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Worldwide maggid bringing back an old tradition

Rabbi Paysach KrohnA schoolboy brings his expensive watch to the yeshiva one day and leaves it on his desk during recess. When he returns to the classroom, the watch is gone…

An Orthodox couple divorces after years of unsuccessfully trying to have a family. Shortly after the divorce is granted, the wife learns that she is pregnant…

A young Romanian Jewish girl, who watcher her father being slain by the Nazis, is given a doll and a watch — and a chance to gain freedom and safety by escaping to Israel — but she refuses the offer…

Thus begin three true stories, a tiny fraction of the hundreds  that constitute the life’s work, religious mission and personal passion of Rabbi Paysach Krohn, raconteur extraordinaire — or, to use the term that has come most succinctly to describe him, maggid.

Over the past two decades, Rabbi Krohn has authored and published nine books, seven of which are collections bearing the word maggid in the title, the most recent of which is In the Spirit of the Maggid. More than 200,000 of them are in print today.

He has also delivered hundreds of public lectures and presentations, including a series of them last week in Denver at EDOS, DAT and BMH-BJ.

Whether writing or speaking, the rabbi’s intent is the same: to entertain, in the way that only a good storyteller can; and to educate, in the way that only a maggid can.

An enthusiastic, outgoing, informal and articulate man, Rabbi Krohn told the Intermountain Jewish News last week about this mysterious figure known as the maggid.

In the Jewish golden age that once flourished throughout Eastern Europe, he says, the maggid served as a spiritual and educational supplement to the rabbis and rebbes who served as community leaders.

Unlike the rabbis, however, who lived within the communities they led, the maggidim were mostly wanderers, itinerant preachers who moved from shtetl to shtetl.

They also employed a different approach.

“The maggid was a type of person who went from city to city to city and would lecture in a different style from the rabbi,” Rabbi Krohn says. “The rabbis’ sermons were very strict and didactic, but the maggid would always tell a parable, then he would open up the people and then he would zing it.”

Today’s maggidim — among whom Rabbi Krohn is easily the best known and most visible — are no longer itinerant wanderers.

But they are still preachers and storytellers, and they still use a style quite distinct from the traditional rabbinic sermon.

And, as the rabbi’s success as a writer and speaker dramatically evinces, they are still very much in demand.

Rabbi Krohn — a fifth generation and still-practicing mohel in his other life — deserves a lot of the credit for resurrecting the maggid tradition from relative obscurity into its current popularity. In many ways, his work served as the bridge between the venerable maggid of the shtetl to the modern role that he fulfills.

That bridge, however, did have another side.

In Rabbi Krohn’s case, his link with the traditional Jewish storyteller came in the form of Rabbi Sholom Schwadron (1912-1997), a renowned Israeli Talmudic scholar and author who practiced the spoken art of the maggid in his Jerusalem community and internationally.

When Rabbi Krohn was a child, Rabbi Schwadron was a visitor to his New York home on a number of occasions, some of them for extended periods, and the elder rabbi became a fast friend of the younger Krohn’s father.

The family quickly learned to love the powerful and moving stories that the maggid brought to their home.

“The two of them became like brothers,” the rabbi says of the elder maggid and his father. “My father was not an emotional person like I am. He was more low-key, the more sophisticated type. I never saw him so enamored with a person as he was with Rabbi Schwadron.”

Rabbi Schwadron once spent six months in their house, and “every moment that he was there we had the tape recorder on. That’s when we got to hear the stories.”

After his own father’s death, “Rabbi Schwadron became sort of our surrogate grandfather,” Rabbi Krohn says, “and every time that he came to America afterwards, he always stayed in our home.”

The friendship was so close that the maggid attended Rabbi Krohn’s wedding, to the former Miriam Bryks, which took place in Denver at the old HEA on the West Side (now, Yeshiva Toras Chaim).

The idea to translate Rabbi Schwadron’s stories into English came to Rabbi Krohn several years later from the ArtScroll publishing house, which had greatly expanded publishing options for Orthodox subjects.

“So I approached him and said, ‘Why don’t we do these stories? You tell them to me, let me look at your notes, I’ll come to your house in Israel and let’s put together a book.’”

Rabbi Schwadron, whose own writing was devoted to more scholarly Talmudic subjects, loved the idea. Still, Rabbi Krohn recalls, putting together that first book — The Maggid Speaks — was a challenging and time-consuming process, since Rabbi Krohn often understood the maggid’s stories in a different way than the originator did.

