On a July day in Old City, among the waves of tourists, you can find Miriam Reid at Franklin Square or the Independence Visitor Center near a rounded wooden bench. An audience around them will likely be rapt in attention.
Reid, 23, has an arsenal of several stories that they pick and adapt to their audience. Surrounded by a group of children and their parents one Thursday afternoon, Reid decides to tell a folktale from the Lenape people, the native people of New Jersey, northern Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania and southeastern New York. Their oration is complete with gesticulations, audience interaction and a round of applause following its completion.
Reid is a storyteller with Once Upon a Nation, part of Historic Philadelphia Inc., a nonprofit “with a mission to make our nation’s history relevant, real, and fun by enlivening historic sites through storytelling, interactions, and education,” according to its website. The recent Drexel University graduate, who lives in Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood, joined the organization in late spring, passionate about the job of storytelling.
“I adore the idea of crafting a narrative … that idea of catching everyone in this comforting web of a tale,” Reid said.
“I really, really enjoy taking large swaths of very technical information and translating them into something consumable by the general public,” they added.
At Drexel, Reid majored in English with a concentration in writing. Storytelling was a natural fit for them. After graduating, in hopes of getting a museum job, Reid went door-to-door to the Philadelphia museums asking about job openings.
Even before studying writing in college, Reid had experience in storytelling. At family dinner parties and events, their parents could seldom resist telling the tale of how they met. Reid knows the story so well they tell it similarly to how they would present it to an audience at Franklin Square.
“Once upon a time … ,” they began.
Reid’s parents met in a theater on a Saturday night. Their father had auditioned for the show but didn’t get the part; their mother, a Modern Orthodox Jew, got comped tickets for the show, and because she could walk to the theater and just grab her tickets, could attend the show without breaking Shabbat.
The theater was nearly empty. The two got to talking and to this day remember very little of the play. At the cast party — they both had friends in the show — the to-be couple continued to talk for the entire night.
One-and-a-half years later, the couple got engaged at a theater. In a play Reid’s father was in, he pulled out a ring to the shock and excitement of the couple’s family. The theater erupted.
“It explains a lot about what our family will become, how I will be raised,” Reid said. “And it is a story I heard so many times throughout my childhood. … That’s what I mean when I say that storytelling has been such a steeped tradition in my family.”
But beyond a family tradition of theater and storytelling, Reid connects their storytelling interests to their Jewish roots.
“I am an Ashkenazi Jew, which means that somewhere in the mid-1900s, abruptly, we did not know where people were from anymore because everyone went pell-mell everywhere,” Reid said. “So being able to keep tradition alive through stories became very, very important.”
In the Jewish tradition, where lives were lost prematurely to the Holocaust and relatives were forgotten in hasty immigration, storytelling became the de facto way of sharing history in Reid’s family.
“This is a story about people that are the building blocks to where you are now,” they said. “That was just a given in my childhood.”
As Reid finds their footing as a recent grad, they hope to continue to work for museums and if possible, weave Jewish history into their storytelling. Once Upon a Nation has a couple of Jewish stories in its archives, including one about Rebecca Gratz, a Jewish educator and philanthropist who settled in the U.S. before the Revolutionary War and whose family founded Gratz College.
Working just up the road from Mikveh Israel, where Gratz was a member and was eventually buried, Reid feels a connection to her story. One day, they hope to share it with others.
“If I have an opportunity to come back next year,” they said, “I would love to be able to tell one of those stories.”