One of my favorite things about my new role as a full-time historian at the ISJL is getting to meet great people with fascinating stories. The latest example? I recently had the privilege of speaking with Scott Davis, an Emmy award-winning Jewish television producer from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Scott Davis has told stories for a living for most of his life, and he became interested in the traditions of Jewish storytelling toward the end of his career. He began writing plays based on nineteenth century Yiddish culture. While doing research for a play based on the Jewish short stories of I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, two very famous classical nineteenth century Yiddish writers, Scott discovered another important literary figure, Jacob Dinezon.
It turns out Jacob Dinezon was a bestseller in his time (one of his very first novels sold more than 200,000 copies—a massive number in that era!), and he served as a mentor and benevolent uncle of sorts to several writers, but he never became as widely known as his contemporaries like Peretz and Aleichem. Why? Because his works were never translated into English.
Davis feels very passionately about sharing Dinezon’s amazing stories with the rest of the world. In 2007, he founded Jewish Storyteller Press to publish the work of Yiddish authors who deserve more recognition. Initially, he worked with existing English translations of old Yiddish tales. Davis himself doesn’t read Yiddish, so he hired professional scholars to translate directly from the original books. Davis also works with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language.
Davis just published the first English translation of Dinezon’s book, Memories and Scenes, a collection of 11 autobiographical short stories. In this collection, Dinezon recalls his childhood years in the shtetl and the events that led to his passion for becoming a writer. His simple tales provide a firsthand look into 19th-century shtetl life and a treasure trove of Yiddish history, culture and values. What Davis truly admires is the philosophy behind Dinezon’s tales. Hearing him talk about it so passionately, I can see why: Dinezon’s values reflected those of Davis’s father, a man Davis describes as generous and kind, always going out of his way to help other people.
One of the stories, entitled “Borekh,” tells the tale of a young orphan boy living in the yeshiva. Borekh was not very good at studying Talmud; but he was a generous soul, doing things for people and asking nothing in return. As he grew into manhood, he began to explore the question of who he would grow to be as an adult and what his contribution would be to his community. He asked God for help and soon realizes his special ability, woodworking. He make dreidels, Purim groggers, and toy animals for the children of the town. People in the town still looked down on him for not studying like his peers—until he ultimately carves a holy ark for the Torah, making his own significant and lasting contribution to his community.
Davis strongly identified with Borekh and his struggle to find his true calling. An avid clarinet player, he tried to learn to play Klezmer music. He knew he had an interest in promoting Jewish culture, whether in music or literature. After a few sessions, he realized that it wasn’t very good at it, but was he could do was he tell a good story. That love of storytelling has allowed Davis to engage so many individuals in history that could have easily been forgotten.
Like Davis, I see myself as a storyteller and feel fortunate that I get to tell the stories of Southern Jewry. Each of us offers a unique contribution in preserving Jewish heritage and ultimately, making a positive difference in our communities. Taking a cue from Scott Davis, we can all work together to make sure the story of our Jewish legacy continues.
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Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, but raised in rural Arkansas. She lived many lives in many places, and died peacefully in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In its memorial to her published this morning, the New York Times hailed Angelou as a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South.” She was so much: a Southerner, a traveler, a poet, a dancer, an activist, a leader, a reader, a teacher, a champion. She used her words as a tool to inspire change.
Many of her quotes talk about how we approach service, and how we think about those “in need” in a more human, nuanced way. I chose this quote to think about today:
“My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”
May Maya’s memory be a blessing.
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