Jewels of a life: writing family folktales

Karen Pierce Gonzalez is a talented and creative writer and publisher. Her Folkheart Press has released two books about writing family folktales and another about the cuisine of Catalonia.

Her Web site and blog are delicious fare. There are entries about the lore of pomegranates, the pain of poverty, and the unanticipated gold mine of a new friendship . I had the chance to contribute a story about one of Canada’s folk heroines, Laura Ingersoll Secord.

Karen’s talents don’t stop there. She is also an experienced insider in the world of journalism. That makes her particularly adept at assisting clients with their marketing needs through Karen Pierce Gonzalez Public Relations.

The company’s tag line says a lot about this generous and talented woman: “Our goal is to shed media light on the good work of others.”

Raphael Pizante, the author's grandfather

Raphael Pizante, the author's grandfather

From Rhodes to Ellis Island

My grandfather, Raphael Pizante, came to Ellis Island in 1907 from the Jewish quarters of Rhodes. He earned his boat passage by selling cigarettes to miners in Turkey. Once here it did not take this small framed man with blond hair and blue eyes long to locate the nearest synagogue. This is something Jews had been doing for a very long time; especially the Spanish Jews of his ancestry. The Sephardim left Spain during the Spanish Inquisition some 400 years earlier. And before that, there are countless stories about the Jewish Disapora; Jews seeking shelter among other Jews. In some cases those shelters became ghettos like the one my grandfather left behind.

In New York, which is one of four major cities in America where Sephardic Jews congregate, he quickly made friends. Speaking Hebrew, Ladino and some English he made his way across the country to San Francisco traveling from synagogue to synagogue washing dishes for food and housing along the way.

Setting up shop in San Francisco

A member of the merchant class, my grandfather set up shop, so to speak, just north of San Francisco. He settled in Vallejo which was the North Bay’s point of entry for ferries and cargo-bearing ships from San Francisco. As this was before the Golden Gate Bridge was built, it was an ideal location for businessmen like him who purchased items to be resold in his market.

A quiet man, he kept his nose to the grindstone and worked enough long, hard hours to purchase his store. He slept in the back and rented out the rooms above the store to what he later referred to as ‘working girls’. Situated pretty close to Mare Island Naval Shipyard, rumor has it that those girls were kept quite busy during the 1930 and 1940’s.

The family man

Raphael was a conservative Jew who observed the Sabbath and kept kosher. He provided shelter for the many brothers and friends who followed him. In all cases, he also provided financial support until they could go out on their own.

At 30 my grandfather married my grandmother Fortunee Abouaf who also came from Rhodes (arranged marriage). She arrived by train just three days before the Jewish holiday of Purim. Nearly strangers, they had to marry quickly. Years later they became the family hub and would be instrumental in establishing Vallejo’s one and only synagogue.

Getting started with family folktales

This is only one of many stories about my ancestors. While I did know my grandfather, there were countless others I never met except through folktales like this one.

This is true for many people; especially the writers who’ve attended my writing workshops wanting to chronicle the lives of people they knew. These people were beloved, accomplished, notorious or all of the above.

The writers just didn’t know where to start.

Folktale motifs as springboards

After hearing writers concerns about the amount of time and effort that would go into writing a biography and worries about whether or not they had the facts right, I realized that the process of writing about someone, a special time, or place needed to be as simple as the process of writing a piece of fiction. In other words, it had to be something that could be done in stages that were easy to manage.

And what better management tool than folktale motifs? Drawing upon my own understanding and experience with folktales, I discovered that similar to the vignette writing exercises I provided as springboards for writing topics, folktale motifs (categories of character and themes, such as the trickster who stole fire or the hero who made a special birthday gift) naturally lent themselves to this writing process as well.

In fact, they often opened up unexpected doors of creativity for writers of all levels.

Reliving memorable moments

Folktales are generally shorter pieces of writing that express a unique or personalized version of a universal theme. For example, consider the universal theme of the pioneer. Early American homesteaders fit well into this category, so do contemporary natives of Punjab, India who have pulled up roots and relocated to Australia in search of new opportunities.

In no time at all the writers were creating original folktales about the very people, places, and things whose memories they wanted to preserve for future generations.

Karen Pierce Gonzalez

Karen Pierce Gonzalez

What makes folktales so perfect is that they can highlight only a specific period of time, as opposed to an entire lifetime. It is not essential that every aspect, every detail be included in the story because folktales are not bound to the rigid guidelines a genealogical accounting can require.

As a result, writers experienced great freedom and greater joy. They not only relived memorable moments, they captured them in an easy to manage format that was based upon personal interpretation and expression.

When it comes to folktales, writing doesn’t get any better than that!

Karen Pierce Gonzalez is the author of the newly released Family Folktales: Write Your Own Family Stories workbook. An award winning writer with degrees in Anthropology/Folklore and Creative Writing she belongs to the Western States Folklore Society. Her writing credits include Family Folktales: What Are Yours? and she is currently writing “Folktales You Can Eat.” For more information visit Folkheart Press or the Folkheart Press blog.

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Isaac - May 6, 2011


I was looking for an information on the Internet when I found this page which talks about Raphael Pizante from Rhodes island in Greece.
This was a surprise for me because my grandfather was also known as Joseph Pizante from the same island of Rhodes. He was born in Rhodes but later he and his family moved to Italy because the Turkish invasion at the island.
His father, whose name I don’t remember at this moment, was a rich man in the island and had a shipyard that later was occuped by the Turkish invasors whose killed him in an coward act.
I have the family tree well kept in another place than my home so if you need more inforamtion about my mother geneology please feel free to contact me.

Thanks & regards,
Isaac C. Cohen
Quebec, Canada

P.S. I’m sorry for my poor English, it is not my tongue language.

storyroute admin - May 9, 2011

My apologies for a slow response. I will send your note to Karen. She’ll be delighted to hear from you.

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