Jewish Stories with a Valuable Message for Children

You Can Be a Great Storyteller!

Story-telling is the most wonderful tried-and-true method of teaching. Stories stir the soul and their message is retained far longer than other, more pedantic forms of transmission can boast. We all love listening to stories and children especially love hearing their favorites over and over again. They derive something new with each telling because as they grow and change they hear the story anew each time. It is not as difficult to become a great story teller as you might think. The important part is to concentrate on your audience even more than your story. Memorize the basic plot-line and some interesting details. Learn a few good phrases. Even more importantly, watch the children's faces, incorporate their reactions and comments into the story, and match your timing to their reception of the story. This is easier than it sounds: I'm simply saying to tune into the children's experience as you tell the story.

Methods of Presentation

There are several methods of presentation which I employ. I chose the method based on which is most conducive to both the story and the audience. It's also good to vary your methods if you teach the same group of children week after week. Here are the ones I and the children like best:

  1. Tell the story orally without props, but ask questions throughout ("What do you think s/he will do now?" "How do you think s/he felt about that?" "What do you think s/he should do?" "What would you do?")
  2. Storyboard: Prepare illustrations of the story in advance on large poster-size boards. These can be very simple; you don't have to be a professional artist. Children appreciate all efforts. Use bright, cheerful colors. Print out the story and paste the section that accompanies each poster board on the back so you can read it to the children while holding the boards on your lap. Kids love the big pictures.
  3. Felt board: This works well for simple stories where only a few pieces have to be manipulated, mostly by adding or subtracting pieces. It also works well where there are many pieces to add and the children can participate in the storytelling by each have a piece to place on the board.
  4. Use props and give the children parts: Assemble a few props (they need not be many nor elaborate to intrigue the children) and distribute them to the children. Prepare parts for them in advance (making sounds or reciting a refrain). They love to be involved.
  5. Scroll stories: Long ago I took a cardboard box, cut a rectangular hole in the front (approximately 12" by 16"), covered the hole with clear plastic (making a viewing screen) and covered the rest of the box with contact paper, leaving the back flaps open. Then I prepared the illustrations for a number of Torah stories on sheets of 8-1/2" x 11" paper and taped them together to make a scroll (like the Torah). I attached the ends of the scroll to 1-inch wooden dowels that were several inches higher than the box when placed so that the rectangular "screen" faced an audience. I glued a strip of wood in the bottom of the box into which I had drilled holes large enough for the dowels, and made more holes for the dowels to come through the top of the box so that the scroll could be viewed through the screen and rolled from outside. I know this sounds complicated, so I'll try to take pictures of the box soon to make this clearer. I prepared written scripts to accompany the scrolls to be sure that I told the correct part of the story as I scrolled through it. The kids think it's a cool combination of the Torah and TV. I hadn't thought of that. The purpose of the box was to facilitate showing the scroll with one hand.
  6. Puppets: I have made sock puppets and more elaborate puppets (using styrofoam balls for heads, covered with paper mache and then "dressed" with felt costumes). Simple puppets made from pictures on sturdy tagboard and tongue-depressors glued to the back will work beautifully. Children love to manipulate puppets. With very young children, you can tell the story while they manipulate the puppets, and feed them every single line (which seems boring for adults, but thrills the kids) and you will be amazed at how well they recall every detail of the story after this experience.

Suggested Stories

There is no end to the wonderful Jewish stories that you can tell children, but I'll list here some of my favorites and how I prepared them.

The Tower of Babel

I am a fan of William Wiesner's The Tower of Babel (The Viking Press, 1968) which, to the best of my knowledge, is out of print. I found a copy in our local public library and photocopied the pictures and enlarged them as much as possible. Then I colored them using bright, cheerful colors and adhered them to posterboard with rubber cement. I typed up the story and adhered the corresponding parts to the back of each board, so I could sit with the boards in my lap facing the children and tell the story by showing the board and reading the story from the back of the board. If you don't like coloring, assign this work to a child who does (also a great job for teenagers!), and you will give him/her the satisfaction of contributing to Jewish education in a valuable way.

