“The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster” is a story of a prince who has decided that he is a rooster and acts accordingly. After the King and Queen’s extensive attempts to find a cure, a wise man arrives with a promise. The wise man’s approach has been retold especially in the context of education and social service. The story has been made into a number of illustrated children’s books (including an edition by artist Art Spiegelman) and the rooster prince can be found in Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid in the art of both Inez Storer and M. Louise Stanley. But the author, rather than this particular story, looms large in the tradition of Jewish folktales.
The tale’s author is a Jewish mystic, kabbalist, and famed storyteller, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Ukraine (1772–1810). Rebbe Nachman was a creative and influential rabbi known for his focus on happiness, and even ecstaticism. He believed that fervent joy, rather than intellectual study, could bring one to heightened spiritual awakening and closer to God. He electrified listeners with his storytelling and spoke of and focused on the power of stories to awaken. Rebbe Nachman is one of the most famous storytellers in Jewish history, making the inclusion of his tale “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster,” in the exhibition Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid particularly important.
Rebbe Nachman famously authored thirteen fairytale-like stories that were written down in a book called Sipurei Masiyos as well as other stories that were later compiled in other anthologies.
“A cross between rabbinic midrash and Kafka-esque parable, Rebbe Nachman’s stories make liberal use of heroes’ journeys and elements of romance, with the stories designed to inspire a cosmic kind of longing. . . . And like any good Jewish story, one often wonders halfway through what this is all about.”
Rebbe Nachman was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov who is considered the father of the Jewish mystical movement of Hasidism. Emerging in eighteenth century Europe, Hasidism was renowned for its use of joy, storytelling, and song to engage the Jewish populist, including the poor and illiterate. Hasidic teachings embraced Jewish mysticism and community practice was built around a living Rebbe, also called a Tzaddik. A Rebbe is a distinctive term utilized in the Hassidic movement for the spiritual leader, who is believed to be a holy conduit. Many particular Hassidic rites surround the Rebbe. This is unusual and unique in Jewish practice. Rabbi is the more ubiquitous term for a Jewish spiritual leader.
Rebbe Nachman founded the Breslov Hasidic sect, which is still active today and known for its focus on singing, dancing, and solitary prayer. The Breslov community, while still extremely observant, stands out both historically and today from other Hasidic sects. The sect is nicknamed the troite Hassidism (or dead Hassidism), as Rebbe Nachman did not believe in dynasticism, and unlike all other Hassidic sects, there have been no Rebbe successors. This lack of a central living leader likely led to the Breslov community attracting more newcomers to Orthodox Judaism than most other Hassidic sectsIts focus on solitary prayer is also allows for a more individualized approach to God. While in each Hasidic sect the males dress in a distinctive uniform, the Breslov males do not. Each year tens of thousands of male Breslov Hassidim, as well as a growing number of male members of other Jewish sects, flock in pilgrimage to the town of Uman, Ukraine to visit the Rebbe’s gravesite on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the anniversary of Rebbe Nachman’s death.  With over 25,000 attendees annually, it has grown to be the single largest Jewish pilgrimage outside of Israel and is notable for its draw of a diversity of Jewish practices.
Two quotes from Rebbe Nachman have become especially well-known melodies: “It is an especially great mitzvah to be in happiness always,” and a folksong often sung at the Friday evening Shabbat meal, “The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid at all.”
A small splinter of the Breslov Hassidim are the Na Nachs, a group which started to gain followers in the 1980s. The words ‘Na Nachs’ is a play on Rebbe Nachman’s name and is part of what is believed to be a mystical incantation that eases all troubles all hastens the coming of the Messiah—Na Nach Nachman, Nachman m’Uman.—The Na Nachs are famous for their ecstatic dancing and their joy-spreading mobile vans that have a presence in Israel. At red lights, Na Nachs may jump from a stickered van, blast a techno beat, and rope passersby into dancing and singing with them, all in the name of spreading joy and spiritual awakedness.
Na Nachs might also be recognized by their oversized white kippot with the mantra “Na Nach” printed around the edge.
1. Aaron J. Hahn Tapper, Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Judaism and Jewish Identity (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).
2. My Jewish Learning, “Nachman of Breslov,” by Louis Jacobs, accessed August 1, 2017, myjewishlearning.com/article/nahman-of-bratslav/.
3. Ibid., 2016.
4. Marc Caplan, “God and Uman,” Tablet Magazine, September 25, 2009, accessed August 1, 2017, tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/16887/god-and-uman.
5. Shaul Magid, “‘Uman, Uman Rosh ha-Shana’: R. Nahman’s Grave as Erez Yisrael,” The Seforim Blog, October 14, 2010, accessed August 1, 2017, seforim.blogspot.com/2010/10/shaul-magid-uman-uman-rosh-ha-shana-r.html.
6. Marlon Bishop, “Israel's Orthodox Ravers Are On A Holy Mission to Dance,” NPR music, March 14, 2014, accessed August 1, 2017, npr.org/2014/03/14/290106644/israels-orthodox-ravers-are-on-a-holy-mission-to-dance.
Batya Ungar-Sargon, Tablet Magazine, 100 Greatest Jewish Books, September 16, 2013, tabletmag.com/100-greatest-jewish-books/144468/sipurei-masiyos-rebbe-nachman-of-breslov-1816.