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‘You son of a perverse rebellious woman’: Mobilizing the storytelling event for self-empowerment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 February 2022

Yael Zilberman Friedmann*
The Open University of Israel, Israel
Hadar Netz*
Tel-Aviv University, Israel
Address for correspondence: Yael Zilberman Friedmann Ginat-Egoz 8/33 Pardes Hanna Israel
Address for correspondence: Yael Zilberman Friedmann Ginat-Egoz 8/33 Pardes Hanna Israel
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The current study investigates the discursive strategies used by Jewish Israeli women when telling stories of self-empowerment involving interpersonal tension with authority figures. Our corpus is based on in-depth interviews with thirty women aged fifty to ninety-three from the southern city of Beer Sheva, Israel. We identified forty-two narratives manifesting interpersonal tension, mostly with authority figures. Drawing on the theoretical framework of narrative analysis, we conduct a performance-based, pragmatic microanalysis of four stories through which we demonstrate an ensemble of strategies paramount in shaping and contesting power relations, including use of direct reported speech, address and reference terms, and code-switching. By telling their stories, our storytellers mobilized the storytelling event as an occasion to perform a self-empowering move through which they subverted the frameworks of authority not only on a local level in the narrated and storytelling events but potentially also on a broader societal level, disrupting hegemonic asymmetries. (Power relations, narratives, self-empowerment, direct reported speech, code-switching, terms of address, terms of reference)

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The relationship between language and power is well acknowledged in academic literature (e.g. Fairclough Reference Fairclough1987; Wagner & Wodak Reference Wagner and Wodak2006). One social arena in which individuals may contest power relations is the storytelling event (Wortham Reference Wortham2001). As argued by Johnstone (Reference Johnstone1996:56), ‘people use stories to shape and reshape relations of solidarity, power, and status’. In particular, as we demonstrate in the current study, telling stories that involve interpersonal tension with authority figures allows storytellers to resist unequal power relations and thus reclaim social status and power, despite their initial inferior status in the narrated event (Wortham Reference Wortham2001). Drawing on thirty in-depth interviews with Jewish Israeli women aged fifty to ninety-three from the southern city of Beer Sheva, in the current study we aim to bring out the ways in which interviewees mobilize the interview (i.e. the storytelling event) as an occasion to perform a self-empowering move (see, for example, Smeraldo & Silva Reference Smeraldo Schell and Silva2020). We focus on the storytellers’ use of several discursive strategies, which we found to be paramount in shaping and contesting power relations, including their use of direct reported speech, address and reference terms, and code-switching. Before delving into our data, we begin with a brief theoretical background on power contestation and identity construction in storytelling, as well as on some of the discursive strategies involved in these processes.


Studies indicate that storytelling is directly associated to the distribution of power in society. Much of the research on power in storytelling has focused on questions related to unequal power relations existing between interactants in the storytelling event, such as in the context of legal trials (e.g. Ehrlich Reference Ehrlich2001; Harris Reference Harris2001) or police investigations (e.g. Johnson Reference Johnson2008; for further discussion, see De Fina & Georgakopoulou Reference De Fina and Georgakopoulou2012). However, unequal power relations are paramount when they exist not only between interactants within the storytelling event, but also between characters in the narrated event, for example, in slave-master relations (Van De Mieroop & Clifton Reference Van De Mieroop and Clifton2013), in conflicts with authority figures (Johnstone Reference Johnstone1987), or in stories of university racism (Buttny Reference Buttny1997). Telling stories of differential status allows storytellers to ‘reframe experiences into new or different categories’ (Shuman Reference Shuman2010:15), and may thus function as a tool for social resistance, an arena for contesting marginalized social positions (De Fina & King Reference De Fina and King2011).

Storytelling is thus a way of ‘doing identity’ (Benwell & Stokoe Reference Benwell and Stokoe2006:138), an act ‘in service of the expression and the creation of self’ (Johnstone Reference Johnstone1996:90). However, in contrast to older schools of thought that viewed identity as a predetermined given, contemporary approaches view identity as comprised of fragmented selves, fluid and constructed through a process of negotiation within the storytelling event (e.g. Ochs Reference Ochs1993; Bucholtz & Hall Reference Bucholtz and Hall2005; Wortham Reference Wortham2006; De Fina & Georgakopoulou Reference De Fina and Georgakopoulou2012; De Fina & Johnstone Reference De Fina, Johnstone, Tannen, Hamilton and Schiffrin2015). Furthermore, although doing identity is influenced by cultural categories, such as gender, class, ethnicity, and so on, Johnstone (Reference Johnstone1996) warns us against applying a deterministic approach that draws a direct link between these categories and storytelling practices. Instead, she argues that such categories constitute resources that storytellers draw on to construct their identities, and the goal of discourse analysis is then to describe the individual voices as they are constructed through the storyteller's ‘creative choices for how to talk and understand’ (Johnstone Reference Johnstone1996:13). We next describe some of the discursive strategies available to storytellers for expressing their individual voices.