The two storytellers chose a cooperative approach, with Rabbi Krohn articulating his interpretations in introductions and interpolations in the stories, and Rabbi Schwadron’s interpretations constituting the main section. The two were distinguished by differing column widths.

The Maggid Speaks was an instantaneous hit, selling well over 10,000 copies, attracting considerable notice among Orthodox readers. It wasn’t long before Krohn was under pressure to come up with a second book.

“Well, where was I going to find other stories? I went back to Rabbi Schwadron and told him that they wanted us to write another book. He said, ‘Well, I gave you my best stuff, but I have some others.’

“But they weren’t of the same quality. So the second book was called Around the Maggid’s Table.  What happened is that once I started telling stories people started saying to me, ‘Hey I’ve got a great story for you.’ So in the second book, out of the 100 stories, 40 were from him but 60 were from others that I heard in other places. That was the idea.

“By the third book, it was called In the Footsteps of the Maggid. In other words, the maggid is out — his picture is not on the book jacket anymore. Then came the fourth and the fifth and so on.”

“All of a sudden this was a niche that I got into,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘Well, wait a second, you could really inspire people.’ I couldn’t believe it in the beginning. When I was speaking I was talking to maybe 20 people. But then people would call me from out of town and say, ‘we heard your lecture.’ So I realized that I was reaching thousands of people, and affecting them. Now it goes on the radio, on the Internet.”

Rabbi Krohn says that Rabbi Schwadron was fine with the idea that his own cache of stories was not large enough to sustain the demands of Rabbi Krohn’s ever-expanding readership and audience. Rabbi Schwadron seemed to recognize that the younger rabbi had found his own unique calling, and didn’t regard the transition as a passing of the torch.

“I don’t think that he necessarily looked at it that way,” Rabbi Krohn says. “But I think the world looks at it that way. We had totally different styles . . . and he never said, you know, ‘you’re going to be my mouthpiece.’ It just never came up.”

Eventually, the day came when Rabbi Krohn’s work had grown well enough known and respected that the coveted title was finally conferred upon him.

“The first time that somebody introduced me as a maggid,” he says, “I was at the top of the world. To me, to be a maggid is to be the epitome.”

Book cover of Rabbi Paysach Krohn's latest publication, In the Spirit of the MaggidTo be a maggid, of course, is also to be a preacher.

That mandates that a moral and religious lesson must be taught, that sins must be condemned and mistakes pointed out, that necessary rebukes be made.

But the effectiveness of the maggid’s approach is largely based on performing these necessary tasks in a friendly and non-threatening manner. It’s an Orthodox take on Mary Poppins’ old adage that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

“That’s really what it is,” Rabbi Krohn acknowledges. “What I try to do is build people. I don’t tell people how bad they are, but I will tell them what they can accomplish and how they can do even better. I don’t think anybody likes to be talked down to. I think that the story is a great vehicle to bring across the lesson.”

Crucial to that mission is that the story must be true.

Rabbi Krohn has nothing against fiction or folklore, but he finds fact to be a far more useful tool. Stories that are about real instead of imagined things, that are about contemporaries, as opposed to people from vastly differing times and places, have considerable more immediacy and effect, he believes.

He goes to considerable effort to check out the veracity of the stories that come his way and feels confident that he has never been “burned” by a false tale.

“I usually check it out with the people who the story has happened to,” he says. “When somebody reads a story and he knows the person in the story, or he knows that the author has checked it out, there’s such a veracity and truth to it that they can really learn from it.

“When something is fiction, it’s fine, it’s nice and inspirational, but it falls by the wayside. But, my goodness, if your neighbor gave up something to help a poor person or did something extraordinary . . . it’s so moving, it can literally make you cry. It gives it a punch.”

The story referred to in this article’s introduction — about the young Romanian Jewish girl — is a powerful and moving account of the actual experience of a woman who is still alive today and is a close friend of Rabbi Krohn’s wife.

“This is a woman who works with my wife in the Jewish burial society, the chevra kadisha, and when you learn that this woman — who you know from down the block — did these things when she was 10 years old, oh my gosh, that’s an impression.”

Without giving away the story, that particular story conveys a powerful message about the importance of Torah observance, and of an individual’s dedication to that ideal.

