They all three made me smile, but in different ways.  Fierst’s style is very warm and comforting; I felt I could tell him anything.  Choudbury’s experiences as a film-maker and as a stand-up comic inform his likable, “hip” telling style.  O’Halloran steps forward whenever it is her turn to speak.  She is a natural leader.

The blend of the three telling styles was very satisfying.

Every effective storytelling program builds community in one way or another, but this piece was especially effective in creating an environment in which people could begin to see the Other as not so different from ourselves.   We could also begin to see that we don’t have to give up who we are in order to accept and appreciate others who are different.

O’Halloran said during the “talk back” afterwards they had been doing this program for four years and that it has changed quite a bit over the years.  “You might have noticed our cheat sheets” she said, pointing to the floor of the stage, “to help us remember which part of which version we wanted to do tonight.” 

I had not noticed the cheat sheets, but I admired the tellers for wanting to continually improve their work.  I also admired them for selecting from their wealth of material the stories and transitions that they felt best suited their general adult audience in Indianapolis.  They also present this show on college campuses and, I think, in schools and companies looking for diversity training.

This was much more than a workshop on “how to get along with other people,” however.  It was art, and therefore entertaining and mind-opening rather than prescriptive.

In fact, the only part of the program that did not work for me was at the end when O’Halloran told us to “talk to someone sitting near you that you don’t know.”  Maybe I had just had enough of “turn and talk to your neighbor” exercises that week, or maybe I just hate to be told to do what comes naturally to me, but I felt this instruction dissipated the lovely community feeling that had been built up by the program itself.  We only had three minutes to talk to a neighbor before coming back together as one big group.  People who don’t know each other take three minutes just to sort themselves out!  It would have been better in this particular situation to skip the artificial, forced “talk to your neighbor” bit and just invite questions and comments from the whole audience.

Someone in the talk-back session asked if the tellers would consider making a DVD of the show.  The audience member wanted to show it to her students.  O’Halloran said that they are thinking of doing that because they know that not every community can afford to pay for live storytelling.  However, I would encourage people to find grant money to pay to bring this presentaton to their schools or communities live because live storytelling is much, much more effective than even the best DVD.  It is also much more powerful to actually meet the Other in person than on a DVD.

Sometimes O’Halloran and Choudhury work as a duo because they both live in Chicago whereas Fierst now lives in New Jersey and it’s harder – and more expensive – for the three of them to perform together.   I would like to see the duo show sometime, too.  The flyer on their website implies that in that program O’Halloran and Choudhury address the differences in their ages and the fact that one is a woman and the other a man.  Lord knows, humans still have a lot of work to do in order to feel more comfortable with each other across age and sex lines, too.

However, I am glad that I got to see and hear the trio Thursday night.  Sometimes it is too easy to make everything about duality: black and white, male and female, young and old, American and not.  A trio of storytellers reminds me that the world is complex and that there are many right ways to be a person.

Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s next program for adults will be “Love, Work, Mistakes and Miracles: A Night of Song and Story,” featuring Carrie Newcomer and Bill Harley.  This will be in collaboration with the Indiana History Center and will take place at the IHC on Friday, December 5 and Saturday, December 6, 2008, 7:30-9:30 pm.  To purchase tickets call 317-232-1882 or visit this page of the Storytelling Arts website.

Hope Baugh –

3 thoughts on “Storytelling Review: More Alike Than Not: Stories of Three Americans – Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim”

  1. I just recently got to meet Arif and see him perform in India. His standup style worked well with teenagers in the audience (despite a language barrier), and it was touching to see how his experience in America resonated with a Muslim family in the predominantly Hindu city of Chennai.

  2. How cool is that, that you got to see Arif perform in India, Tim! Thanks for telling me that (and as always, thanks for reading!) Interesting about the cross-cultural resonance, too.

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