Storytellers may draw on a myriad of strategies in order to express their individual voices. In the current study, we focus on several specific strategies—direct reported speech, address and reference terms, and code-switching—which we have identified in our corpus as paramount in shaping and contesting power relations.

Previous narrative research has pointed out the role of direct reported speech in contesting power relations through storytelling (e.g. Bamberg Reference Bamberg1997; Baynham Reference Baynham, Fina, Schiffrin and Bamberg2006; Lampropoulou Reference Lampropoulou2011; Van De Mieroop & Clifton Reference Van De Mieroop and Clifton2013). Direct reported speech is ‘speech within speech’ (Voloshinov Reference Voloshinov, Matejka and Promorska1971), and much like in plays and various types of prose, its use is a creative act through which the storyteller shifts between characters and time periods, rendering the storytelling event a type of polyphonic theater of memory (Peled Reference Peled2020).

Direct reported speech is thus used to create credibility, seemingly diminishing the storyteller's interference by allowing the characters to ‘speak for themselves’. This credibility is merely ostensible, however, since storytellers can, for example, choose to express certain voices while excluding others, as well as reshape the original words that were ‘spoken’. Furthermore, via direct reported speech storytellers not only quote someone's words but also convey their attitude towards these words (Holt Reference Holt2000). Going back to Voloshinov (Reference Voloshinov, Matejka and Promorska1971:149), direct reported speech is not only ‘speech within speech, message within message’, it is ‘at the same time also speech about speech, message about message’. It is therefore perhaps not so surprising that this strategy has been found to be effective particularly for making complaints (Holt Reference Holt2000) and challenging power relations (e.g. Johnstone Reference Johnstone1987; Buttny Reference Buttny1997; Hamilton Reference Hamilton1998; Van De Mieroop & Clifton Reference Van De Mieroop and Clifton2013).

Code-switching is yet another narrative device used not only for creating vividness and credibility, but also for creating solidarity or alternatively for contesting power relations (e.g. Schely-Newman Reference Schely-Newman1998; Baynham Reference Baynham, Fina, Schiffrin and Bamberg2006; De Fina Reference De Fina2007; Keating Reference Keating2009). However, as Schely-Newman (Reference Schely-Newman1998) emphasizes, when analyzing narratives that include code-switching, one must take into account the status each language holds within the society in which the story is told. In Israeli society, Hebrew is the language of the majority, and as of the Nation State Law of 2018, it is Israel's only official language. Hebrew is thus the language of government, authority, business, and finance and its use bestows privileges of status and power (Spolsky & Shohamy Reference Spolsky and Shohamy1999). Arabic, in contrast, is the language of the minority in Israel, demoted under the Nation State Law of 2018 as a language with special status, but no longer an official language of Israel (Awayed-Bishara Reference Awayed-Bishara2020). Arabic is thus associated with stereotypes of inferior status (Spolsky & Shohamy Reference Spolsky and Shohamy1999; Awayed-Bishara Reference Awayed-Bishara2020). As for English, as pointed out by Spolsky & Shohamy (Reference Spolsky and Shohamy1999:23), the English language enjoys an exceptionally high status in Israel, to the extent that the Hebrew Language Academy and officials of the Ministry of Education feel that it even poses a threat to the hegemony of the Hebrew language.

Another language that is used by our storytellers, and particularly those who immigrated from North Africa, is French, which is the language that was taught in schools in North Africa as the language of the French empire. Schely-Newman (Reference Schely-Newman1998) notes that among older Jews from North Africa, French enjoys a high status, distinguishing educated North African Jews completely literate in French from uneducated Arabic speakers who do not speak French. However, among North African immigrants, Arabic has a special status of its own; it is the language of home, the language of intimacy, used to create solidarity throughout the community. To summarize, the use of code-switching in narratives serves to delineate the boundaries of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (Schely-Newman Reference Schely-Newman1998), and is therefore particularly relevant when analyzing narratives of asymmetrical power relations.

