Ofra Gisella Kipnis

By Limor Shiponi
Ofra Gisella Kipnis
Ofra Gisella Kipnis (1.12.1927 – 3.8.2011)

Ofra was born and raised in a secular bourgeois Jewish home in Tunisia. She drew her values and world view from her parents who emphasized the importance of general education, wide knowledge, socialism and humanism. Growing in the shadow of WWII, it became natural for her family to turn to activism in the Zionist movements, opening their home to various gatherings.

During 1947, Ofra was persuaded to join a Zionist seminar in Italy. Being a forward young woman supported with an Italian citizenship she got involved in various adventures. Upon returning to Tunisia she refused to continue her studies, insisted on walking around in trousers and did what she saw as needed, not necessarily what was “right”.  During 1950 she decided to move to Israel and settled in Kibbutz Maagan Michael.

Ofra met Doni in 1953 and together they started a new home – warm, loyal, supporting and lovable. Ofra taught crafts, took care of youngsters that arrived from all over the world and taught the Kibbutz people what diet means by demonstrating superb culinary skills. Retired, realizing monotonous life was out of the question she set off to acquire a new profession – storytelling. With the wisdom of a folktale and a flickering in her eye Ofra reached thousands of hearts that will always remember her fiery nature, warmth and compassion for humans.

Ofra was very proud of her family, her children Tari, Gaia and Tzafra, her grandchildren and her great-grandson who is expected soon…

(The above tribute to Ofra will appear in the next journal of the National Storytelling Magazine. Look for Wendy Gourley’s column called ‘Remembered Voices’. Thank you Wendy.)

Lessons Ofra never forgot

There were many of those I’ve heard – some of them were about her Nona (grandmother) who according to Ofra’s stories was quite a picturesque persona: one day an aunt walked into her Nona’s house while the family was sitting at the dinner table. The aunt noticed everyone had a small jug of wine next to their plates, children included. Alarmed, she approached Nona saying “are you crazy?! Giving children wine to drink?!” “Well” answered Nona “what did you expect me to give them to drink, water?!” Ofra was a superb cook and highly appreciated good wine, good food, good cooking and good manners. She had style and good taste, vibrant and colorful.

The deeper lessons came from her parents. The stories she told again and again about her father one could never forget, stories about Dr. Giacomo Lumbroso whom I’ve never met and I wish I would. He was a famous eye doctor in Tunisia who took care of people from any social status and belief. One story was about the day he took her to the ghetto and said “I’m bringing you here especially so you will realize that not everyone lives in the same life style you do and that there are many Jews who need things they don’t even know about”. The other incident was about a slap in the face she received from him when she was rude to the maid. He said “you can be rude to whomever you wish, but not to a person who lives on a salary you pay, since he cannot give back”. Ofra had deep humanist values she was willing to fight for fierily. She could not stand hypocrisy, contempt, coercion or any forced frame. Obviously, this facet of her personality had more than one side to it – anything that started with “you really should…” was immediately rejected even when it was for her own good. She was quite a rebel…

Becoming a storyteller

Ofra became a storyteller after she retired. The truth is she was always one but didn’t see herself that way. I once challenged her saying “I bet that if I leave you next to an electricity pole, if I come back after five minutes it will already be telling you stories about its parents…” she could start a conversation with anyone in no time. People though she was being polite and friendly – I think she was also curious about their stories, about knowledge, about details. They say that when a great storyteller dies it is as if an entire library goes up in flames. With Ofra this is exactly the case. She knew numerous folktales from all over the world, she was curious about them, researching her way with admirable perseverance, curious all the time. She left an impressive library of books carrying folktales in many languages most of us wish we could read. When the internet became available she was right there, standing at the entrance, curious again. She didn’t only collect – she actually told most of those stories and most of them more than once.

Head of the tribe

Ofra Gisella Kipnis
Ofra's last public performance - the flair in action

Ofra started by telling stories to children at school. The entire school in Maagan Michael met her week after week for years. She never told the same story again unless the children asked her to and until she died, the young people in the Kibbutz reminded her of stories she told them many years before. She started telling to adults in various gatherings carrying a unique style I will forever admire: a little old lady, speaking with a clear voice, part French accent part Italian elegance, telling in Hebrew with occasional asides in other languages, fully captivated by the story images while keeping a witty eye at the audience, taking her time. Her storytelling wasn’t touched by any other motivation besides telling the story and enjoying it. Enjoying it. When reaching the last word of a story she looked as if she woke up from a ride in heaven but she was in no way dreaming, on the contrary; she was sharp like a laser beam.

And so Ofra became what many of us saw as the head of the storytelling tribe over here. She was never officially crowned and she wouldn’t like the idea anyway. But those of us, who appreciate fabulous storytelling which is truthful to its core, think she deserved the title and looked at her and about her that way.

A lesson about elderly storytellers

Through Ofra and a couple of other elderly storytellers I’ve come to notice that their position as performers has deteriorated through the years. To my opinion it is a shameful mistake younger storytellers are responsible of fixing. They have pace, they have wits, they have knowledge they are solid rocks and we should do as much as possible to aid them in this “the world belongs to the young” era. They are treasures. Yes, there comes a time when a storyteller needs to step off stage. I gave my solemn word to Ofra that when that time arrives I will tell her. That too is part of our responsibility.

