Canadian Status of Women
April 1994. Arts
Through New Glasses
Interview with Helen Mintz: by Wendy Putman
“Stories, I have stories,” begins Vancouver-based Jewish lesbian storyteller Helen Mintz, in her performance Jewish Voices of Resistance, which took place recently in Vancouver as part of the women’s performance festival Women in View. She opens by presenting herself as a weaver of tales, telling stories to her audience of poor women and servant girls, maids and factory workers on their way to their day’s activity: She spins a long magnificent tale, within which are embedded golden nuggets that various women can claim for themselves.
For the next hour, Mintz wanders the stage, layering her own subjective voice as a storyteller over top of the voices of the characters she acts out. These are the voices of Jewish women. Having actively sought or developed the stories of women from within and from outside the “canon” of male-centred Jewish folklore, Mintz’ work becomes a refusal to let women remain hidden, silent. She gives voice to women whose stories would otherwise have “passed into the mists of history.”
Mintz’ resistance is the struggle against pressure to conform. The expectations of women have traditionally been many: to conform to society’s expectation of the feminine, to conform to gender-based social roles, to conform to heterosexuality. There were further expectations of Jewish women: to perform certain roles within the context of family, of upholding the honour of the Jewish community, of keeping the community strong by living, and making sure their family was living good Jewish lives.
There are certain recurring themes among mainstream Jewish tales in the ways they portray women. Most often, the woman is someone’s wife. Often she has children, although tales don’t focus on her role as mother.
Frequently, she is portrayed as the businessman of the family. Sometimes she is portrayed as foolish, at other times, as wise or wily. In the vast majority of cases, she will prove successful if she follows a pious path; if her intent is “greedy” or “immoral,” she is doomed by her actions.
Understanding Jewish folk custom
Jewish tales are a complex genre with a rich history and many branches. During Talmudic times (500 BCE to 1700 CE), Jewish people tended to conduct their entire lives in conformity with explicit or implicit rules, based on scholarly definitions of piety and enforced in tight-knit communities. Storytelling became the popular purveyance of Jewish life, with all its customs and usages. The portraits of women in traditional Jewish folktales then, must be viewed through the primary filter of the storyteller, whose prerogative was to teach Jewish people how to live a pious life. What traditionally set Jews apart as a distinct culture was, in part, a contra-distinction to the belief systems of surrounding nations. Their stories were meant to be didactic, a meaning of positive reinforcement for upholding Jewish values.
Much as western literature refers back to Greco-Roman mythology, the Jewish standard falls back on the Hebrew bible. After all, as Webster’s defines myth as a “traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold parts of the world view of a people,” the Bible could be defined as the mythology of the Jews. Later on were added the sub-genres of Rabbinic tales (with obvious moral lessons), Midrashic tales (elaboration of Biblical text, answering questions arising from gaps in Biblical narrative), Hasidic tales (very short, with a fundamentalist world view and obvious moral conclusions), and Kabbalistic tales (dealing with the mystic aspects of Biblical interpretation).
Furthermore, Jewish tales differ greatly depending upon the geographic and linguistic backgrounds of the storytellers and the neighbouring societies. For instance, the tales of the Ashkenazim (from Eastern Europe) have a more rabbinic bent, frequently with themes overlapping those of their Christian neighbours, while the tales of the Sephardim (from Spain and the Middle East) deal more with the jinn of the underworld, borrowed from the surrounding Arab cultures.
Bringing women from the shadows
Mintz always knew she wanted to tell Jewish stories, but had to search hard to find suitable story material about women. She admits that, though she comes from a family of storytellers, it was hard to find stories of women who were “actors in their own lives.” Being of Eastern European heritage, Mintz decided to use this point in time as a starting point.
“People in North America have no idea of the richness of Jewish life and the culture that was destroyed during World War II,” says Mintz. “As a culture, we are stopped at the Holocaust, and are very much still a community in trauma.”
This loss of history did not stop with the decimation of Jewish communities in Europe. Refugees in North America were anxious to “fit in.” Any autonomy and status by virtue of being businesswomen was taken away, as Jewish women were compelled to adopt a familial role within a North American nuclear family, and trained to accept the “inferiority” of their gender. Mintz sums up this training neatly when she recalls her thoughts about Miriam Waddington, a prominent Canadian writer who lived next door: “How could the Jewish woman next door be a poet?” – meaning, she was just another neighbourhood woman, destined to be mediocre, ordinary, to conform.