Another discursive strategy used for challenging power relations is terms of address and terms of reference. Address and reference terms are never neutral, as the choice of one term over the others inherently embodies the speaker's viewpoints and feelings towards the object of address/reference (e.g. Dunkling Reference Dunkling1990; Formentelli Reference Formentelli2009; Keating Reference Keating2009; Norrick & Bubel Reference Norrick, Bubel, Norrick and Chiaro2009). As argued by Schiffrin (Reference Schiffrin1996:180), ‘what we call each other symbolizes the social relationship between addressor and addressee, often in terms of power and solidarity’.

The current study zooms in on these discursive strategies in order to gain a better understanding of the specific ways in which storytellers may mobilize the storytelling event as an occasion to contest differential power relations, turning the interview into a self-empowering scene. This is of high social significance, since as argued by Bruner (Reference Bruner1987:15, original emphasis), ‘in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives’.


Our corpus is based on in-depth interviews conducted by Zilberman-Friedmann in 2008–2009 with thirty Jewish Israeli women aged fifty to ninety-three from the southern city of Beer Sheva, for the purpose of a comprehensive study on women's sense of place and self. The study sample is diverse in terms of the participants’ level of education, including women who have worked as housewives or housekeepers and nannies, secretaries, teachers, welfare workers, nurses, and doctors.

Diversity is also apparent in terms of the informants’ origins; while few were born in Israel, most emigrated from various European and Arab countries. Note that the Jewish sector in Israeli society is multicultural, comprising different ethnic groups, which can roughly be divided into Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, that is, between Jews from European backgrounds and Jews from North Africa and the Middle East (Schely-Newman Reference Schely-Newman1998). This loosely delineated divide is historically more complex.Footnote 1 However, it is highly relevant to contemporary popular discourse and to research currently conducted in Israel. As Schely-Newman (Reference Schely-Newman1998) notes, the Zionist ideology stemmed from the European nationalist movements, leading Ashkenazi culture to become dominant to various degrees since the establishment of the state and till the present day. This dominance impacts the daily lives of Mizrahi people in terms of access to education, employment, and social status. This is all the more true with regard to the double minority status of Mizrahi women, whose immigrant experiences have been almost entirely absent throughout the years from historical and literary research on nation building (Schely-Newman Reference Schely-Newman, Cohan and Regev2004; Dahan-Kalev Reference Dahan-Kalev, Kark, Shilo and Hasan-Rokem2008; Shimony Reference Shimony2012; Zilberman Reference Zilberman2015, Reference Zilberman2018; Motzafi-Haller Reference Motzafi-Haller2018).

However, not only the interviewees’ backgrounds must be taken into account, but also that of the interviewer and the dynamics played out between the two at the time of the interview (e.g. Kiesling Reference Kiesling, Fina, Schiffrin and Bamberg2006; Baynham Reference Baynham2011). In line with an ethnographic methodology, especially from feminist, postmodern perspectives (Anderson & Jack Reference Anderson, Jack, Berger-Gluck and Patai1991; Hasan-Rokem Reference Hasan-Rokem1997), the interviewer employed various strategies to mitigate hierarchal aspects and create a sense of familiarity and intimacy with her interviewees. This included, for example, using conversational style and allowing the interviewees to ask the interviewer questions about her own private life. In addition, the interviews were often conducted while the interviewer joined the interviewees in their daily activities, such as having lunch together, folding laundry, going through family albums, and so on.

The interviewer's identity as a hometown researcher, born and raised in Beer Sheva, is also of significance. The women interviewed, who are the city elders, often saw the interview as an opportunity to teach the younger interviewer about the city's local history. Therefore, the interviewer's status as researcher did not necessarily position her as more knowledgeable than her subjects. However, the researcher's identity as a secular, educated woman of Ashkenazi descent nevertheless positioned her as an ‘outsider’, especially in relation to the traditional Mizrahi ‘nonprofessionals’, who often used the interview as a platform for resisting regional, gender, and ethnic stereotypes (Schely-Newman Reference Schely-Newman, Cohan and Regev2004; Zilberman Reference Zilberman2015).

Out of the thirty interviews, we identified forty-two narratives (see Appendix A), which included elements of interpersonal tensions between the narrators and other characters in their stories. Importantly, however, the narratives all demonstrate the storytellers’ resourcefulness, which enabled them to overcome these tensions and hurdles, thus turning the storytelling into a self-empowering act. After identifying these forty-two narratives, we scrutinized them carefully, paying special attention to the different discursive strategies the storytellers used in order to renegotiate power relations and reclaim agency. We identified several strategies that were paramount to this end, including direct reported speech, address and reference terms, and code-switching. We eventually chose for microanalysis four narratives that were rife with these identified strategies. We next present our microanalysis of these four narratives.