Noah and the Dove (by Isaac Bashevis Singer)

I. B. Singer's midrash on the story of the Flood teaches a powerful lesson about humility. All the animals have heard a rumor that Noah will take only the most superior animal onto the ark with him and so they brag and vie for the privilege of going on board the ark. Only the dove, the model of humility, refuses to participate in the boasting. Noah explains that all the animals will be inviting aboard but the dove will be privileged to be his messenger once the flood ends because she, alone, was humble. I drew all the animals on paper, colored them in, laminated the paper and cut them apart. Then I affixed backing so they would stick to a felt board. I also prepared a few others pieces: Noah, the ark, a tree, and an olive branch. When telling the story, I gather the children around the board and distribute the animals to them. Each child puts his/her animal anywhere on the felt board when they hear their animal mentioned. The magic of this story is that the children must be humble and cooperate in order for it to work: If they vie for who will place the most animals on the board, the story cannot be told. So here the lesson is not only in the story but in its telling.

Megillat Esther (The Story of Purim)

For the exciting and engaging plot of the Book of Esther, I either use puppets manipulated by the children, or have the children act out the story. If the children are young, I feed them their lines and they repeat them. You might think that this slow and cumbersome method would bore them. Not so! They love it and will beg to do it again and again. To make puppets, there are many possibilities. I used styrofoam balls covered with paper mache to make the heads, then added yard for hair and painted on faces. I made the clothes from felt and the crowns (for Esther, Vashti, and the king) from cardboard covered with aluminum foil. Alternatively, you can draw the characters on sturdy tagboard and attach sticks or tongue-depressors to the back. The minimum number of characters you will need is seven: Esther, Mordecai, Ahasueros, Haman, Vashti, a guard, Haman's wife Zeresh. If you have a larger group of children, add more guards. There are many retellings of the story in book form which you can use as your script. My favorite is Miriam's Chaikin's Esther (Jewish Publication Society). It is also a good idea to stop the action periodically and ask the children questions to be sure they are following the plot and absorbing the lessons of the story. Given the degree of complexity of the plot of this story, you might want to present it several times to young children in varying formats. If you teach older children, you might want to have them prepare a presentation for younger children; they will need to study the story and its meaning thoroughly in order to determine how best to present it to young children.

Joseph Had a Little Coat (by Simms Taback)

There are several versions of this story in circulation. Another popular version is Something From Nothing by Phoebe Gilman, which is a book you want to have in your religious school library. The basic idea of the story is optimism: Joseph's coat wears out, but instead of feeling sorry for himself, he sees possibility and cuts it down to make a vest. When the vest wears out, he again sees potential and cuts it down to make a scarf. The scarf becomes a tie, the tie a handkerchief, and the handkerchief a covered button. When Joseph loses the button he doesn't despair, he writes a story about it, proving: You CAN make something out of nothing! What is especially charming about this little book is that it is rendered with clever die-cuts: The page featuring Joseph wearing the vest is a die-cut of a vest in which we view the "fabric" of the page of the coat underneath. Similarly, we see the scarf as a die-cut in which we view the "fabric" as the vest of the page underneath. I made my own version of this story on large storyboards and employed the same technique. My drawings are much simpler than those of Simms Taback, but just as cheerful. Each time Joseph makes something new, the posterboard has an opening in the shape of the new item which can be viewed through the hole on the board underneath. I used an x-acto knife to make the holes. This story is a perennial favorite and kids ask to "see" it over and over again. I like to pair it with a version of Could Anything Be Worse (by Marilyn Hirsch) which is the classic tale of a man who complains about his overcrowded, noisy home until his rabbi has him bring his animals into the house to live, one by one. When the animals are finally escorted out, one by one, at the rabbi's suggestion, the man sees his home anew as a quiet, peaceful place. I tell Could Anything Be Worse first (the pessimistic attitude) and follow it with Joseph Had a Little Coat the optimistic antidote).


Lively Legends - Jewish Values, Miriam P. Feinberg and Rena Rotenberg (A.R.E. Publishing, 1993). Advice on how to tell stories, use props, and involve children, as well as supplementary crafts and follow-up activities, called "Taking the story home."

Torah Talk, Yona Chubara, miriam P. Feinberg, and Rena Rotenberg (A.R.E. Publishing, 1989). A helpful book to prepare stories from the Torah for young children.

Jewish Stories galore

Bibliography of Jewish stories for children