The Power of Storytelling

Posted on March 21st, 2012 by

By Amy Smith, JMM Development Coordinator

Last weekend, a group of friends and I went to see Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Center Stage.  At first I was hesitant to attend Center Stage’s version of this classic, as nothing, in my mind, could live up to the original Broadway production starring Bernadette Peters as the Witch.  Further, I knew the lyrics and music would be stuck in my head for a long time after, which of course did not stop me from cueing up the soundtrack on my iPod as soon as we ordered our tickets.

However, this production left me with a deeper understanding of the power of stories.  For those of you who stay far, far away from musicals, Into the Woods is about a baker and his wife who are desparate to have a child.  The plot also integrates the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella.  Towards the end of the play, the Baker is overcome with grief after his wife is killed by the Giant and he is left alone to raise their newborn son.  In his moment of despair, the Baker’s Wife returns in spirit form to tell her husband that he must tell their child the story of the Woods because actions have lasting consequences on future generations.  This idea of storytelling is mirrored within the set itself; the Narrator moves a diorama sized version of the stage around the actual stage, enforcing the idea that we are watching a play within a play.

Erik Liberman and Danielle Ferland in Into the Woods at CENTERSTAGE. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, directed by Mark Lamos. Photo © Richard Anderson.

Storytelling seems to be a popular theme lately in the museum field as well as in theater.  The theme for next year’s American Association of Museum’s Annual Meeting in Baltimore is storytelling, and the JMM’s Student Immigrant Stories program was a hit at Museums Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. back in February.  This spring, Jewish storyteller Jennifer Zunikoff is conducting a workshop with Museum staff and volunteers in how to facilitate storytelling.  These weekly workshops have become something that I look forward to, perhaps because it allows me to unleash my inner theatre geek.

Rachael Binning and I during one of Jennifer Zunikoff’s storytelling workshops.

I’m certainly not the only JMM staffer with an appreciation for theater.  On March 15, the JMM held a Saul Bernstein living history performance.  During this performance, the actor playing Bernstein told his story of being a Lithuanian peddler, immigrating to Baltimore at the turn of the 20th century at MICA, and going on to become an accomplished painter.  The program paid tribute to Tim King, who originated the role of Saul Bernstein; introduced a new actor, Grant Cloyd; and thanked Harry and John Kassap of the Leo V. Berger Fund for their support of the Immigrant’s Trunk program.  The program was a success and each and every one of the 25 audience members who attended was engaged and captivated by the story.

Actor Grant Cloyd as Saul Bernstein on March 15, 2012. Photo by Will Kirk.

If you couldn’t make it to the Saul Bernstein program, never fear, there is another opportunity to attend theater at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in the near future.  On April 19th at 7 pm, the Jewish Museum of Maryland is premiering Teibele and Hurmizah, a Yiddish and English adaptation of Isaac Bashevis’ erotic story.  This production is directed by Johns Hopkins undergraduate Tamar Nachmany.  To make reservations, please contact Rachel Cylus at or call 410-732-6400 x215.  Hope to see you there!


Make your reservation for Teibele and Hurmizah on April 19, 2012 at 7 pm at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.


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Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington

Posted on February 29th, 2012 by

A blog post by Amy Smith, Development Coordinator

On February 27 and 28, I had the opportunity to represent the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Council of American Jewish Museums at the 2012 Museums Advocacy Day.  Presented by the American Association of Museums, this advocacy event brought museum professionals, lay leaders, volunteers, and supporters from all over the country to Capitol Hill to lobby for federal funding for the Office of Museum Services through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Amy Smith at the Georgetown University Hotel & Conference Center holding her Museums Advocacy Day schedule.

On Monday, I attend a series of workshops about how to lobby for museums and learned about the critical issues facing museums today.  The primary issue AAM focused on this year was IMLS; they wanted delegates to support funding of at least $35 million in FY13 for the IMLS Office of Museum Services.  Second, they wanted the delegates to know that museums have a huge impact on the economy, contributing $20 billion to the economy each year and providing 400,000 jobs.  Third, they opposed President Obama’s FY13 budget proposal that would limit the deductibility of charitable gifts, thereby hurting museums and other nonprofits.  Finally, since museums are critical partners in education, they wanted to make the delegates aware of our educational programs and the fact that museums partner with school districts to teach the curriculum.

February 27 Museums Advocacy Day training session at Georgetown University Hotel.

After the instruction on Monday, on Tuesday I was ready to lobby!  From Maryland, I met with staff members from the offices of Senator Ben Cardin, Senator Barbara Mikulski, Representative John Sarbanes, and Representative Elijah Cummings.  Since I was representing CAJM, headquartered at the Center for Judaic Studies in Denver, Colorado, I also had meetings scheduled with Senator Mark Udall, Representative Diana DeGette, and Senator Michael Bennet.  These meetings were scheduled back to back, and it was exhausting to run around the Capitol, from building to building.  But, the weather was beautiful, and it was an invigorating experience.