Naima: ‘There's no doctor here, there's a professor!’

NaimaFootnote 2 was born in 1945 in Iraq and came to Beer Sheva in the early 1950s with her family, which at the time included seven siblings and both her parents. Upon the family's arrival in Israel, Naima's mother gave birth to another child, but due to her severely unstable mental condition, she could not take care of him, and so third-grader Naima was taken out of school in order to become, as she puts it, ‘the household slave’. Her father suffered from various illnesses for years and finally died when Naima was in her early twenties. Her mother's mental condition continued to decline, and she was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. In light of all this, the storyteller constructed her own character as a strong and assertive young girl (and later on woman), who took care of her younger siblings in the absence of parental figures at home.

Naima's life story includes six narratives of interpersonal tensions, mainly with teachers, lawyers, and doctors (see Appendix A). In them Naima highlights the status, gender, and ethnic divide between herself and the authority figures, in order to make her victory all the sweeter and underscore the fact that she does not automatically accept her opponent's authority.

The narrative we analyze here describes Naima's tenacity and resourcefulness as she confronts her mother's psychiatrist in order to get her mother out of the institution in which she was hospitalized for many years. Her story is given in (1) below.Footnote 3

Naima is aware of her lack of legal power but nevertheless decides to try and get her mother released. She arrives at the appointed time and waits for the psychiatrist to arrive, a point that underscores the difference in status between them. She then describes the psychiatrist as displaying symptoms of Down Syndrome, that is, as a person whose appearance is incongruent with his status and profession (stereotypically speaking).

Status is also the topic the psychiatrist and Naima discuss at the doorstep. In line 2, Naima uses direct reported speech to quote the hospital worker: “The doctor will come ne- the professor will come next week”. This line includes an interesting self-repair that highlights the distinct use Naima makes of the reference terms doctor/professor, according to the characters’ status in the narrated event. Naima first uses the Hebrew word for ‘doctor’ (alongside the equivalent Anglo-Saxon term ‘doktor’), which she is careful to use throughout the story, to represent the way she herself as a simple, uneducated woman, referred to or addressed the psychiatrist. However, she immediately corrects to ‘the professor’, realizing that she is not performing here her own character but that of the hospital worker, and hence the reference term needs to be the professional title, expressing the hierarchal relationship between the secretary and the professor psychiatrist.

In line 8, Naima addresses the interviewer, explaining: “You see this person, short, bald, … with a pipe. This is a professor psychiatrist”. This line demonstrates that in contrast to the narrated event, in the storytelling event, Naima positions herself as well versed in the professional terminology, clarifying that she is well aware that this is a ‘professor psychiatrist’ and not just any ‘doctor’/‘doktor’.

In line 9, again through direct reported speech, Naima describes how she addressed the psychiatrist, supposedly without knowing he was the psychiatrist: “I say to him ‘I made an appointme:nt with the doctor here’”, and justifies this by explaining to the interviewer: “I didn't know this was a professor” (line 10). In contrast to the way in which Naima positions herself vis-à-vis the interviewer in the storytelling event, in the narrated event she positions herself as supposedly having no knowledge of the professional terminology, unaware of the difference between ‘doctor’ and ‘professor’. Addressing the psychiatrist this way, she is seemingly lowering her own status (to that of a person who does not know the terms). However, she is simultaneously lowering the psychiatrist's status: from that of ‘professor psychiatrist’ to mere ‘doctor’. And indeed, in line 11, Naima presents the psychiatrist as one who places great importance on professional titles, and does not hesitate to take advantage of the status differences to teach her a lesson: “There's no doctor here, there's a professor!”. Thus, by addressing the psychiatrist as ‘doctor’, Naima has indeed managed to undermine his status.

Later on, describing the moment she asks the psychiatrist to release her mother, Naima uses the address term ‘doctor’ (line 19), but immediately adds, addressing the interviewer: “now I don't know how to say professor, becau:se it doesn't work for me” (line 19). Here it is clear that in constructing her identity vis-à-vis the interviewer, Naima in fact knows very well how to ‘say professor’. Note that Yael takes the role of ‘supportive interviewer’ (Kiesling Reference Kiesling, Fina, Schiffrin and Bamberg2006:266): “Yeah, and what's the big deal anyway”, thus playing along with Naima, supporting her construction of identities and power relations.

