Word Weaver Tradition Bearer Educator



Shonaleigh Cumbers Jewish Storyteller – The Last Drut’syla?

Shonaleigh Cumbers is a storyteller. Not just any storyteller. She’s a Drut’syla. She’s a living tradition holder. It’s a tradition you probably won’t have heard of. It’s a tradition that flourished in Jewish families, but that was wiped out during the holocaust. Almost wiped out. As far as we know, Shonaleigh is the last Drut’syla.
Shonaleigh learned her craft from her bubbe, her grandmother, Edith Marks. Her telling and teachings are interlaced with anecdotes about this strong woman whose many skills did not include reading or writing; whose depth, stillness, and humour come through so strongly in Shonaleigh’s accounts of her.

A Drut’syla holds 12 cycles of traditional stories in her being. Each cycle contains around 100 stories. Each story is connected to others in a tightly woven network, a fabric of stories that comes from a centuries-old tradition. Shonaleigh is reported to know as many as 3,000 stories. Some take days to tell.

But, as Shonaleigh says, ‘It’s not about the length but the depth. A good joke can be a good story … a good story for me doesn’t moralise, doesn’t thump its point home; it’s a subtle thing that entertains on one level, but if people have the ears to hear it, goes so much deeper – but even if they can’t see it at that deeper level, still the story loses none of its entertainment value.’
Shonaleigh is severely dyslexic. Shonaleigh’s way of learning is not that which was taught in school – it is body-based. She learned from the age of four, in a disciplined way, to hold, touch, feel, see, craft, mould stories; absorb them, digest them; have them become part of her. To this day, she doesn’t like writing them down. Once, she told me, she very reluctantly agreed to write one story down. She gave it to Simon Heywood, her husband, to deal with, and put it behind her. “I woke up the next day in a cold sweat. I couldn’t remember the story. I had to ‘Midrash it’ – I had to relearn it from scratch.” I felt she never wanted to experience that feeling of loss again. I felt as if I was in the presence of Socrates, as we know him from Plato’s written account of his dialogue with Phaedrus in which Socrates says he is against writing, but rather serious oral discourse, which, ‘when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him,’ he maintains, is ‘far nobler’.

Shonaleigh knows her stories. The number of stories she knows is neither here nor there. What’s really special is how she knows them. She knows them inside out. And she knows how they connect. And this, ultimately, is the litmus test for anyone who may want to question the legitimacy of her story. After all, when an oral tradition that belongs to a closed community is not documented, how can you verify it ever existed? There are clues, and references which may help put the pieces of puzzle together which are being gathered by Simon Heywood, Shonaleigh’s academic husband. Hear her tell live, and you’ll know that what matters is not what she knows, but how. You’ll know that what matters is that you are in the presence of a living tradition holder. And that being in her presence just makes life more lively.

Shonaleigh’s presence brings with it her bubbe’s presence – both women being bearers of a living tradition of oral storytelling with a highly developed craft, a discipline, and a strong midrashic (commentary) tradition. This is living wisdom. And stories come to life in Shonaleigh. As a Drut’syla, Shonaleigh tells the stories the audience needs to hear. She is at their service. And while Shonaleigh often tells stories to audiences that want to hear her stories, I’ve noticed that Shonaleigh seems happiest telling to audiences that need to hear her stories. Often the reasons for a request are not clear at the time, but they may become clear later – a seed is planted in fertile soil, where it is allowed to bloom and flourish, to achieve inner growth and transformation through revelation. Back to Socrates again.

Shonaleigh’s outward view is different. “Why do we tell stories? To make people happy,” she said to me when I first met her: words of wisdom that resonate like a note sounded from a ram’s horn, pointed at the moon – a deep, rich note, with overtones that reach deep into the soul and extend far out into the cosmos, connecting both through story.

This phenomenon of a story being planted within a person where it remains to emerge at the right time reminds me of a story told by Senegalese storyteller, Sory Camara, another living tradition holder, of how the story of ‘the Most Ancient Word’ was planted within him by Pathmaster Kandara Koyi, who, ‘in his time he was the youngest and most precocious of the Most Ancient Masters’. Just when Koyi saw that Camara had abandoned his quest, he told him the story of ‘the Most Ancient Word’ within an epic story of the history of their people, the Mandinka, and left it to germinate within him, to be realised just when he needed it most.

But these are just stories.


But they are stories held by living tradition holders. And there is much more to the stories that are held by living tradition holders than meets the eye. They understand that life is a network. We are all interconnected. They carry life in them and bring life to life in their stories, and through story, allow story to bring life to life in us – if we let it.

If we choose not to – then what is the kind of life we choose to lead instead? Is it really worth living?


View original article (The Life Lore Institute)