When Karen Golden was growing up Jewish in Flint, Mich., stories were passed around the dinner table along with the peas.
Today, the 34-year-old Westside resident is a professional storyteller, sharing with audiences the stories of Jewish life she loved as a child, as well other tales.
Both her parents were physicians, she said, and some of her favorite childhood stories were tales her parents told about their patients. There was the memorable Mrs. Sachs, for instance. A patient of Golden's late father, a cardiologist, Mrs. Sachs had a kind of genius for complaining.
"Oy, oy, oy," Mrs. Sachs would kvetch.
"Where does it hurt, Mrs. Sachs?" Golden's father would ask.
"Who says it hurts, Doctor?"
"Then why are you oying, Mrs. Sachs?"
"When I oy, it makes me feel better," Mrs. Sachs would explain, and, in retelling the tale, Golden's father would inevitably laugh and describe Mrs. Sachs' behavior as "Jewish preventive medicine."
Golden takes great pleasure in turning inchoate memories into shapely tales that she performs for Jewish groups and others, accompanying herself on sax, accordion, recorder and ocarina because "music can set a mood faster than words."
She also teaches storytelling. How to create personal stories is the subject of one of the seminars she conducts in her airy apartment in the Fairfax District. It is also the theme of a workshop she will lead this afternoon at the 13th Annual Summer Solstice Folk Music and Dance Festival at Soka University in Calabasas.
Four things distinguish a story from a half-formed reminiscence, Golden said. A story has a clear opening, even if it is just "When I was 5 years old." A story includes descriptions or evocations of character and place. It has conflict or drama or what Golden calls "a peak moment." And it always has a resolution, although not necessarily a happy one.
In her view, Jewish stories are not always about Jews nor are they always part of the traditional canon of Jewish tales. "But they always have within them a Jewish view of morality," she said. One story in her repertoire that she considers very Jewish is actually an African folk tale:
Once there was a man whose cows wouldn't give milk. One day the man met a maiden who had come to Earth from a distant star. The star maiden promised to marry the man and restore the yield of his cows if he swore he would never look in the basket she carried with her.
But the man became curious, so curious that he broke his promise and peeked inside the basket, only to discover that it was empty. But the basket wasn't really empty, the star maiden explained. It was filled with gifts that she would have taught him how to see if only he had waited.
The maiden went back to her star; the cows went back to withholding their milk, and the man was left with nothing but a new appreciation of the importance of spiritual things.
Golden said that is one of the stories she often tells when asked to perform in synagogues.
Every culture has tales, Golden said, and many cultures have the same stories. There are Chinese and Jewish versions of Cinderella, and the trickster is a standard character in the traditional stories of many cultures. The Navajo tell stories about Coyote, and Jews, too, have their traditional prankster, a character named Herschel Ostropolier.
In one of Golden's favorite stories about Herschel, he goes into an inn, dressed in his usual rags, and tells the innkeeper how hungry he is.
"We don't have anything to eat, Herschel," says the innkeeper.
Herschel is not about to take no for an answer and warns the innkeeper, "If you don't have anything to eat, then I'm going to have to do what my father did."
The innkeeper offers Herschel some bread, but the prospect of nothing but bread prompts Herschel to issue his warning again. "If all you have is bread, then I'm going to have to do what my father did."
The innkeeper ultimately antes up a fine meal for Herschel, and when he has eaten, the woman finally inquires, "What did your father do in similar circumstances, Herschel?"
And Herschel, the trickster, answers, "He went to bed hungry."
Golden, who has a master's degree in communication from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, decided to become a professional storyteller in 1986. At the time, she was host of a public radio show in Flint. "I interviewed a storyteller," she recalled, "and I thought, 'I think that's what I am.' "
Although storytelling is probably as old as man and is relentlessly low-tech, it is undergoing a major revival. Golden receives dozens of storytelling magazines and newsletters, and she is one of thousands of professional tale-spinners who belong to the National Assn. for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, based in Jonesborough, Tenn.
Storytelling is thriving today, she speculated, because it fills a basic human need for direct communication with other people.
One of Golden's favorite autobiographical tales is "How Steven Proposed."
Golden first met art director Steven Rachwal in seventh grade, when they were both in Hebrew school in Flint, although, she recalled, "We didn't know we liked each other until four years ago."
The two had been dating for some time and were flying back to Flint from Los Angeles when Steven pointed out to her that the seat-belt sign had been turned off. So what, she thought. Then Steven got up and went through the curtain into the first-class cabin.
Suddenly, over the public-address system, came the voice of the flight attendant saying she had a special announcement for passenger Karen Golden.
And then Steven's voicing was filling the cabin.
"Karen, what are you doing for the next 60 years? Will you marry me?"
Then Karen, always ready for an audience, was flying up the aisle toward Steven, while the other passengers applauded and the flight attendants poured champagne. They were married last year.
"Now that's a story," said Golden, who should know.
The Summer Solstice Festival, which began Friday, continues through today. Golden's workshop is at 12:30 p.m. Information on the festival: (818) 880-8630.