Naima thus maneuvers with great virtuosity between the narrated event and the storytelling event. In the narrated event she makes sure to emphasize her inferiority and lack of education as opposed to the psychiatrist, and accordingly presents herself as ignorant of professional titles, therefore ‘forced’ to address him in terms that diminish his status. In contrast, when addressing the interviewer in the storytelling event, Naima demonstrates perfect knowledge of the professional titles and has no difficulty using them whatsoever. Thus, Naima in fact emphasizes the differences in status in the narrated event in order to challenge them and enhance her own status and identity through the storytelling event. The professor, by contrast, is portrayed by her as a petty man who nitpicks with hardworking people about the correct use of titles.

When Naima says to the psychiatrist “You're crazy” (line 28), she subverts the categories of sane/insane, further mitigating the status gap. The double entendre of the word ‘crazy’, as a pathological diagnosis and as a common everyday expression connoting surprise and criticism, receives a new and ridiculous context in the psychiatric ward. It brings to mind a host of ‘crazy jokes’ and humorously expresses Naima's provocation of authority in regards to determining who is crazy, and who knows better when it comes to her mother's needs, all in complete contradiction to the psychiatrist's own self-importance. Note that the interviewer laughs, supporting Naima's cheeky subversive discourse.Footnote 5

Eventually, the psychiatrist acquiesces to her mother's release. He instructs Naima regarding the medication she was to give her mother: “he says to me ‘This during the day, this three in the morning, this three around noo-’” (line 36), and “Make sure you give her all this” (line 41). Naima seemingly accepts his authority subserviently: “I said ‘No problem doktor’” (line 42), but then, code-switching first into Arabic (line 37) and later into Z language,Footnote 6 she secretly communicates with her mother in front of the psychiatrist and the two agree to defy his authority without his knowledge. Note that Naima reports code-switching to Arabic and Z language, but mainly uses Hebrew to describe the exchange, perhaps because she is aware that the interviewer does not speak Arabic (or Z language). She does, however, address her mother with the Arabic term “immi” (line 44), enhancing the vividness and credibility of her words. Crucially, however, code-switching to Arabic and Z language is used not only to enhance authenticity, but also and mainly to empower Naima and her mother: As speakers of a language the psychiatrist does not know, they successfully undermine his authority, and do so in his presence.

Simi: ‘Madam, the one who gave you this letter, tell him to buy you a house’

Simi was born in Morocco in 1933 and came to Israel in the late 1960s, when she was already a mother of six. She was married in Morocco at the age of nine and never attended school. Her life story focused on the dire ramifications of getting married and bearing children at such a young age and the coping strategies she used along the years, and at an older age on the challenges of immigrating to Israel. Two out of three of the stories of interpersonal tension in her life story deal with her arrival from Morocco to Beer Sheva and the description of how she was absorbed into Israeli society. Through these narratives Simi positions herself as an active and resourceful character.

The narrative presented below describes a conflict that developed between Simi and Victor, the head of Israel's state-owned housing company, Amidar. In the story, Simi approaches Victor in order to receive a larger apartment that would be appropriate for a family with six children, and specifically for her asthmatic daughter. Simi, like Naima, describes interpersonal tension with a masculine authority figure (the head of Amidar). However, unlike Naima and her mother, Simi is not fighting her battle alone: the head of Soroka Medical Center, Dr. Fein, is by her side. Thus, she uses the voice of an authority figure (the head of the hospital) as a clarion to intensify her own objection. Simi's story is given in (2) below.

Simi begins her story by presenting Dr. Fein's character. Note that she uses the title ‘doctor’, his surname, Fein, and his role as head of the hospital. The use of one's professional title followed by one's last name expresses deference and respect (e.g. Formentelli Reference Formentelli2009). Compare this with Naima, who used a host of titles (doctor (rofe)/doktor/professor/psychiatrist) but never once mentioned the authority figure's surname, thus diminishing her deference and respect for the authority figure.

Simi comes to Dr. Fein crying. Through direct reported speech, she performs the character of the doctor: “kali [Arabic: ‘he said to me’] ‘Madam, why are you crying?’” (line 9). Note that Simi code-switches to Arabic, using the speech verb kali. The doctor (and the interviewer) are of Ashkenazi descent and do not speak Arabic. However, by using the Arabic speech verb, Simi positions herself in alignment with Dr. Fein, thus blurring the status differences between them. The doctor, and later on Victor, the head of Amidar, are presented as consistently addressing her with the title ‘madam’. In line 9 the doctor is presented as sensitive and caring when he asks her why she is crying. Simi replies in direct reported speech, using an address term associated with Mizrahi slang, kapara aleikha ‘Bless your heart’. This term is typically used to express intimate familiarity and is therefore unexpected in reporting how a patient (of Mizrahi descent) addresses a doctor (of Ashkenazi descent), and once again creates alignment and blurs the status differences between the two.