The proverbial moral of the story, in fact, is the single most important element of each and every account that makes it into Rabbi Krohn’s speeches and books.

“Every point that I want to bring out will have some sort of story or parable,” he says. “You try to balance it. You want them to have the lesson that you want them to go away with, but  you want to open them up with a story — show them that they can do that as well.”

The storytelling reputation of Rabbi Krohn has grown to the point that he no longer has to go seeking stories to tell — instead, they come to him.

Motivated partly by the universal human desire to share something interesting and partly by the desire to have their personal memories immortalized in a book, an amazing network of sources has surrounded the maggid.

“The network has grown so wide, to the point that wherever I go, to a wedding, people are telling me stories. And people will call me. In New York, when somebody hears a story, they’ll say, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s a Rabbi Krohn story. You’ve got to call him.’ Half the people don’t call, but it’s like an adjective already — it’s a Paysach Krohn story.”

But the rabbi still goes searching on his own. Sometimes, he finds stories among friends and close acquaintances; on rare occasions, he uses experiences from his own life.

He also reads a lot of books, particularly those which describe the lives of great rabbis.

“I’ll read it to see if I can pick up any tidbits of information. I do a lot of research of individuals in Jewish history. And I’m a good listener. I listen to everybody.”

Some of his stories have come from Denver, with which Rabbi Krohn keeps close ties.

Not all the stories that come his way can make the final cut, of course. A great many of the stories that he encounters do not possess the crucial ingredients which Rabbi Krohn feels are necessary.

“The test is that it has to be a universally inspirational story. Now there are many wonderful things that happen to people, that inspire them, but it’s not going to inspire anybody else.

“When I write a book, out of the 95 to 100 stories, every one should be somebody’s favorite someplace. It should be so powerful that somebody will say that one story was worth the book just for that. It’s got to be something that everybody can pick up.”

The author himself, however, will not allow himself to be the sole judge of a story’s worthiness or lack thereof. Rabbi Krohn often employs his own form of market research before making the ultimate decision on a story.

“Many times I think a story is not so great, but when I try it around the Shabbos table, everybody says, ‘Wow, that’s great,’” he says. “So then I’ll use it. And sometimes I think a story is fabulous but people don’t like it. Then I can’t use it.

“I just want people to feel that they can be inspired. But if a story is meaningful to me but not to them, then what’s the point?”

Rabbi Krohn has time and again proven adept as both a writer and a speaker, but he finds himself unable to decide which of the two he loves best.

“I love speaking,” he says readily. “I love feeding off the audience. I want all the lights on. I don’t want just to speak to the front row. I have to see how people are reacting.

“And I enjoy the writing because I know that the writing is forever. If you print something, it’s forever. The speaking is a different joy. I love the interaction with people. So I don’t know which I love more.”

Regardless of the method, he does know that he loves imparting important messages by telling stories — the ultimate calling of the maggid — and says it still amazes him how well the idea has caught on.

When asked why he has managed to relate so effectively to such a wide and varied audience of Orthodox readers and listeners, Rabbi Krohn posits a theory.

“I think that people know that I love them,” he says. “People know that I care about other people. I think people get the idea that I really love Jews and that I care for their problems and feel their pain and would help anybody if I could.

“And I don’t come across as somebody who’s higher than thou. I’m just a regular guy. It’s amazing to me. The Satmar will invite me to their Chanukah parties. I can’t believe it. I’m the only guy there without a beard, except for the politicians.”

When asked how long he is likely to continue his work as a writing and speaking maggid, Rabbi Krohn admits that he has no idea.

“I didn’t even think it would go this far! Every time I finish a maggid book I say this is the end.”

However long the series of books and lectures stretches ahead, Rabbi Krohn is sure of one thing — the message inherent in the stories will make it all worthwhile.

“The message is just that everybody should try to be better because they really can be. Broaden your perspective and grow in every aspect — in giving charity, in davening, in being sensitive to other people’s feelings.

“It’s just a question of focus and effort and willpower. And I’m included. I’m far from perfect.”

Perfect maybe not, but he is a  superb maggid — one with a story to tell and a message to deliver.

“My hope is that people will be able to read these stories or hear the lectures and say, ‘You know something? I could be a better person.’ If somebody can walk away from a story or speech and say, ‘I’m going to be better because of this,’ that’s the greatest goal.”

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com

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