Wednesday, October 1, 2014 Tishri 7, 5775

He Tells Tales, and Not Tall Ones!

August 11, 2005
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The Brogan family from Chicago learn something new about Philadelphia on their visit to the historic district.
Luke Yoder lay across his mother's lap, fighting exhaustion after a 90-degree day touring Philadelphia, his attention span all but nonexistent. It seemed that nothing could rouse the 5-year-old, especially not another story about a historical event or integral character in the nation's birth.

But, lo and behold, while sitting in the lobby of the National Museum of American Jewish History, the young boy from Warrenton, Va., suddenly perked up.

A storyteller who just happened to be standing before him was using funny voices and various impersonations to illustrate the First Amendment right to express a dislike of - broccoli.

Surprising his family, Luke yelled, "Do it again!" when the man had completed his tale.

This could be considered just one of the coups achieved by Mitchell Kramer as part of his summer employment. He's spent almost an entire season telling stories about historic Jewish characters and religious freedom to the hundreds of tourists - and the just-plain-curious - who walk by his bench each day in front of the museum on Fifth Street in the city's historic district. On that particular Thursday, he took refuge inside to avoid a sudden shower.

'What Is an ATM'?
Kramer is one of 13 storytellers stationed around Philadelphia at such attractions as the Betsy Ross House and Independence Square. These raconteurs are a part of "Once Upon a Nation," the city's summertime effort to enhance the city's tourist experience by offering some interactive ways to educate visitors. It's an initiative of Historic Philadelphia Inc., a nonprofit organization founded in 1994 by Mayor Edward G. Rendell.

In addition to the storytellers, who spin their yarns free of charge, visitors can take day or nighttime walking tours, or see performances dealing with history (these come with a fee). And then, to boot, costumed colonials - George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson - can be found waiting to chat at various points in the Old City area.

Kramer and friends wear no costumes, though they do sport yellow-collared staff shirts because, as the city's newest tourism ambassadors, they are also responsible for answering any city- or tourism-related question passers-by may have. Kramer described his role by positing a scenario: Try asking one of the various colonial characters where the nearest ATM might be or who sells the best pretzel in town and, aiming to always stay in character, you'll be met with a puzzled look and a question in return: "Just what is an ATM?"

Kramer - who this past academic year taught drama at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School in Olney - has nine stories in his repertoire, ranging from an explanation of freedom of speech and religion to stories about Jewish philanthropist Rebecca Gratz and Revolutionary War patriot Haym Solomon.

"Some of my stories are as silly as [the broccoli one]. I do voices, and am whacky and use characters," explained Kramer, 36, of North Wales. "Others are academic, and very much a gentle lesson about religious freedom or tolerance."

Though Kramer grew up in Philadelphia and is an eighth-generation member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom - his family can trace their synagogue membership back to the early 1800s - he says that through this job, he's learned more than he could have ever imagined about Judaism in this city.

After completing 100 hours of training in history, the art of storytelling and customer service, Kramer worked with the organization to iron out the details of the Jewish stories - and even contributed some of his own. In addition, the costumed George Washington (Dean Malissa), who also happens to be Jewish, offered certain tales of his own, including one about a famous letter the nation's first president wrote to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island.

"One of the goals of this project is to show that the history of Philadelphia and the history of America are not only the story of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin," said Kramer, who sits (or stands) at his station from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each weekday. "Though that's an important part of it, it's the history of regular people: the black people and the slaves and the Jews and the waves of Irish Catholic immigrants."

According to Cari Feiler Bender, spokeswoman for "Once Upon a Nation," the city has begun to reap dividends from the project. The storytellers have attracted 50,000 visitors in July alone, and the entire program welcomed 162,000 from its start over Memorial Day weekend up to and including July 31.

And, of course, those numbers translate into dollars, said Jeff Guaracino, spokesman for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, who pointed out that last summer, tourists spent $651 on an average two-night trip. Numbers for 2005 have not yet been released.

Though Kramer calls his gig the "most amazing job" he's ever had - despite some unbearably hot days this season - he said he's tried to understand how his job of telling stories, even the ones that have very little Jewish content, have affected the Jews of Philadelphia.

As such, he begins each story by asking listeners if they know what a synagogue is - he was appalled the first time the answer was "no" - and when he does explain it, he feels he has shed some light on Judaism, even if just a small amount.

"If visitors remember nothing else but the idea that lots of different religions can exist together, then it's done a little tiny bit of good for the Jewish community," said Kramer. "In Philadelphia and New York, it's not that big a deal, but for the rest of the country - the people from Montana and Virginia and Georgia or wherever - just knowing that there is a place with a dozen different religions that have lived together happily for hundreds of years is truly wonderful."

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