Next, Simi presents the character of Victor. Like Dr. Fein, Victor is also presented as a position holder, head of Amidar. However, unlike Dr. Fein, Victor receives neither a title nor a surname; instead, he is presented using his first name only. Simi thus diminishes the status of the authority figure whom she is about to confront.

Then, Simi describes Dr. Fein's letter to Victor. Via direct reported speech, she quotes Dr. Fein's use of a power-oriented directive: “Give her four rooms immediately” (line 27), ordering Victor to fulfill her request. Simi takes Dr. Fein's letter and hands it to Victor.

Entering Victor's office, she describes mutual affectations of courtesy, as the two code-switch between Hebrew, Arabic, and French: “Madam, ya, khasra aleik [Arabic: ‘you poor thing’], […] asseyez-vous, madame [French: ‘sit down, madam’]” (line 29); “merci beaucoup” [French: ‘Thank you very much’]. […] I said to him ‘Thank you very much sir’.” (line 30). Code-switching between the three languages serves to create seeming alignment between Simi and Victor, both of North-African descent. However, this alignment is nothing but a short-lived idyll intended to highlight the confrontation about to erupt between the two.

Indeed, as soon as the ‘proper etiquette’ scene is over, Simi gets to business: “I have a letter from the head of the hospital” (line 30). Victor refuses the doctor's demand. However, Simi presents herself, at this stage, as not afraid to confront the authority figure. In a series of power-oriented directives, she commands Victor: “Give me the letter. Write that on the:: on the:: letter” (line 34). Victor in contrast, is presented here as avoiding conflict, and fulfils her instructions (line 35).

Simi goes back to Dr. Fein with the letter from Victor. Unlike Naima who had to wait for the psychiatrist, Simi presents Dr. Fein as sitting and waiting for her (“I found him waiting”, line 36). At this stage, through a lengthy and detailed dialogue, Simi reports Dr. Fein's phone call with Victor. Notably, Dr. Fein is the only one who speaks in this conversation. He is quoted as using power-oriented strategies, including threats and orders, high volume and an exceptionally assertive tone (line 41). Thus, through direct reported speech, Simi placed at her side the character of another authority figure, thus intensifying her own contestation of Victor's authority.

Leah G.: ‘I have a dream’

Leah was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1932 to Jewish parents of Russian and French descent. In 1940 she immigrated with her family to Israel. She described happy childhood memories with her wealthy family in Syria and then in Israel. After completing a meaningful military service, she worked as a teacher. In the early 1970s, Leah moved to Beer Sheva, where she worked in the municipality as the head of educational building projects. She subsequently worked as a literature teacher and earned a master's degree in this field. In the early 1980s she founded and served as the principal of an arts high school in Beer Sheva.

Leah's life story included six narratives demonstrating her resourcefulness in the workplace, one of which is presented below. In this story, having discovered that the president of the American Education Foundation, Mr. Gilman, is about to visit in Israel, Leah, in her capacity as the municipality's head of education building projects, initiates a meeting with the president. Aware of Mr. Gilman's status, Leah realizes that she needs to be highly assertive and even confront several officials, in order to secure a personal meeting with him. Her narrative is below in (3).

Leah begins her story by reporting her exchange with the president's secretary and then with the president himself. She thus amplifies the tension, by creating a double hurdle she will have to overcome: convincing the secretary to pass her call to the president and convincing the president to meet with her.

Leah opens her conversation with the secretary without introducing herself. This naturally leads up to the question “Who are you?”, asked first by the secretary (line 5) and later by the president as well (line 8). This question highlights Leah's inferior status. However, in response to the question, without missing a beat but with a certain amount of self-irony, fully aware of the lofty allusion, Leah introduces herself as someone who has a dream (“Dream! Suddenly I decided that it's there's a dream!”, line 7). By doing so she is of course referencing the famous quote by Martin Luther King. The analogy to King and his vision gains momentum in her conversation with the president of the foundation, when Leah repeats the phrase, this time code-switching to English: “I have a dream” (line 9). By code-switching to English and referencing Martin Luther King, the storyteller both highlights the historical affinity between Israel and the United States and reduces the hierarchy between herself and the president, positioning herself in alignment with him.

The storyteller's wittiness intrigues the authority figure, propelling him to invite her for a meeting. At Mr. Gilman's doorstep she confronts one of her bosses, the Director General of the Ministry of Education, who is not at all pleased with her presence, and informs her that she shouldn't be there. Fortunately for Leah, at that precise moment Mr. Gilman opens his door. He recognizes her immediately as the young woman with a dream (line 20) and invites her in. In other words, if at first Leah was anonymous (“Who are you?”), she is now recognized in reference to the character of Martin Luther King, no less!

