Telling Mitzvah Stories

by Daniela Enriquez

According to halacha, Jewish law, there are 613 mitzvot that a Jew should fulfill during a lifetime. Some of these are daily duties, like the recitation of the Shema; some involve the relationship between a single Jew and the other human beings, i.e. the commandment of tzedakah; and some can’t be fulfilled without a Temple, as in the case of animal sacrifice.

Still, there are many mitzvot one can do, but people often seem too busy to remember their importance. Rabbi Goldie Milgram, founder of Reclaiming Judaism Press, is working to make mitzvot more meaningful and accessible in the modern world. Her latest project is called the “Mitzvah Centered Life”: using her book, Mitzvah Stories, and a specially created deck of cards known as “mitzvah cards,” Milgram travels the country leading workshops on mitzvot and Judaism. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation I had with Milgram in her house in Philadelphia.

What led you to start a new publishing house in the era of the Internet and a declining book market?

I approached my previous publisher with the idea of a book that would look at Jewish spiritual direction through the eyes of the 30 leading innovators in the world. I wanted to make the book in honor of Rabbi Shohama Harris Wiener—the first and only woman to have a seminary in Jewish history. The answer I got from my publisher was, “We don’t do that. We don’t publish books that honor people.” So I thought, “You know what? I am going to do it by myself. I am going to start a publishing house.”

I approached Rabbi Wiener and then I called 30 of my colleagues who are very active in the field of guiding people in their Jewish connection; they were all excited and donated a chapter for the book.

We started with two books. In the new book, Mitzvah Stories, we have stories from 60 leading Jewish authors, storytellers and clergy in the book from across the entire spectrum of Judaism. One of our goals at Reclaiming Judaism Press is to have respectful pluralism between the covers of a book. We want to help Jews see and share mitzvot together by telling stories and bringing a mitzvah to life in a creative way. Many authors entered the competition, and a jury chose the stories that are in the book. Most of them are juicy, provocative and make people think and expand their understanding of the mitzvah, in order to make them understand the meaning of a mitzvah-centered rather than a self-centered life. Isn’t this the mission of the Jewish people?

You use your mitzvah stories in your regular workshops. How do people react?

We have been travelling the country doing mitzvah story festivals and workshops. In these, we engage all kinds of interactive activities with the associated mitzvah cards. In telling stories, people become very engaged and interested in the dilemmas and how they would handle a particular situation.

Let’s talk about the special deck you created.

The deck has 52 mitzvah cards, each one of which has the mitzvah written in Hebrew and in transliteration, along with a simple explanation and a spiritual one that shows how the mitzvah can be activated. Instead of saying, “You should do this, you should do that,” it creates an opportunity to say, “I want to do that, I love the idea that that is in Judaism.” People have a chance to rejoice in living a mitzvah-centered life as a way to experience Judaism as meaningful.

Which mitzvah card do you have in front of you?

I have “Shalom bait.”

As you can see, “Shalom bait” is translated as “co-create peace–undertake conscious acts of self-restraint.” What we are trying to do is to help people reflect on the meaning of each mitzvah and activate it in their lives.

What’s your favorite mitzvah story from the book?

It is hard to choose, but one story touched me the most. It is the one by Benji Levene, an Orthodox rabbi I never had the chance to meet, who contributed from Israel. He told the story of his grandfather who was the tzadik of Jerusalem. When the British controlled Israel, he walked with prisoners who were condemned to death. He used to walk with them, and be their spiritual guide. Thus, the story is called ‘The Escort’ and emphasizes the importance of fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, accompanying guests. Transplanted in modern times, this mitzvah teaches us that when someone leaves our home, we should walk him a few paces to his car or to the elevator.

Apart from the world-renowned authors represented, like Anita Diamant, the jury picked a number of stories by young writers who have never been published before. One of them is Miriam Grossman, whose story is about the American government trying to take over Native American lands. That happened recently and brings different mitzvot and question to bear. How do we handle ourselves with the first people? How do we live a mitzvah-centered rather than a self-centered life?

Is one of your stories in the book, too?

In addition to a story in the book, I also wrote a chapter where I explained all about mitzvot: their history in Judaism, how they developed and famous commentaries on them.

My story is called “The God of Curried Fish,” and it is about an encounter that I had in a Jamaican restaurant. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, so I will just tell you that is about how you would handle yourself with someone who has just lost his job and is about to become homeless. What would you tell him?

I guess we need to read the book to know how you handled the situation. Do you have any new projects at the moment?

We do! We have two new major projects. The first one is a family treasury of mitzvah stories. While Mitzvah Stories honors Pennina Schram, world famous storyteller and one of my mentors, this treasury honors Danny Siegel, who created the Ziv Tzedakah foundation and who is famous for generating millions of dollars and mitzvah-centered projects all over the Jewish world.

You said you have two new projects…

Yes. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who founded Jewish Renewal, became famous after the Holocaust for inspiring meaningful, creative, spiritually profound Jewish living, restoring the spark to Jewish life. We had the forms, but not the energy and the spark.

Following his example, and in his honor, we are creating a multimedia online siddur which will have different innovators, musicians, Jewish yoga teachers, and movement and meditation teachers. You will be able to go online and click on videos that will take you to a service in a multimedia experience. There will also be videos to help you with Shabbat and holidays.

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