Top storytellers share stories that conjure the holiday spirit. David Dean Bottrell discovers his passion after stealing the school play's spotlight; Andrea Kamens’s bright menorah cuts through the darkness of anti-semitism; and Joe Charnitski tries to break a nightmare-before-Christmas bad luck streak.
JOE CHARNITSKI: I woke up on December 21
with a renewed determination.
My slump ends today.
Why? I have no idea. (laughter)
DAVID DEAN BOTRELL: We arrived at the auditorium to find it
quickly filling up with people.
My heart started to pound.
I mean, what if we all forgot our lines?
ANDREA KAMENS: Jewish holidays
don't just have food and traditions.
We have rules and opinions. (laughter)
BOTTRELL: My name is David Dean Bottrell.
I'm a writer and an actor.
I've lived in Los Angeles, worked a lot in TV,
and also done a lot of stage work.
And I do this show called
"David Dean Bottrell Makes Love: A One-Man Show."
That's fantastic, and your acting resume
is very extensive-- you know, Modern Family,
The Blacklist, Law & Order: SVU.
I'm wondering when did you start deciding to tell
your own stories on stage?
Um, there was a show in Los Angeles
that a friend of mine took me to that I loved.
But I was very intimidated because the people were
so good in it.
And I finally took a risk, went in, and did a story.
And then I got kind of hooked after that.
And I started to really become intrigued
with just storytelling as an artform.
Because as an actor, your goal is to disappear,
to become someone else.
And this is really the exact opposite of that.
This is becoming transparent,
And if you want to be successful at it,
if you really want people to truly trust you,
you have to tell a little more truth
than you were planning on telling.
Once they... once they trust you,
we all laugh, and then once we laugh,
we get over it.
We move through it.
Once, when I was about six years old,
I remember this doctor asking me these questions as he peered
into my very stopped-up ears.
At the time I kept wondering, "Why is he asking me
all these dumb things?"
Like did I like football?
Did I like baseball or hockey?
Was I in the Scouts?
Did I like camping, or hunting, or fishing, or BB guns?
Finally, my mother, who was looking a little embarrassed,
chimed in and said,
um, that I was very good at drawing and painting.
She added that I was sort of the artist in the family.
Sadly, that was probably the best explanation
she could come up with for her increasingly weird child.
by that age I already knew that I wasn't really like other kids
and I'd sort of given up on the idea of having friends.
And then, just as I was about to start second grade,
my family moved, yet again,
across the river from our ancestral home in Kentucky
to an exotic new land called "Ohio."
Sensing correctly that my sisters and I
were furious about this,
my mother decided that the best way for us to all make friends
was to get involved in my new school's Christmas pageant.
Now, I came from a very religious family,
so I was very used to being drafted
for our church's annual nativity play.
And I hated it.
Every year, I just played the third shepherd from the left.
I just stood there with a towel on my head.
Now, unlike the little homespun events that we were used to,
these Ohio people took this crap very seriously.
This was like a whole big production
with painted cardboard sets, and sewn costumes.
The plot revolved around these toys that came to life
on Christmas Eve.
Now, I was cast as one of six toy soldiers.
And we had a little song
and some choreography that basically amounted
to us walking around the stage marching
while swinging our arms and legs very stiffly
as if we were made out of wood.
Now, because I was tall for my age, I had to stand in
the back row behind this shorter kid named Carl.
Now, I had only been in this school for a few weeks,
but I already hated Carl.
He tended to push people on the playground
and he would steal the ball from you in gym class.
And having to spend any extra time with him
made it even less appealing to be in this show.
Now, as we got closer to opening night,
I noticed that my mom was getting very excited about
her contribution to the show, which was sewing my costume.
My mom was always very handy with a needle and thread.
And she was already helping the other moms
with the tricky job
of constructing our tall cardboard hats.
Meanwhile, Carl was really getting on my nerves.
All he did was fidget and fart around during rehearsal,
and he didn't even know the lyrics to the damn song.
I wanted to drop out of the show,
but I knew it was making my mom happy because she thought
it was making me happy, which it wasn't.
The night of the show, we arrived at the auditorium
to find it quickly filling up with people.
My heart started to pound.
I suddenly got very nervous.
All these people were going to be looking at us.
I mean, what if we screwed up?
What if we all forgot our lines?
Before I knew it, the show had started.
Now in the first scene, these two kids dressed
in pajamas talked about what they wanted for Christmas,
and then they wrote a letter to Santa.
