“The Last Drut’syla: A Traditional Jewish Storyteller in Postwar Europe”

Friday March 7th saw a gathering of story-focused folk in the Zen Room of the Atrium campus of the University of South Wales in Cardiff. Performers, writers, artists, film-makers, psychologists, educators – storytellers all, for whom ‘story’ is our bread-and-butter, and the tension between telling and listening our daily toil – we were there to listen to Simon Heywood outlining his research on the Jewish oral tradition of the female community storyteller or drut’syla, and to his partner, Shonaleigh Cumbers, one of the last drut’sylas, maybe the last, tell us a story.

A story? It doesn’t quite work like that, I soon learnt! Shonaleigh quickly introduced us to the concept of the embodied lattice of stories her grandmother taught her, and to the notion of active listening, heckling even, giving each of us the right to demand to hear whichever strand we were unwilling to leave as ‘another story for another time.’ I wanted to hear all about the pomegranate tree with the fruit of rubies… but we stopped to consider how the stones of the wall around it can groan … then how God fabricated the world with his bare hands … then onward, upward, backwards, sideways … digressing, diverting, plunging and soaring on a zig-zag helter-skelter of an irrevocable journey of story, as rich and full of surprises as life itself, but also as poignant and tinged with loss as the emptied rooms of the palace of memories we have passed through and whose untold stories we can never revisit in the form they might have held today.

The labour, and the privilege, of holding such a collection of stories in one’s mind and body is awesome, in the true sense of the word. This is the inheritance of the drut’syla, the teller of a story-lattice woven over centuries by the Jewish people. While these stories may ‘belong’ to a particular community, the strands of the lattice are made from stories of God and Man and the ‘pebbles of the world’ that resonate with all of us, and hold us all in thrall.

Leonie Sharrock, MA, BA, PGCE
Programme Leader, BA (Hons) Animation Direction and Production, University of South Wales / Prifysgol De Cymru

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