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The Healing Power of Story

Sunday, June 19, 2011, OCAD University
100 McCaul Street, Main Auditorium
Storytellers Laura Simms and Dan Yashinsky discuss the power of art to
effect individual and community transformation. Hosted by Eli Rubenstein.
Eli Rubenstein, Introduction to 2011 Luminato Festival Program, “The
Healing Power of Story.”
Good Afternoon. My name is Eli Rubenstein, and welcome to this Sunday event at Luminato
called, “The Healing Power of Story”. It is my pleasure to introduce our distinguished panel of
storytellers Laura Simms and Dan Yashinsky who will be discussing the power of art to effect individual and community transformation.
Laura Simms is a writer, teacher, and activist, and has worked with communities from New
Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina to Sierra Leone. I might add that she is the adopted mother of
Ishmael Beah, the former Sierra Leonian child soldier and author of the awarding winning book,
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.
Along with Laura Simms, I wanted to also introduce our own local hero, Dan Yashinsky, well
known and beloved by many in Toronto’s storytelling community. Dan is a radio host, author,
and community organizer whose work includes Talking You In, a words-and-music exploration
of a family’s neo-natal intensive care unit experiences that has been used in medical staff
training programs. And I might add, Dan is the father of two children, one of whom I had the
privilege of teaching, and performing his bar-mitzvah.
Now both Laura and Dan’s bios and achievements run far longer than the brief descriptions I
have just shared with you, but at both of their requests I have kept the introductions short, so we
can have more time for discussions and actual storytelling.
So let’s begin the discussion right now, and I will do so with the following thoughts. As you all
know, the story of Shahrazad and the One Thousand and One Nights is a centerpiece of this
year’s Luminato Festival. At the core of the story, we have a bitter, misogynistic King, who
cannot trust women because he was betrayed by his first wife. Thus, he decides that each night
he will marry a different young woman, and execute them the next morning, so that there will be
no chance of them betraying him. All goes according to plan, until he me meets the wise and
lovely Shahrazad, who delays her execution each morning, by weaving such interesting and also
unfinished stories, that the King insists on keeping her alive so that she may continue the tale. By
the end of 1,001 nights, Shahrazad has run out of stories, but by then, the King has fallen in love
with her, and has also rid himself of his anger toward women and his desire for blind revenge
over his earlier betrayal. 2
The King has then been cured – and the antidote for his malady, the medicine if you will – is
storytelling…the stories moderated, calmed down, and finally humanized what once was a bitter,
vengeful and cruel king.
So with this in mind, I want to share with you a famous quote by Oscar Wilde, and then take
issue with it.
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly
written.” And by extension people have said that about art in general – Art cannot be moral or
immoral – it can and should only be judged whether it is done well or not.
I want to challenge that statement by saying that Art and storytelling, must not only be good –
they should be moral, they should, in some way, help us build a more compassionate, caring and
empathetic universe.
And to illustrate this, I want to share a story from the life of Dr. Janusz Korzack, who lived from
1878-1942. To those of you who may not be familiar with him, he was a victim of the Nazi
Holocaust, one of the six million Jews, and millions of others, who were caught up in the Nazi
reign of terror in World War II.
Korzack, until the last moment of his life, dedicated himself to the rights of children, and was
one of the first people in history, to understand that children were not potential people, not half
adults, but individuals who deserved full respect and dignity each and every day of their lives.
(If you have a moment, please read Korzack’s Declaration of Children's Rights. Written over
three quarters of a century ago, its wisdom is every bit as relevant to us moderns.) Korzack ran
orphanages in Warsaw, before and even during the war, wrote children’s stories, was on Polish
radio and even today is a beloved figure in the eyes of many Poles. Dr. Korzack had one rule
which he almost never broke: never lie to children, a rule which he was tragically forced to
violate one day in August of 1942, when the Nazis ordered him and his children to report to the
train station for their deportation to Treblinka death camp. Giving up a number of last minute
chances of escape (for himself), Korzack asked the children to prepare for a picnic, to get
dressed, grab their favorite dolls and other objects, and off they marched through the streets of
Warsaw, to the cattle cars, where they were transported to Treblinka and murdered together with
some other 850,000 souls, almost all Jews. Today, there are 17,000 jagged stones and markers in
Treblinka, many with names of the Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust, but only
stone has a name dedicated to a single person – Dr. Janusz Korzack and his children.
There are hundreds of stories about Janusz Korzack, but allow me just to share one story with
you, which I just came across recently, a story that took place in Korzack’s childhood, that might
have influenced him for rest of his life.
Is it Worth it?
“When I was passing once over a stream’s small wooded bridge, I saw an insect swept away
by the flow of the water and trying with all it’s might to be saved.
Shall I save him?
But in order to save this insect, I have to jump into the stream and get drenched to the bone – is
it worth it?
And then I heard a voice:
If you don’t make now this small sacrifice, youngster, in order to save this small living thing, you
won’t be ready when you grow up to save a man either.”
There was no limit to my satisfaction when I saw the insect afterwards in the palm of my hand as
he was recovering and straightening his wings. We won’t see each other again. Fly off and be
happy.” (Janusz Korczak, With the Child)
We shall never meet again. Fly off in peace and be happy….
This story I only came across recently, but it has been a story that has been at the back of my
mind ever since I discovered it…. reminding me of how important it is to set yourself on the
right path early on, how even seemingly small acts of kindness, can blossom into a life of
exceptional empathy and self-sacrifice.
A few weeks ago, I had a day where I didn’t have a moment to breath. During the 10 actual free
minutes managed to squeeze into the day, I came across a frantic woman in a pet store. Her tiny
weeks old rabbit, was having a seizure, and in terrible distress. All the vets were closed, and she
had no idea what to do. Every suggestion I made did not work. She couldn’t go to the emergency
vet I recommended, b/c of a back problem she had. She couldn’t come with me, because her
daughter was waiting for her in the car etc.
In the end, I ended up taking the rabbit to a veterinary clinic up north (after trying 3 other
locations) but alas, they could not save her. The kindly doctor gently held the tiny rabbit in his
hand, giving her a sedative to end her terrifying spasms, before feeding the drug into the IV line
that would ultimately end her short life. At least, I thought, they were able to lessen the pain of
her passing. The woman, who I was in touch later, was ever so grateful to learn that we had done
whatever could be done to ease the suffering of this tiny innocent creature.
And I wondered if my actions were in some ways connected to the story about Korzack that was
in the back of my mind… both a beautiful story (which would have made Oscar Wilde happy)
and a moral story, a story of kindness and compassion to all living things, a story that took place
some time in the 1890’s and, 120 years later is still having an impact on actions, a full continent
So my question to both of you, Dan and Laura, is this: Is the prime purpose of storytelling to heal
our broken spirits, to heal our souls, and to heal the world?
And I am going to ask Dan to begin the discussion by sharing his thoughts and of course a few
stories on this important question..

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784