Leah invites the president for a tour of the city, of her own accord, on behalf of the municipality: “without asking permission, without anything” (line 24). Looking at her two immediate superiors, she ironically extends her invitation even to them: “The Municipality of Beer Sheva, [laughs] welcomes you all, to come for the tour” (line 26). The offer is accepted by Mr. Gilman, who is now described as ‘a short little man with a mischievous smile’ (line 25), a depiction that once again reduces the hierarchy between the two. The story ends with the president agreeing to financially support her project.

Shosh: ‘You son of a perverse rebellious woman’

Shosh was born in 1947 in a displaced persons camp in Cyprus to parents of Romanian descent. Shosh was the eldest child of parents who were Holocaust survivors. She attended school until ninth grade. After completing her military service, she worked as a secretary for many years.

Shosh's workplace stories, much like the stories of her childhood, adulthood, and married life, are characterized by interpersonal tensions and emotional grievances, especially around her early retirement. Shosh retired at a relatively early age at fifty-three from the Ministry of Education, where she worked for many years as secretary to a female director general, with whom she had a good relationship. When her boss left, Shosh's situation deteriorated and she began to be involved in many workplace disputes. In particular, she did not get along with the new director general, Sergio, who was a supervisor at the Ministry of Education. In the story below in (4), she reports a fierce argument that erupted between the two.

Undoubtedly the most salient element in Shosh's narrative is her extensive use of profanities, especially towards her boss. Even before she introduces the authority figure's name or job title, the first thing Shosh tells us is that he was ‘a suck-up a super suck-up’ (line 1). Then, much like Simi presented Victor (the head of Amidar), Shosh too only mentions the authority figure's first name, Sergio. We inadvertently find out as the sentence unfolds that Sergio was a supervisor, but no other details are provided. Then, Shosh describes the deterioration of her relationship with Sergio, which she presents as stemming from the rude manner in which he spoke to her, stressing his superior status, performed via direct reported speech and high volume (line 7, “Who's the secretary here, me or you?”).

Through direct reported speech, Shosh describes a radical departure from the conventional etiquette dictated by the status hierarchy, as she addresses her boss in a vitriolic address term: “Listen to me, you piece of shit” (line 8). Later on she shares additional address terms that she (at least allegedly) used towards Sergio: “ben na'avat hamardut” (‘You son of a perverse rebellious woman’) and “You nothing, you nobody!” (line 13), emphasizing: “Everything was accompanied by, ‘you piece of nothing, you piece of shit, you nobody, you this, you that’” (line 17).

Notably, Shosh's narrative includes almost no events. Rather, the majority of the narrative revolves around the harsh address terms she used, all of which were met by Sergio's silence: “He didn't say a word. […] he didn't utter a sound” (line 9) and “He was silent” (line 15). Moreover, Shosh even highlighted that this was done in a way that “the whole hallway could hear” (line 13), intensifying the boss's humiliation. His silence is magnified in light of Shosh's vulgarity, who in her own words “annihilated him with words […] maybe no one ever dared to speak to him like that e:h ever in his life” (line 11). Interestingly, in Simi's narrative in (2) above, when Dr. Fein (Simi's ally) is quoted using direct and unhedged style in his phone call with Victor, Victor, like Sergio, does not answer back. In other words, the power-oriented style is doubled here: the narrators not only describe the tough-talk directed at the authority figure, but also, at the same time, dispossess the authority figure of his voice and his right to respond.

Unlike the first three storytellers, Shosh does not code-switch between languages. She does, however, shift between different varieties of Hebrew. For example, alongside her use of vulgarities, including a slew of slang expressions belonging to non-standard Hebrew, or in her own words: jora ‘foul mouthed’ (line 8), she also uses super-standard Hebrew, including words such as ganzach ‘archive’ and amarkalit ‘administrator’.Footnote 9 Her choice of the curse ben na'avat hamardut ‘You son of a perverse rebellious woman’ (line 13) taken from Biblical Hebrew (Samuel 1, chapter 20, verse 30) is especially interesting. This phrase was used as a curse in Jewish Enlightenment literature of the nineteenth century, but did not survive the transition to spoken Hebrew of the twentieth century. Furthermore, a search we conducted in the Hebrew CorpusFootnote 10 shows that the expression also failed to transition to Israeli Hebrew literature after the Jewish Enlightenment. Hence, by code-switching between different varieties of Hebrew, Shosh constructs a complex, fragmented identity: educated but also assertive and blunt, and certainly not one to submit to the dictums of society.