All the toys waited breathlessly in the wings.
We knew that when this scene ended they were going
to pull the curtain, and that was our cue
to rush out into our places.
As I listened to the last few lines of the pajama kids,
my mouth went dry.
I felt like I needed to pee, but it was too late.
This was it. (woman laughing)
There was no backing out.
And that's when it hit me:
I was in the back row.
No one would see me.
No one would see this cool costume that
my mom had slaved over.
And suddenly I was consumed by this huge, terrible instinct.
It totally overtook me.
Why should he be in the front row?
He didn't even know the lyrics to the stupid song!
The curtains came closed.
And all the toys charged the stage.
Now, Carl was way more athletic than me,
but I was taller and had longer legs.
So I beat him to our spot at the Christmas tree
and skidded into the front row.
(audience laughter) As expected, he panicked,
and scrambled in the only open position: mine in the back row.
Just before the curtains were about to reopen,
I heard him hiss, "You're not supposed to be there!"
But I didn't respond.
I knew Carl could beat the crap out of me
but I doubted he'd do it in front of an auditorium
full of adults.
The curtains reopened.
And everybody clapped like mad!
One by one, the individual toys began to do their numbers.
And when it became our turn,
a relatively unassuming little seven-year-old boy
suddenly was transformed into
a 75-pound grinning Virginia ham!
In hindsight, I may have swung my arms a little higher
than I should have, but nobody seemed to notice.
We finished to a big round of applause.
The second the show was over, I fled the stage
and into the safety of my parents' arms.
Carl never did beat me up.
In fact, he never really seemed
to care about what had happened.
He went right back to pushing people down at recess,
while I opened an office on the top of the jungle gym,
where I suspected our paths would rarely cross.
I don't think I ever exchanged another word with him.
It would be five more years
before I would set foot on a stage again.
But something had happened that night.
I had developed a taste for the dramatic.
Now, when the artist in the family felt like
he'd been punished unjustly for something,
he would take a marker and draw red lines across his wrists.
Then he would lay down in the upstairs hallway, on the floor,
and wait for someone to discover his attempted suicide.
But mostly people just stepped over him
on their way to the bathroom.
(quietly): Thank you.
CHARNITSKI: My name is Joe Charnitski.
I currently live in Ossining, New York,
which is just outside of New York City.
I work for a software company.
I'm not technical in any way.
But I spend a lot of time, not coincidentally,
talking to customers, talking to internal teams.
And storytelling helps.
And so, I'm really curious,
how did you become a storyteller?
So, I have some friends who are
performers, writers, comedians, have encouraged me,
"You should, you should do that."
I'm the guy at the party telling anecdotes, the whole thing.
So I was introduced to someone who teaches a class
in New York City on storytelling as performance.
In that class,
you work on one story, kind of polish it up.
I took that story to a place where I could... an open mic,
and about five seconds into telling that story,
I thought, "This is for me."
It was square peg, square hole.
And I've been doing it ever since.
How have you changed as a storyteller in that time?
Yeah, so, this story I'm telling tonight
is the story I worked on in that class five years ago.
And the funny thing about it is,
it's the story I've told my whole life.
It's one of the most important--
if not the most important--
stories of my life.
It can become easy to just repeat the words,
but at the heart of it
is something incredibly personal and moving to me.
And it is performance in that way,
I do have to sort of remind myself
what's at the core of this story,
and try and summon that and remind the audience
of what this really meant to me back when it took place.
This is the first time they're hearing it,
no matter how many times I've told it.
It was December 21,
four days before Christmas.
I was 15 years old, and living through difficult times.
Maybe every 15-year-old
thinks they're living through difficult times.
But I was so sure that I named it.
I branded it.
I was living through my "slump."
Up to that point, I got pretty good grades
without trying particularly hard.
But at 15, letters were being sent home
from teachers to my parents
warning about a lack of effort on my part.
I was on the high school basketball team...
I spent so much time on the bench those days,
I didn't bother learning the plays.
I didn't even have a date to the annual Christmas dance.
And I felt low every day.
Except that day.
I woke up on December 21
with a renewed determination.
My slump ends today.
Why? I have no idea.
It was the last day of school before Christmas break,
I'm sure I was excited about that.
I don't know what it was, but I got dressed,
went downstairs for a delicious bowl of Fruity Pebbles,
and off I went to live
the first day of the rest of my life.
A couple of hours later,
I'm in the vice principal's office.
I'm not sure
why I've been called there.
I'm replaying the past couple of weeks of my life.
