Storytelling a Jewish art for Jordan Hill, local raconteur
Jordan Hill performs at Congregation Or Chadash’s religious school.
AJP Assistant Editor
Considering his family’s tumultuous life in South Africa and his own eye-opening travels, it’s not surprising that storytelling comes naturally to Jordan Hill. Hill and his wife, Autumn Wiley, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Arizona, moved to Tucson in fall 2008, but not before his craft transported him around the globe.
Hill’s family lived in Johannesburg until 1984 when he was 4 years old and his family moved to Dallas, where he attended the Solomon Schechter School of Jewish Studies (now the Ann and Nate Levine Academy).
The political situation in South Africa, he says, had been deteriorating from 1976, since the Soweto uprising. “The times were crazy. My father was an electrical engineer whose work was nationalized through the government; it was a police state,” says Hill.
Still, the 2002 Brandeis University graduate, who majored in comparative literature and European cultural studies, frequently returned with his family to South Africa while he was growing up.
At a Chanukah storytelling event at the Tucson Children’s Museum promoting the PJ Library, a program of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Coalition for Jewish Education, Hill merged South African and Jewish tales. With his long dreadlocks swinging from side to side as he told an African story, Hill suddenly sounded more shtetl than veldt. The Yiddish accent “slipped out,” Hill told the AJP afterward.
Before World War I, Hill’s paternal grandfather resided in Wellington, South Africa in a “pretty strong Jewish community,” says Hill. “My uncle was the mayor of Mafikeng, which was a thriving Jewish community. There isn’t a single Jew left [there] today.”
During the 2002-2003 school year Hill returned to Dallas to teach at his Jewish day school alma mater. The day after school ended he was back on a plane to South Africa, for the first time without his family; he spent almost a year collecting stories from South African villages, then traveled around Europe for six months.
“People would ask me what I did,” says Hill, and he’d reply, “Uh ... I’m a storyteller.”
“I had a chance to grow into storytelling in the context of traveling,” he explains.
Hill returned to the Boston area in 2004, where he substitute taught and landed a High Holiday storytelling gig. He toured New England, New York and Washington, D.C. in his van as a “wandering storyteller.”
After he and Wiley wed in October 2007, the couple took off to India and Nepal, then back to South Africa where they visited with many of Hill’s family members.
“For a kid [who] always loved science fiction and fantasy, storytelling resonated with me,” he says. “Storytelling very much died in Western culture where more hi-tech storytelling took over.”
In Tucson, Hill has performed at Congregations Or Chadash and Anshei Israel, a UA Hillel Foundation leadership retreat, the PJ Library program, Odyssey Storytelling, the Reid Park Zoo and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and recorded stories for Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s (Temple Emanu-El) “Too Jewish” radio show. Currently, Hill is teaching a weekly storytelling class at Hebrew High.
“At first, students were a little bit reluctant to participate in the class,” says Sharon Glassberg, JFSA CJE director, “but after one or two classes they were hooked.” Hebrew High storytelling students performed at a recent open house for 8th graders, she adds, taking them “out of their shells and out of themselves.”
And, as part of their education, says Hill, students discover that “storytelling is very Jewish in its form, intonation. It’s very much an intrinsic part of Jewish culture.”
For more information, go online to jordanhillstoryteller.com.