By BENJAMIN PRATT
Worldwide, Christians and Jews are celebrating the stories that have defined and directed our lives through the centuries. Easter was Sunday and Passover continues through the evening of April 11 this year.
If you need fresh evidence of the worldwide love for these ancient religious stories—just open your eyes. Director Ridley Scott already has earned about $300 million for his recent Exodus: Gods and Kings. The movie was just released on DVD and millions of Americans are snapping it up. Then, last week, The National Geographic Channel set new viewership records for its TV drama, Killing Jesus. CBS retold the tragedy of the Jewish confrontation with the Roman army at Masada in The Dovekeepers and there’s more: After A.D., which debuted Sunday night on NBC is projected to continue through 12 episodes!
Stories are powerful! We know ourselves by our individual stories. Stories bring us together around tables and connect us with others who have gone before us as well as those who will come after us.
MY STORY; MY CHALLENGE
Recently, I published a challenge related to a prose-poem I wrote, called “The Two of Us.” I asked readers to identify the author and the title of the original book that inspired my contemporary story. I promised to mail a personally dedicated copy of Short Stuff. And, today, we have a winner!
The answer to my first challenge? Bambi, a Life in the Forest. The story first was published as a serial in Vienna’s most influential newspaper and finally was released as a book, in German, in 1923 by the Jewish writer and Zionist activist known by his pen name Felix Salten. Born Siegmund Salzmann in Hungary, Salten became a leading literary figure in Vienna and also devoted his talents to encouraging Zionism.
Right now, Ohio State University professor Paul Reitter is working on a book to be titled Bambi’s Jewish Roots. Reitter outlined some of those roots in the Jewish Review of Books this past winter. One theme Salten seems to have been exploring, when he wrote this forest story nearly a century ago, was whether European Jews should try to assimilate into popular culture of their day. In the novel, one question comes up again and again: Could the deer living in a forest ever trust that human hunters would let them live in peace? That echoes a haunting question for Jews in Europe in the 1920s, Reitter argues.
If you love the classic Disney movie, don’t worry. I’m not suggesting you can’t enjoy the beautiful cartoon feature that has caused millions of us to laugh—and to cry. What I am suggesting is: Stories are powerful and they shape lives in many ways, sometimes in ways we never imagined!
When the English translation of Bambi was published in 1928, The New York Times published a lengthy book review, praising the novel as a literary milestone—a deep reflection on the meaning of life. Reviewer John Chamberlain wrote in part:
“Felix Staten, in Bambi, takes you out of yourself. He has the gift of a tender, lucid style. His observation is next door to marvelous, and he invests the fruits of this observation with pure poetry. His comprehension makes his deer, his screech-owls, his butterflies, grasshoppers and hares, far more exciting to read about than hundreds of human beings who crowd the pages of our novels.”
Felix Salten eventually had to flee to Switzerland to escape the rise of Naziism. He died at age 76 in Switzerland just five months after VE Day, the end of the Third Reich.
Chapter 8 of the original Bambi novel is about two oak leaves facing the onset of winter. The entire dialogue in that chapter is from the perspective of those two final leaves, clinging to their branch after the others have already fallen. In that winter scene, the two leaves raise questions of mortality and afterlife: “Why must we fall?” and “What happens to us when we have fallen?”
My prose-poem, “The Two of Us,” which was written to honor Salten and his deeply moving eighth chapter, is rooted in my own life experiences. My story reflects the musings of my wife and me over the recent loss of a friend, the birth of a loved one’s child, and the awareness of our own mortality.
THE WINNER AND A NEW CHALLENGE
And, we have a winner to my first challenge! Many people tried to guess the title and author—but only one person, Andy Britt, correctly identified Bambi as the story I was reading that inspired my own poem. Andy tells me that he instantly recognized my source. He had read Bambi in college, loved and was moved by the story, and wrote two papers as reflections on his reading. He said he recently watched the film version, which is quite different than the novel, because he and his wife are expecting a child. Congratulations, Andy, and Blessings to you and your family. Your signed copy of Short Stuff from a Tall Guy shall arrive soon.
THE NEW CHALLENGE—What stories have made a difference in your life?
These two columns I have written are the start of a series in which we invite readers to tell us, like Andy did in his note to me, about stories they’ve remembered all their lives. Andy continues to be shaped by Bambi. How about you? Perhaps the story that shaped your life was also “a children’s book.” Perhaps you remember enjoying it with a parent. Or, perhaps it’s a book you read as a teen-ager, a college student or a young adult. Maybe it’s a book you read to youngsters as an adult.
It’s your turn. Stories are powerful—and shape our lives in many unexpected ways.
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