Bridging the Generation Gap with Stories

For Debbie Friedman, helping people tell their stories has been a part of her life for three decades. When she retired and became a grandparent, she reflected on how people are caught up in the rush of their daily lives. Nowadays, it feels like many families have less time to connect, and kids have fewer opportunities to learn their family history. 

That is one of the many reasons Friedman developed her storytelling card game “Tell and Kvell.” The game uses questions about personal and family history to help families and friends learn more about each other. 

“People are very busy – running to activities, running here, running there – and they don’t take the time for meaningful conversation,” she said. “So, I began with the idea of developing a tool that would help families connect. “

At Macy’s, Friedman trained executives in storytelling techniques, teaching them to use their personal stories to help inspire and lead employees. After she retired from her career training executives at Macy’s, she was on the hunt for a new project. Friedman’s initial inspiration for “Tell and Kvell” came from reconnecting with an old friend. 

“I have a friend who was turning 80, and she went away with her kids, and her daughter created a board game about their family history,” Friedman said. “When she told me about it, I thought something was there.”

That is when Friedman decided she wanted to create something that would bring families together and keep their history alive. 

“I grew up in a family that was busy running here and there,” she said. “We often didn’t take the time for deeper conversations.” 

She was further inspired when she came across Marshall Duke while teaching a storytelling workshop to a grandparents’ group in Philadelphia. Duke, a researcher at Emory University, found that children who knew their family history, especially the challenging episodes in their family history, were more resilient in the face of adversity. 

Friedman began experimenting with different questions and formats, eventually developing two sets of cards with over 120 questions. Half of the questions focus on family history and Jewish identity, while the other half focus on personal history. 

For Friedman, these cards are a way of asking the questions she didn’t get to when her parents and grandparents were around. One of the questions she is proudest of is, “Who are you named after, and what do you know about them?” Friedman is named after her great aunt; she always wished she could have asked her mother or grandmother about her.

“I wish I had asked my mother, who knew her, what she was like; I would want to know her characteristics,” Friedman said.

Friedman developed the question cards and originally intended to sell them to a Jewish game manufacturer. In one of her meetings with a Jewish game executive, she was told that she’d have made it if she sold 3,000 boxes.

Most game developers were uninterested in buying them, so she decided to produce them independently. In 2019, she produced 250 decks, which quickly sold out. 

Since that first batch, Friedman has continued updating and improving the questions. 

“They told me that if you sell 3,000 boxes in this industry, you’ve made it,” she said. “We’ve sold over 5,000, so even if I stopped tomorrow, I’d consider it a success. We’ve far exceeded 5,000 and are probably close to 6,000.”

Friedman partially credits the pandemic with boosting the project’s success. As families were stuck at home, they began to reconnect in person and over Zoom. Families, synagogues, and even Jewish museums in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have purchased the game.

“Tell and Kvell” is also being used to connect across the generation gap. Several customers are organizations, including the Legacy Heritage Fund. The fund purchased “Tell and Kvell” for its Better Together program, in which Jewish teenagers and college students are paired with senior citizens. 

The cards and questions have helped countless families and friends reconnect, and for Friedman, helping people learn to tell their stories is the best part of her new career. 

“You know the world; it’s not an easy place, and I think it’s important to help people connect and not feel alone,” she said.