Mintz’ goal as a performer, then, is to provide a means by which people can know what life was like in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust – especially for Jewish women. But her stories are not only about Jewish women in Eastern Europe before and during World War II. At least one of her stories is adapted from a Chassidic, Bal Shem Tov story. Another is about modern Israel and Palestinian “women in black” who hold weekly vigils in Jerusalem to protest the occupation in the West Bank.
In the end, Mintz’ stories turn out to be about women who are relatively “ordinary,” and perhaps would be considered unworthy of mention by other storytellers, not because they are ordinary, but because they refuse to conform to the mediocre. Her protagonists are not famous women. They are not super-achievers or celebrities. They are brave women, however, and take centre stage through the vibrancy of Mintz’ performance.
There is no name for it
In a departure from most Jewish storytelling, Mintz acknowledges and celebrates lesbian lives in Jewish life. “As a lesbian, I feel I chose a life outside my culture and my community,” says Mintz. She points out that, like in many other cultures, lesbian lives remain hidden from and unacknowledged by the mainstream. Her recognition of the contributions of lesbians to Jewish community is also a recognition of the vast diversity of Jewish life.
Mintz’ framing of her stories is quite believable, as she tempers the message according to the era in which the tale is set, For example, in a story adapted from a novel in progress by Elana Dykewomon, Mintz recounts a Jewish coming-out story, set somewhere before World War II in Eastern Europe.
A young woman wants to learn how to live independently (Jewish women in the audience nod knowingly – because the Eastem European Jewish shtetls of that era were tight-knit, the difficulties of persuading family and neighbours to let a women remain single would have been enormous.) Gutka, a midwife, moves in with Goldie, partly to avoid any talk about a woman living alone. Goldie, a seamstress, “knew how to be an unmarried Jewish woman.”
Gutka learns more than financial independence. She observes Goldie’s interactions with her customers, especially a certain Vera – a modern German woman who makes Goldie’s face light up. When Goldie invites Gutka to a party at Vera’s, Gutka finds herself gawking at women the likes of which she’s never seen before. One in particular, a woman with “eyes a deep golden brown in the olive of her face,” fascinates her. Gutka muses that, though God used words to make the entire world, she can’t can’t find the words to make her own life. Dovida, whom Gutka had originally mistaken for a man, puts things into her own perspective. “The Talmud tells us we must account to God for all those pleasures we did not take during our lives,” she says, “and though I don’t think the Talmud had us in mind particularly, the principle is the same.”
Mintz finishes her story with the line “I will shed my black and you will shed your fear . . . and together we will light a small candle,” and leaves the stage. We realize it is also the end of her performance, and we’ve just been held captive, like the storyteller’s audience of poor women and servant girls, maids and factory workers, in her spell.
Wendy Putman is a lesbian Jewish feminist whose academic background includes the history of Jewish folklore.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Saturday, February 18, 1995
Storyteller Keeps Tradition Alive with “Jewish Women’s Stories”
Secret Melodies: Jewish Women’s Stories.
Written and performed by Helen Mintz.
Thursday at the Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave.
Part of the Alice B. Theatre’s National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival.
Other festival performers: Dos Fallopia, Four Big Girls, Andrew J. Mellen.
Through March 5; Tickets: $12; Phone, 322-5423.
By David Lyman, Special to the P-I
If one were to learn about life only from the great storytelling traditions, women would appear to play a rather flimsy part of earthly existence. Oh, they’re there – as mothers, wives (either carping or blindly supportive) and occasionally as wise sisters who must be married off as quickly as possible.
In attempting to build a repertoire of stories about women, storyteller Helen Mintz faced a further formidable obstacle. Interested in stories that related to her Jewish heritage – specifically tales from eastern and central Europe – she found her search hindered not only by a male oriented tradition but also by the Holocaust.
Some of the stories were there, though, and several of them form the core of Mintz’s one woman show “Secret Melodies: Jewish Women’s Stories,” which opened Alice B. Theatre’s three-week National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival Thursday.
Interspersing her stories with short and often poetic narratives, Mintz provides brief backgrounds for each piece: one, she tells us, was discovered in an archive, another learned from a woman in a senior center.
“Secret Melodies” is most compelling when Mintz regales the listener with older, parable-like stories: the tale of the woman who complained to the rabbi’s wife about her troubles, the story of the beautiful, but unmarried, daughter cursed by her father on his deathbed. Likewise, she is quite moving when she recounts a story from Yaffa Eliach’s “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” and when she recounts brief, humorous anecdotes, such as the old woman who told Laurence Olivier she would not stay for the last act of “Henry V’ because she already knew the story from the Yiddish theater.