Amy Smith standing in front of the Capitol.

The location and structure of each meeting varied; some were literally small group meetings of two or three people in the hallway outside the delegates’ office.  As a side note, Research Historian Deb Weiner shared with me that lobbying actually comes from the custom of influence-seekers gathering outside legislative chambers: http:///  And I thought we were giving new meaning to the word lobbying!

Other meetings were much larger.  The one with Senator Cardin’s office (first meeting of the morning, I should add) involved 20 people sitting around a conference table, where each person had enough time only to introduce themselves.  In this meeting, JMM docent Robyn Hughes argued that museums have a huge impact on education, and therefore should be able to compete for these funds.  For example, she elaborated on the JMM’s Student Immigrant Stories program where JMM staffers go into area high schools and facilitate storytelling with ESL students who have recently immigrated to the U.S.  Eventually these students are able to tell their stories in front of their classmates and community organizations.  As we were wrapping up, the legislative aid fondly remembered visiting the JMM for a staff retreat a couple of years ago, so I consider that a success.

Tom Smith waiting outside the office of Senator Ben Cardin for our meeting with his legislative aid.

Robyn Hughes and Amy Smith at Museums Advocacy Day

Other meetings were much more intimate.  Since I was representing CAJM, I also had the privilege of meeting with Colorado delegates.  The most rewarding was the meeting with Sally Mayes at Senator Bennet’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building, and not just because my group ran into Senator Bennet in the elevator.  This was my last meeting of the day, and by that time I had practiced articulating my case quite a few times.  I talked briefly about the JMM’s annual Summer Teachers’ Institute, a professional development program where we educate teachers on how to teach the Holocaust to their students.  My husband Tom talked about economic impact, and how his small technology startup company works with organizations that receive IMLS funding.  The meeting was refreshing because Ms. Mayes was so engaged in the conversation, which made it easy for everyone to tell their stories.

I met some amazing people from Colorado – Glo Cunningham, Director of Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum; Andrea Miller, Colorado-Wyoming Association of Museums, and Megan Bell, a graduate student at the University of Buffalo who was there to support her home state of Colorado.

Museums Advocacy Day was an extremely rewarding experience.  It was my first time lobbying on Capitol Hill, and I got the opportunity to meet and connect with some really interesting museum professionals.  I’ll definitely be back next year.

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Love People: Cook Them Tasty Food

Posted on January 23rd, 2012 by

A blog post by Development Coordinator Amy Smith

It is no secret that Jews love Chinese food.  Having missed our December 25th program: Chanukah, Christmas, and Everything Chinese, where visitors played mah-jong, made origami, and enjoyed Chinese food while exploring Chosen Food, I was determined to eat Chinese food on Christmas Day.  This turned out to be an easy task in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, where my husband and I spent Christmas Day with his family.

My husband’s cousin and my mother-in-law at Shangri-La Inn, in Bala Cynwyd, PA on Christmas Day.

From family gatherings in Philadelphia, to endless dinners with friends in Baltimore, by mid-January, I had thought that my holiday eating spree was finally coming to an end.  That’s when my friend/former bridesmaid, Lingsheng, told me she  planned to host a potluck for the Chinese New Year.  Knowing nothing about the traditions surrounding the Chinese New Year, I immediately jumped onto Wikipedia and learned that January 23, 2012 begins the year of the Dragon (I was born in the year of the Rabbit). Find out what year you were born in here: http:/// 

Though the potluck was in celebration of the upcoming Chinese New Year, guests were told that we did not have to cook Chinese food.  When we got there, there was an impressive array of international dishes, from vegetarian and chicken fried rice to Japanese tofu curry to penne with fresh mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes.

Chinese New Year potluck on January 21, 2012 at the apartment of Lingsheng Li.

Like many parties, the evening consisted of schmoozing with friends, eating and drinking good food, and playing games. However, a few elements made this celebration different from others.  First, guests were encouraged to wear red, a color that is supposed to ward off bad fortune.  Second, the hosts served tangerines for dessert, a symbol of luck.  And finally, guests were given red packets filled with candy as a party favor.

Party guests wear red to scare away evil spirits.

Mandarin oranges or tangerines are served during the Chinese New Year, as they symbolize luck.


Red envelopes filled with money are typically given to children.

While I chatted with Lingsheng in the kitchen, a sticker on her wall caught my eye.  It said – “Love People: Cook them tasty food.”  As I think back on all the holiday meals with family and friends, I realize this is the element that ties them all together.  In both the Chinese and Jewish traditions, food is an expression of love.  And in our case, food crosses cultural boundaries and has the ability to bring people together.

Lingsheng cooking fried rice in her kitchen.

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