Writing Family Stories

Stories passed from one generation to the next carry the values, culture, and unique mythology of that family. Knowing our family’s stories solidifies our sense of belonging. If you have been thinking of collecting family stories for your children and grandchildren, then this workshop is for you.  I will give you ideas for reviving memories and writing and organizing your family story project. Come prepared to do some writing and storytelling.

My favourite workshop to teach is Writing Family Stories.  I love this because the participants have a sense of urgency about their projects.  Their stories are the only link the family may have to their past and they fear the stories will be lost if they don’t collect and write them.  They write for future generations who may one day wonder about family traditions.

In this workshop we look at some of the following issues:

  • How do I get started?
  • What stories and memories should I choose?
  • Who is my audience?
  • What do I say about scandals and secrets?
  • What has to be true?  What can I make up?
  • What makes a good story?
  • What if family members disagree about what happened?

Participants have many issues in common and are guided to finding the best answers for their own projects.  We write and share and people leave with renewed commitment to their projects.

How I Started Working with Family Stories

In 1999, my friend Brian Whitman was diagnosed with ALS.  He knew he might have only a year or two left in his life and immediately got to work.  First he read his favourite stories on to cassette tapes for his three grandchildren and those yet to be born.  Then he wrote stories about his grandparents and parents and a few choice stories from his own life:  his childhood in the Canadian prairies, military service in the far north, adventures in the seminary, meeting his lovely wife, and others.  He wanted his grandchildren to know where they came from and some aspects of his personality that only stories can convey.  I helped Brian edit these stories before they went to print.

The life of a family is a big, unwieldy thing that can intimidate many writers.  When I started teaching “Writing Family Stories” I showed my classes how Brian selected episodes in his family story that shone light on the larger family as well as being short, readable, and self-contained.  I told them how he addressed the stories to his grandchildren, and how when you imagine your audience, it helps keep you focused and maintain a certain “voice” in your writing.

Editing the “grandfather book” with Brian inspired me to write my own family stories (a work in progress), and gave me some insight into the motivations and process of writing family stories.  I had, at the time, 10 nephews and nieces who lived in Jerusalem and spoke little English.  My mother said that the children were starved for family stories.  I began by writing stories for them about the extended family.  Since their father — my brother Reuven —  was the youngest of my siblings, he had heard few of the stories.  My father died when my brother was eight.

One of My Family Stories 

I have no direct memory of my grandfather, Reuven Myer (Marcus) Halpern, but many stories are told of him and he toldmany stories. The following is a story he apparently told my aunt who told my brother who told the whole family one Passover seder.

Marcus was a revolutionary.  Like Lenin before him and Trotsky and even Stalin, he was exiled to Siberia around the time of the first Russian peasant uprising in 1904-5.

At the time exiles were sent via the Trans-Siberian railway (started in 1891, finished in 1916) and when the railway ended, they walked.

In one story we hear that the prisoners – a ragged bunch of revolutionaries, intellectuals, and criminals – had been made to walk a great distance.  They stopped, exhausted and cold, at a village.  A woman came out and asked the prisoners

    “YEST TUT YEVREI?”  The woman said in Russian.


    Are there any Jews here?

Marcus was afraid to reply.  Who would admit to being Jewish?  Anti-Semitism was everywhere and he was afraid he would endanger his own life by answering the question.  He didn’t even raise his head.  But the woman persisted, asking again, “YEST TUT YEVREI?”  Are there any Jews here?

He looked at the source of the voice – a Russian woman with big eyes, and a kind serious face. She wore a thick shawl and was carrying a basket.  It was April, already. Surely the worst of winter was over and spring might arrive soon.

Marcus nervously stepped forward and said, “DA, YA EVREY.”  Yes, I am a Jew.

The woman uncovered her basket and took out some large pieces of freshly baked matzo.  She said that this night would be the first night of Passover.  She said that for many years her father had baked and given matzo to Jewish prisoners.  When he died, he made her promise that she would continue to do so.

    “Why would you do this?” Marcus asked.

    “My father’s life was saved by a Jew,” she said.


My story “Chess” was published in Parchment:  The Journal of Contemporary Canadian Jewish Writing, 14,  2005-2006.  This story looks at the game of chess across four generations of my family.  Click here to read it.

My story “Writing in the Family” was published in Living Legacies:  A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume II, ed. Liz Pearl, PK Press, 2010.  This tells the story of searching for and finding the published Yiddish writing of my grandmother.   Click here to read it.

My grandmother, Chaya Esther Halpern (1884-1947) was a writer and teacher.  She emigrated to Montreal in 1926 and continued writing and publishing stories in the Yiddish press.  One of my grandmother’s stories was republished in the 1951 edition of Yivo Bleter, an anual Yiddish journal of science and literature.  My mother, Mary Blum Devor, translated this story.  The translation was published in From Sinai to the Shtetl and Beyond:  Where is Home for the Jewish Writer, ed. E. Jaffe and L. Blume, Pinking Shears Publications, 2009.   Click here to read it.