Mintz’s program, which rotates several stories in repertory, will be repeated Friday and March 5.
The Vancouver Sun, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 1993
WOMEN IN VIEW FESTIVAL
BARBARA CROOK, Vancouver Sun
Helen Mintz is a Jewish writer, storyteller and teacher who tells stories of the lives of Eastern European women, and seeks to rebuild the cultural and historical links shattered by the Holocaust.
Her solo show, A Woman’s Voice in Jewish Storytelling, is a beautifully written tribute to human survival in general and to the strength of women in particular.
Mintz blends moments of humour with images of unity, empowerment and horror.
Her story of the Women in Black, groups of Israeli and Palestinian women whose protests of the Israeli occupation of the Left Bank prompt abuse and outrage from the men around them, is a remarkable glimpse of the power of conviction. A Bowl of Soup, a harrowing tale of a mother and daughter’s concentration camp experiences, is stunning in its directness and simplicity.
Mintz has a real talent for selecting, writing and pacing her stories.
Sharing life experience
Mintz speaks at Vancouver storytelling festival
by SARA NEWHAM
Dressed in baggy black pants and a white peasant shirt of eastern European origins, Helen Mintz began her storytelling
performance with grand arm gestures, the passion rising in her voice, as she told the tale of a woman storyteller travelling from town to town.
Mintz’s six-story performance took place Feb. 8 at Heritage Hall on Main Street. She regaled the audience with stories of Jewish women.
“This show was really about Jewish women who could be my heroes, on whose path I could follow,” said Mintz following her hour-long performance.
Mintz told the audience that while searching for stories to tell she often comes across two archetypes:
the meek woman unable to stand up for herself and the bold, sassy, daring woman who is often a bother to those
around her and, therefore, unable to accomplish anything.
“[I choose] stories that I love and stories that show strong Jewish women. I want … to paint a portrait of Jewish women that is in sync with the life that I lead,” she said. Mintz explained that part of what she tries to do is look closely at Jewish life in eastern Europe because she feels it was not actually the way people are led to believe it was. She said that while there were a lot of problems, Jews had more contact with non-Jews than she had initially thought was the case.
“Some of those relations were really bad but some of them were not and I think it’s important to show the diversity,” she said.
Her performance blended the Jewish tradition of storytelling with dramatics and costume that gave the stories a sense of time and place. Mintz began, coincidentally, with The Storyteller, excerpted and adapted from a traditional Chassidic folktale in The Legend of the Baal-Shem by Martin Buber, before telling the story Stotsl is Coming, about a
group of women who decided to act to change their circumstances after a discussion about how much work they did compared to their husbands.
Mintz then recited the English version of a Yiddish poem by Rachel Korn before telling the tale of a lesbian woman in Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon.
“I thought it was very well rounded,” said Pat Mahoney, who watched Mintz’s presentation. “She covered a lot of issues that women are passionate about – nonviolence, equal rights and respect for sexual orientation – and she’s a wonderful storyteller.”
Mahoney was also moved by Mintz’s telling of Lena Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, about the effect of the Israeli policy of house demolitions on a Palestinian family. The story showed how such a policy affects the psyche of a family and a
community when a home is taken down several times after attempts to rebuild it.
“It was incredibly moving just the way she was able to express the experience of those people from the inside and what it would be like to have your home demolished and trampled upon over and over and over again,” said Lisa St. Cyr.
Mintz explained that she chose that story because she supports the work of the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions and other peace workers in Israel. “I’ve tried for a long time to figure out how I, as a Canadian Jew, could talk about this issue, and eventually I came to feeling that what I can do is support people there whose work I want to support.”
Mintz ended her performance with a poem, “Kindness,” told in English and Yiddish and written by Naomi Shihab Nye, which gave the audience a sense of hope and peacefulness.
“She’s not overdramatic. She seems very grounded and present in her body and definitely you can feel that she has a lot of genuine compassion for those people and [is] able to tell their story quite authentically,” said St. Cyr.
Mintz, who has been storytelling since 1992, explained that she memorizes the words of the stories that have authors, but will adapt the folktales. She has told stories to adults and children in Canada, the United States, Germany and Lithuania and will be teaching a storytelling class at Langara College until April 7.
Sara Newham is a Vancouver freelance writer.