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Drut’syla – Jewish Storytelling

Drut’syla - Jewish Storytelling
Drut’syla – Jewish Storytelling

Jews are a religious group that have been subjected to brutality and persecution throughout much of early and modern history, but peace and creativity runs through Jewish culture.  Part of that tradition is telling imaginative stories. Storytelling has been iconic to a Jewish minority and has been passed down to young children through centuries.

The Jewish traditional style is to walk through a story and be led by imagery. Jewish art includes practices such as the Rabbinical cycles, which were picture cycles relating to the Hebrew Calendar. The Babylonian cycle tracks the 12 phases of the moon more closely based on the months of the year, which is a feature of early Israeli and Palestinian oral tradition. Songs and stories have been told in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Dutch and Turkish.

‘Drut’syla’ is the yiddish word for storyteller. This complex oral tradition was uprooted, and almost became extinct, during the Holocaust of the mid-twentieth century. Yet it continued after the Second World War in the surviving Jewish families around Europe.

The Last Ever Drut’syla?

Drut’syla lives on in the present day through Shonaleigh Cumbers, who learnt the technique from her grandmother. Her ‘bubbe’ Edith Marks was a storyteller in the Drut’syla tradition, whose memories were one of the few holding places of a body of 12 interlinked cycles of stories – each with hundreds of tales. The English storyteller can adapt over 3,000 stories to a theme and her audience. She is hailed as the last traditional Drut’syla to be taught storytelling in the Yiddish style. The study of Drut’syla is an ongoing research project undertaken by Shonaleigh Cumbers with the help of Dr Simon Heywood of the University of Derby in the UK.

Shonaleigh Cumbers
Shonaleigh Cumbers

The pair have been engaged in a process of archiving and documenting the drut’syla tradition as passed down to Shonaleigh since meeting at a storytelling group in Sheffield. During this process to date, no evidence has come forward that the tradition has survived elsewhere. This means that Shonaleigh is the last remaining Drut’syla.

The Future of The Tradition

Shonaleigh’s work and tradition she embodies will be documented in a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary-style DVD if the crowdfunding project reaches its target. The DVD will comprise interview footage of her working within the community as teacher and teller, as well as containing video of her telling tales from the cycles within the drut’syla tradition. The vision is to capture some of that intangible heritage and to make it accessible to an audience who may otherwise not be exposed to it, while preserving knowledge of Drut’syla for future generations. Her varied work is captivating to listen to. Each story gives an insight into the unique practice, which dates back hundreds if not thousands of years. She performed at the British Library in 2010.

Shonaleigh Cumbers performs in small venues as diverse as the National Theatre, schools, community projects, festivals all around the globe. You can find out when she is performing here.

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