jerry-story.
Over centuries, Jews have created a vibrant folklore—a rich body of stories that reflect the humor, heart, wisdom, and pain of a remarkable group of people on the path of an extraordinary history. Keeping alive this tradition are modern storytellers like Gerald Fierst, whose stories speak to the wonder, joy and sorrow of growing up Jewish.

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For Fierst, the approach of the High Holy Days always stirs vivid memories of childhood. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, a day on which Jews look back over the past year and forward to the year to come. It’s followed a week later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As a child, Gerry hated these “Days of Awe,” which required fasting, prayer, and owning up to one’s failings, petty jealousies and transgressions.

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But at the conclusion of the Day of Atonement, the ram’s horn—the shofar—is blown in the synagogue to announce the new year. With that, the slate is wiped clean and the fast is broken.

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The sound of the ram’s horn inspires in Fierst a powerful sense of wonder, and a deep feeling of connection to the lives and faith of his ancestors. “It sounds the sounds of the ages. It’s the sound of Moses coming down the mountain, the sound of the children of Israel leaving Egypt, the sound of Abraham, the father of all three of our religions.”

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The High Holy Days also bring memories of loss and sorrow. Each year when the new year comes, Fierst attends the memorial service for the dead in remembrance of his mother. Again, he waits for the ram’s horn to be blown. And that sound calls to mind a conversation Fierst had with his mother when he was a little boy. He wondered aloud what happens to people when they die, “what happens to the life force, the energy?” His mother answered, “A little bit of us goes to everyone we love.”

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And that reminds Fierst of a Yiddish expression: “the spark of the Jew.” Though he may not be an observant Jew or follow all 613 commandments, “the spark that my parents put inside of me, it lives.”

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Storytelling, according to Hasidic teaching, is a holy activity equal to Torah study or prayer. For storytellers like Gerald Fierst, it’s a way to retain the heart of traditions, and to stay connected to his ancestors, faith and community.
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