Did I insult a teacher?
Did I get into it with another student?
And then I remember: my slump is over.
This is going to be good news.
Like, maybe I won an award or something.
There could be a cash prize.
Like, I'm getting excited.
After a few minutes, the door to the office opens,
and in comes Sister Catherine.
She is the vice principal
of my small Catholic high school.
And with her is Father Paul.
Father Paul is the pastor of my family church.
And my family church has no connection to my high school.
There's no reason for Father Paul to be here.
One of the more serious reasons
that I was feeling low every day
was that my mom had just had delicate surgery
to relieve a chronic pain condition in her face.
The surgeons had to go in through the back of her head,
and past her brain, to address the issue.
It was precarious and scary surgery.
And she was home now, and recovering,
but her recovery was also delicate
and precarious and scary for me.
So when Father Paul came into that room,
I no longer thought I won a cash prize.
So Sister Catherine comes over to my left,
and Father Paul kneels to my right,
and he looks at me and he says,
"Joe, your mom and your dad are okay.
But your house is on fire."
And I'm like, "Oh my gosh, is it?"
And Sister Catherine says,
"Joe, you've gone pale,
"do you want a glass of water?
"What do you want, what do you need,
what do you want?"
I said, "I want to go home. Can I go home?"
So Father Paul drove me home.
When we arrived, I remember seeing the news crews
and the fire trucks and the neighbors who had gathered.
And the house was still standing,
so I thought, you know, maybe it's not so bad.
And then I went inside, and it was so bad.
The dining room, where we were supposed to have
Christmas dinner in a couple of days,
well, that was destroyed.
The front room,
where the decorated Christmas tree had been standing,
and the wrapped presents had been set,
well, the fire started in there,
so you can imagine what it looked like.
The kitchen, where I'd just had
that brightly colored bowl of Fruity Pebbles,
now looked like someone had taken a black marker
and scraped it all over the place.
My mom was at the next-door neighbor's, she was fine.
A little shaken up, of course.
I asked Father Paul if the church was unlocked,
he said it was.
I walked the block up the street to my family church.
Inside, it was dark, the lights were out.
And I walked to the altar.
This was not going to be a pew conversation,
this had to go right to the altar.
I didn't shake my fist at God, I didn't scream or yell.
And I said, "I woke up knowing
"this was the end of my slump,
"and you burned my house down?
"Like, what's the message you're trying to send me here?
"'Don't get your hopes up, kid'?
"'Things aren't going to get any better'?
'It's not your slump, it's your life.'"
Now I feel the lowest I have felt the whole time,
but that's because I didn't know.
Back at school, Sister Catherine
made an announcement over the intercom,
letting everyone know about the fire.
And spontaneously, every class and club
and organization took up donations, for me.
I didn't know the lead story on the news that night
would be about the Charnitski fund.
See, my grade school and the town bank joined forces
to give folks a place to help,
to donate, for my family.
My grade school principal was on TV
talking about what a great kid I am,
and what a great family I have.
I didn't know strangers would track us down,
offering food and money and toiletries and gifts
and decorated trees, and anything they thought
we might need to have some kind of Christmas.
Now, look, maybe you're not that impressed.
Maybe you think this is exactly what would happen
in a small town a few days before Christmas
when tragedy strikes.
But I had just been crying in a dark church,
thinking my life was never going to get any better.
This outpouring of love and support,
to me, was a big deal.
It was a win.
December 21 was the final day of my slump.
(cheers and applause)
KAMENS: I'm Andrea Kamens,
I've been in Boston longer than anywhere else,
but I was born in Pittsburgh, raised in Cleveland.
Our theme tonight is holidays,
and that means so many, you know,
different things to different people.
Could you just share a little bit
about what that means to you?
How it inspires you?
Well, I think of the word, coming from "holy days,"
that holidays are creating
this sacred space in this sacred time
when we can do things differently.
What do you hope that the audience tonight
gets out of the story that you're going to share with us?
A lot of the Jewish religion is thought of
as being a lot about technicalities and about laws,
and I'm actually really into that,
and I think it's true,
but I think it's also really important,
especially right now, that people understand that
you don't have to shut off your compassion
to follow laws or to have laws.
That law can bring light,
that law can lead us to treating each other the way
we should be treating each other,
and I think that
there's something in a lot of our traditions,
in a lot of our holidays,
that are trying to get at that-- that you do these rituals,
but the goal is not to accomplish the ritual.
