Every time Dave Isay visits his parents' house, he searches for an elusive audio tape he recorded decades ago, when he was a teen. It's ironic that he can't find that tape-an interview with his grandmother-because today, Isay is famous for having created StoryCorps, the world's largest oral history project. "What I would give to have that recording," Dave says sadly.
Perhaps losing part of his own family's history propelled Isay to found StoryCorps, an organization that honors and celebrates lives through listening. Since 2003, about 30,000 people have sat in one of seven StoryCorps booths around the country and interviewed family and friends. With the help of a trained facilitator, each StoryBooth conversation is not only recorded on a free CD for the participant, but also archived at the Library of Congress. Some of the conversations air on National Public Radio's popular "Morning Edition" show.
Isay has listened to hundreds of compelling personal stories and knows that his work will preserve them for generations to come. We were eager to meet Dave and listen to his story.
BABA: Hi, Dave. Why do you believe it's important for people to tell their personal stories?
DAVE: Telling stories is not as important as listening to them. Listening lets people know that they matter and won't be forgotten. We live in a culture where we spend a lot of time in front of computer and TV screens, and once in a while it's important to turn those off, look a loved one in the eye, and show your love by listening.
BABA: Jewish tradition gives us an opportunity to do that.
DAVE: Yes, many families I know have Shabbat dinner traditions that involve deep listening, honest conversations, and real connection. For example, each person at the table describes something meaningful that happened that week, or talks about someone they're thankful for.
BABA: The Pesach Seder is another example of how Judaism emphasizes oral history; after all, we tell our people's story in an intimate, family setting. That's similar to what you do in the StoryCorps booth, isn't it?
DAVE: Absolutely. I took my mom to the booth, and I was reluctant to do that, because I figured I would know every story. But almost everything she said was something I didn't know. She talked about my great-grandfather, who ran a dry goods store in New York and whom I had never heard of. My mom said they called him a "pinprick Talmud scholar," meaning that if you told him one word on a page in the Talmud and stuck a pin through that word, he could tell you what word it would run through on every page in the book.
BABA: What was your Jewish background like?
DAVE: I went to a Jewish day school from kindergarten through sixth grade. I feel very connected to certain elements of Jewish culture, like klezmer music, Yiddish culture, poetry, and art. Jewish culture is a listening and oral culture, and in many ways, StoryCorps grew out of that. Interestingly, we also have a great number of Jewish participants.
BABA:What is the StoryCorps Zachor project?
DAVE: We have an idea to eventually create a project called Zachor, which means remember. The concept calls for integrating the StoryCorps experience into bar or bat mitzvah preparation. Kids would interview a grandparent and use what they learn in their bar or bat mitzvah speech. We hope that someday StoryCorps will encourage Jewish kids to go into senior centers and get to know the people there.
BABA: Thanks, Dave, and enjoy your Pesach Seder!