Humor

Boy way she sharp and so was her humor. Some of it was so fine I had the feeling she was testing people by it but she was never unkind if you didn’t ‘get it’. There was another kind of humor which proved to be rather surprising, at least I was when I first met it: the two of us were on our second trip to the international storytelling festival ‘beyond the border’ in Wales. We stayed with a lovely couple and besides us there were two other ladies from Finland staying there. As it happens, St. Donats castle has rather fabulous grounds but since it sits on top of a slope, there are many stairs to walk up and down – stairs of the slippery medieval kind.

So one day as we were slowly walking up the stairs, Ofra slipped. From here on in her words: “and as I was sitting there, thinking of how to get up, I suddenly heard a deep voice saying ‘lady, may I carry you upstairs?’ because of my nature I immediately said ‘no no, I’m ok, I’ll manage on my own thank you!’ but as I was saying that I looked up and I saw – Apollo (Italian accent here). He was a very very handsome man and I thought to myself ‘you have just rejected Apollo! Are you stupid?’ but that was the situation you see. He smiled and walked away”. The funny part happened when she told the two ladies about the incident and immediately provoked a discussion about the absence of sex-appeal with British men (sorry guys… you’ll have to complain to Ofra). They were fully engaged with this discussion for quite a long time, laughing their heads off.

Hear Ofra tell “The Thai hunter”. It’s in Hebrew and still you can learn a lot about her style of telling.

Fine arts and crafts

Ofra taught crafts at school and as her students describe her – she was never on time, her class was a mess, she had an eternal cigarette hanging from the side of her mouth yet her lessons were voyages to other worlds. She loved checking materials, enthusing her young students to take risks, to try and see what comes out. This incredible talent was supported with layers of knowledge about techniques and tools; she was precise as a surgeon. Those who’ve met her could not miss her choice for fabrics – colorful, ornamented, beautiful. Her talent in the arts runs in the family – all her children and grandchildren are engaged in one way or another with arts and crafts to the utmost level of ability. Take a peek at Gaia’s art…

Worlds of storytelling

Traveling was part of Ofra’s nature and if she couldn’t travel once in a while she became quite a miserable bird. Many storytellers met her at least once because of this restless desire to travel, to meet, to listen, to tell, to learn. If she couldn’t travel in the physical world she traveled through cyberspace as a member of the storytell mailing list, European storytelling lists and through signing in to all the newer networks including Facebook where her orphaned profile picture smiles at me every time I enter the platform.

La Mer and merde…

Ofra was deeply attached to the sea and sea culture, taking care to live not far away from it for her entire life – first in Tunisia and then in Israel. Kibbutz Maagan Michael sits on the coastline and produced numerous mariners of fame. We had a plan to create a program about the sea together. This plan never worked out but something else happened instead: One day when I arrived to Ofra’s home to discuss stories for the sea program I found her at the computer cursing in French “Merde! Merde!” she was quite persistent about it… eventually she managed to print out three pages of text that turned into my most exciting and profound voyage as a storyteller – tracking and telling the story of Granuaille. I’ll tell you about it some other time but this was the most generous gift a storyteller can give to a colleague – sending me over the edge, placing such an amazing story in my hands, trusting her senses about who the story should go with.

Young people

Ofra surrounded herself with young people and they could not keep away from her. She was many things for many people – especially an ear to tell your sorrows to, to consult with, to be understood.

I remember an improvised English Cake baked on Friday afternoon,

And Makrud cakes filled with dates you couldn’t stop eating, arranged like soldiers in a box.

Family dinners, the table covered with cloth, white plates decorated with gentle rose-buds,

a racket of older and younger, biological and adopted children.

Cookbooks from Cataluña and Provence

English Science Fiction

Tales about faraway lands.

Scents of coffee, winter tea, summer sorbet,

Nights of Small-talk and partnerships

Nights of stories about Tunisia,

Childhood memories and beloved parents.

“Do you know the story…?”

I remember the calm and the mess,

The rustling of mice on the roof,

Summer siestas, the color of the sky as evening falls.

An open armed house.

Ofra – with her thundering grandma-dragon voice,

Sweet, rebellious girl, immense – sensitive and vulnerable.

Ofra who sang children’s rhymes and old chansons.

Eternal youth and bright eyes, anger and patience,

Breakthrough energy and shattered illusions, impatience and softness.

You are one and only.

Your Yael (your adopted daughter)

Memories

That’s what we are left with eventually, many many stories that one day will be told. Right now it feels too early, including writing this post which was not easy – I had to stop and walk away from time to time. Ofra took care of living a life worth remembering and many people are interlaced in her stories, people from all over the world. I’m leaving you with a song I’ve heard her sing several times – “La testament” – a song that accompanied her to the other-world together with beautiful farewell talks like the above one by Yael, a story, tears and flowers.

Although totally secular and would for sure reject the idea – may God bless her lovely soul.

6 thoughts on “Ofra Gisella Kipnis”

  1. I never had the privelage of meeting Ofra, but I remember her as a vivid presence in the days when I was spending a lot of time on the storytell list.
    Thank you for taking the effort to write this, obviously not an easy thing for you to do. As you say, in this youth obsessed age it becomes ever more important to recognize and honour the elders that helped us on our way.

  2. Pingback: Ofra Gisella Kipnis | Limor’s Storytelling Agora | Historiefortelling

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  4. And, yes, we must honor our elderly storytellers. I am reading some of the stories from the early days of folks and recognizing their genius, their passion for the story and their desire for us to contine storytelling – not to get paid – but because story helps us live. Let’s honor them with memory, and honor them alive with respect! Thanks, Limor, for sharing. Peace and belief, Sheila.

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