The goal is what you're bringing to people
and what you're creating as a community.
Jewish holidays don't just have
food and traditions.
We have rules and opinions.
There's a Jewish joke
that if we had invented Halloween,
y'all would be giving out candy to legal specifications
on what type, what size, to whom, how late,
and which members of your household
may do it, must do it,
or absolutely aren't allowed to do it.
a handy chart for your size, shape, and color
for your kosher jack-o'-lanterns.
The most famous of contrary Jewish opinions in the Talmud
comes from Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai.
Hillel got to be popular, became associated with
inclusiveness and love,
and Shammai more with being technical and legal,
These guys argued about everything,
and the principle was they were both right,
but that we practiced according to the opinions of Hillel.
Jewish practice is the embodiment of Jewish law
and law is supposed to care about what's right.
And, for me, Shammai was even more often right.
Especially when I was a kid.
Especially for the holiday of Hanukkah.
On Hanukkah, we light candles--
one the first night, two the second night,
all the way up to eight--
to recall a little cruse of oil that lasted for eight days
when we miraculously reclaimed our holy temple
from the Syrian Greeks in ancient Israel.
"No," says Shammai.
"The oil decreased every day.
It should be like a countdown: eight, seven, six."
(laughter) Blast off.
Hillel said, "Yeah, but more light equals more happiness
"and every day should be happier and brighter and more holy
than the day before."
See what I'm talking about? That is not law.
When I first heard this when I was growing up
in Cleveland, Ohio, I told my parents
I was lighting according to sensible Shammai,
and for three years I lit backwards.
First night, eight candles.
It's the last night of Hanukkah
and all our menorahs are set out,
my-my parents', my brother's, my sister's
on the glass-topped coffee table in the living room
by the big front window.
We had sheer white curtains
that we even drew back so passerbys could see
all that light.
They had eight candles in each menorah
and the extra one, the shamash, the helper candle
right in the middle
and there was mine.
I had a helper, and one defiant candle.
One minority report, one dissenting opinion.
This past Shabbas, Saturday morning,
I walked an hour in the rain
to a family friend's bar mitzvah.
As Orthodox Jews, we don't drive or ride
or do electronics on Shabbat.
I was a little late but I got there in time
to hear him read the Torah and give his talk on,
of all things, Hillel and Shammai,
and what it really means to be generous and expansive
with our hospitality and how to meet the other--
He was called Giggles and Sunshine
and his dad gave him this blessing
from a famous Jewish saying that you should receive every person
with an open face-- a smile.
And he credited the source,
and it was logical Rabbi Shammai.
After Shabbat, we found out
that the largest anti-Semitic massacre in American history
had happened minutes before I arrived at synagogue in Boston.
Eleven Jews were killed in a synagogue less than a mile
from where I was born.
I didn't have my phone, so...
I was still with the bar mitzvah family,
I borrowed a teenager's cell phone to call my mom.
She had been born and raised
in those same inner city neighborhoods of Pittsburgh,
the whole family had been there
and all... a lot of the cousins were still there.
So she was the logical point person.
When I couldn't reach her right away,
I started to run through all the people
and where they might have been
at that time on a Sabbath morning.
All of my cousins who go to synagogue
were in a different synagogue down the street in lockdown,
and one of my cousins had just been walking by
and heard the shots.
So everyone was physically safe
and everyone knew someone.
I couldn't keep scrolling through the news.
All those places... place were...
I visited there all the time, that's where my family lived,
and shopped, and prayed.
So I asked a friend to text me the list when it came out.
And... the ages, the types of people,
they weren't a surprise because they were the stalwarts
of any synagogue.
The ones who come early
were usually older or have special needs.
They greet you at the door and pass out books and lollipops
and sweep up afterwards
and make sure that nobody prays alone.
We call it a shamash, a caretaker,
but also that same word for the helper candle
that we use on Hanukkah.
Those are our armed guards.
Except that means my protection are also my friends.
We forget that it's actually dangerous
to be a helper, to greet everyone with an open face
when some people don't want me to exist.
To make today more holy than the days before, it's audacious.
Hillel and Shammai both,
whether it was the first night or the last,
had that one candle.
Except when I tried to remember my solitary Shammai candle,
reflected in the window, I couldn't see it.
Because it had never been just one.
It was surrounded by the light from all the candles
that my family had lit beside me.
I still like the technicalities
and the details that I got from Shammai.
Law should be about what's right.
But the place where Hillel and Shammai agree
is that what's right is that we take care of each other.
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