In this article, we analyzed stories of interpersonal tensions related to asymmetrical power relations between the narrators and different authority figures in their stories. The article reveals several linguistic resources that the narrators draw on, as they mobilize the storytelling event as an arena in which they perform a self-empowering move. In other words, through storytelling, the narrators reclaim power on both fronts, that is, in the narrated event as well as in the storytelling event. First, in the narrated event, the narrators managed—thanks to their resourcefulness and against the odds—to overcome various interpersonal difficulties and obstacles, mainly related to their inferior status. Second, in the storytelling event, by retelling their stories of self-empowerment, the narrators are given the opportunity to express their individual, unique voices (Johnstone Reference Johnstone1996), and by doing so to construct their identities as agentic, resourceful, and clever individuals, who are unwilling to succumb to hegemonic power relations.

The article highlights specific discursive strategies that the storytellers use to resist and reclaim power, including direct reported speech, address and reference terms, and code-switching. We have demonstrated the storytellers’ virtuosity in switching between different characters, different address and reference terms, and different languages, as they manipulate and reframe power relations. For example, we have seen Naima presenting the authority figure at times as doctor and at others as professor, depending on the way she wished to position him and herself both in the narrated event and in the storytelling event. Similarly, we have seen the storytellers making use of Arabic, French, English, as well as different varieties of Hebrew in order to counter hegemonic discourses. For example, we have seen Naima and Simi making use of Arabic, which is associated with stereotypes of inferior status, as a self-empowering element, allowing them to overpower the authority figures they confronted. Similarly, Shosh made use of non-standard as well as super-standard varieties of Hebrew in order to overpower the authority figure she confronted.

In sum, this study has revealed an ensemble of strategies and structures through which our storytellers subvert the frameworks of authority, as they performed complex, non-stereotypical identities, in addition to displaying their talent as gifted storytellers. The blatant and direct resistance of some of the storytellers as well as the more indirect resistance of others strengthen the approach in which categories like status and gender do not automatically and comprehensively predict linguistic performance (Johnstone Reference Johnstone1996). Thus, the storytelling event may become an arena in which power relations are reframed and individuals who were in inferior positions in the narrated event may gain status and power not only in their stories but also in and through their telling.




vowel lengthening


truncated word

@smiley voice@

smiley voice


authors’ comments


emphatic stress

high pitch


accelerated speech

“reported speech”

direct reported speech


untimed short pause


timed pause


deleted text


uncertain transcription


indecipherable utterance


1 Ashkenazim and Mizrahim are terms originating from a distinction between religious traditions, including Ashkenazi (German), Sephardi (Spanish), and other smaller traditions. Most Mizrahi Jews are descendants of Spanish Jews expelled from Spain (and Portugal) at the end of the fifteenth century, arriving mainly to North Africa and the Middle East. Within the Zionist terminology, the term Sephardi was gradually replaced by Mizrahi (Eastern/Oriental).

2 The storytellers have agreed to be presented by their real first names. All other names appearing in this article are pseudonyms.

3 Transcription conventions are given in Appendix B.

4 The term ‘doctor’ is used to represent Naima's use of the Hebrew word for ‘doctor’ (rofe). Later on (e.g. in lines 19 and 42), we use the term ‘doktor’ to represent Naima's use of the Anglo-Saxon term ‘doktor’ (with Hebrew accent), commonly used by Hebrew speakers when referring to/addressing doctors.

5 On non-authority storytellers being cheeky to authority figures, see Johnstone (Reference Johnstone1987).

6 Z language is a secret language used among immigrant Mizrahi children in the 1950–1960s. It is based on adding after each vowel an additional syllable starting with the consonant Z and duplicating the previous vowel.

7 The term ‘madam’ is used to represent Simi's use of the Hebrew word for geveret ‘madam’. Later on, in line 29, we use the term ‘madame’ to represent Simi's use of the French term ‘madame’, pronounced with French accent.

8 Leah echoed the well-known quote ‘I have a dream’ several times in her narrative—both in Hebrew (e.g. in line 6, hakhalom shelanu ‘our dream’ and in line 7, yesh khalom ‘there's a dream’) and code-switching to English (e.g. in line 9, ‘I have a dream’ and in line 10, ‘I like dreams’). In the transcript, we use non-italicized script, for example, ‘our dream’, to represent our translation of her use of Hebrew, and italicized, for example, ‘I have a dream’, to represent her use of English.

9 Due to space limitations, these words were left out of the transcript.



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