This tribute first appeared in the Jewish Storytelling Newsletter (from the New York Jewish storytelling group). You can read more about Reuven in the anthology, Chosen Tales.
One of my fellow board members from Storytellers in Concert (in Boston) was excited. She had just come back from the Mythos conference in Niagara Falls, where she had heard a storyteller who told Hassidic stories—and told them from the heart. She was sure I would love to hear him, so she grabbed me and took me to her car stereo and played me part of a tape, right then. The tape was made by Reuven Gold.
I first met Reuven Gold at the National Storytelling Conference, the annual June event in Jonesborough, Tennessee. We were both hired to give workshops. For both of us, it was our first time to give workshops there; both of us were nervous. I was introduced to a round man with a long, wide beard and trembling hands. He wore an African-print dashiki shirt and a kipa (Jewish skull-cap). So this was Reuven Gold!
When Reuven told a story on the opening night of the conference, I heard a strained voice begin—and abruptly stop. Then Reuven stepped aside for a drink of water. Once the brief interruption was over and the story began again, I was transported to the world of the Hassidic masters. Quickly—almost too quickly—the story was over, and there stood again that perplexing mix of hippy and tsaddik (holy man), of a self-conscious, middle-aged man from Chicago and a powerful channeler of timeless Jewish culture. I was left with a twin puzzle: What do I make of this story teller? What kind of a character is this?
Before the weekend was over, I would love both the character and the storyteller.
I began to connect personally to Reuven when, later that evening, he said to me, "Can you imagine how scared I must have been, to choke up like that when I got to the microphone?" Up to that moment, his nervousness had made me pull away from him. Now, it became a bond between us. In the course of the weekend, each of the other ways in which I initially pulled away from him also turned into a connection.
The next morning at breakfast, I got another glimpse of the two-sided, eccentric/lovable character. Here, in Eastern Tennessee—where Reuven's appearance was even more unusual to most people than it was to me, a city-bred Northerner—he approached one person after another in the breakfast line, offered and gave them each a hug. This was definitely beyond the bounds of Southern decorum! But then I heard him say to another Jew there (there were only four of us out of 100 at the conference), "This is my morning mitzvah [good deed, holy obligation]. There's no telling when these people last got a hug!" And, even though I was embarrassed by his "crossing the line," my heart began to go out to him.
The turning point for me was going to his workshop. Since I was also a presenter, I could only attend one of the other workshops. The one I chose was Reuven's.
Six years have past as I write this, but I still have clear images from that workshop. I still can see him telling a Zen story, "The Gates of Heaven." I can still feel my own gasp for air as I "got" the story. In it, a Zen master dares to be obnoxious in response to an obnoxious samurai warrior—and thereby helps him change his violent life. I've since made a point of collecting stories about non-violent conflict resolution, but that story was the first I discovered.
What was the second such story? I also heard Reuven tell it in that workshop. Years later I discovered it in Buber's Tales of the Hasidim as "On the Conversion of Men." But for me, it will always be "How I learned to study Torah." Even though I have now told this story many times myself and have even recorded it, when I tell it I always see Reuven's arms in their mimed "hug," and hear his voice saying—twice—the final line of the story: "I first learned to study Torah when the great rebbe Aaron of Karlin held me, silently, in his arms." There is a way in which I first learned to tell Jewish stories when Reuven Gold held us all, invisibly, in his trembling arms.
Reuven took my breath away with these pithy, powerful stories. But he made me stop breathing altogether when he began to confront some members of the workshop. I remember one woman asking him a question in a slightly hostile tone. Reuven, rather than answering the question, asked her about her tone. She said, "I don't like you very much!" Reuven asked her why not. She said, "Well, you hugged me this morning, and your beard was scratchy." By now, the room was galvanized with shock at this exchange. This was not the sort of thing one said at a storytelling workshop!
Just at this moment, when our jaws were dropped in surprise and embarrassment, Reuven smiled at the woman. "I have many obnoxious qualities," he said. "But are you going to let them get in the way of your storytelling?" And then he went back to her original question, which, we could now all see, was predicated on her powerlessness in the face of everyone else around her being "not right." By being willing to admit to being "obnoxious," and "not right," he helped her take back some of her power.
Reuven and the woman were fast friends for the rest of the workshop. And I had made my own decision: I was not going to let my embarrassment, distrust, or my need not to be scared get in the way of learning from this storyteller.
Our paths only crossed two more times, once in New York, once in Tennessee; neither time was he a featured performer, and neither time was I able to see his power so strongly as I had in his workshop. I wrote him letters that he never answered. I offered to promote his tape in the liner notes to one of mine, and got no reply. I wrote him in January, 1988— when I was preparing to record The Forgotten Story: Tales of Wise Jewish Men—asking his permission to record two stories I had first heard from him in Tennessee. I received no answer.
But it didn't matter. I had already made the decision not to let anything get in the way of my storytelling—or of enjoying his.
When I heard of his death, I called the publisher of "The Forgotten Story" and said, "you have to change the insert for the cassette. Now it should say, 'Dedicated to the memory of Reuven Gold.'"
Reuven had a lot more to teach me. What's the second best tribute I can imagine to him? To continue to learn it without him.
Three months ago, I learned that my recording of "How I Learned to Study Torah" had helped a daycare worker realize that he could become a rabbi without having to abandon his "heart" for the legalistic study of Torah. He's now planning to attend seminary.
What's the best tribute I can imagine us all giving to Reuven? To keep the chain going: to keep giving our story-hugs, even when—especially when—people insist that our metaphorical beards are just too scratchy.