Magic Portals and the Transmission of Jewish Folklore

Gabriella Safran

Jews like to tell stories, it seems, so the corpus of Jewish folktales is large—and because Jews have lived in so many countries, people have recorded Jewish folktales from a dizzying array of places. The artists in Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid all chose topics from the stories in Howard Schwartz’s collection, Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales. My first question on looking at their work was which of Schwartz’s stories appealed to them, what they chose to use in their art, and what that tells us. That is, if we agree that the artist is a maggid—a folk preacher who tends to tell stories, then what kinds of maggids are these artists? The folklore theorists Roman Jakobson and Peter Bogatyrev, in their landmark 1929 essay, “Folklore as a Special Form of Creativity,” discuss the processes by which folklore either lives on or dies out. They argue that each storyteller, in each generation, has the chance to either retell a story or not; maggids, then, can censor a story out of existence if it does not appeal to them, or they can ensure its ongoing life, perhaps by adapting it for their own needs. Jakobson and Bogatryev are most interested in oral transmission, such as that of the maggid, but I think we can extend their argument to talk about the ways that folklore continues to be transmitted in all the multiple, ever-shifting media forms that we know today, including those that the artists in this exhibition use.

So let’s look at our artists and what they chose from the Schwartz collection. They used many stories from the Sephardi and Mizrachi communities of Asia and Africa, preferring them to those from the Ashkenazi communities of Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, they like folktales that thematize the visual, ones with picturesque, bright, startling images. Perhaps less predictably, they are drawn to images of modes of communication and transportation, to magic connections between people and places. Mike Rothfeld constructs a kind of portal, like those in the stories “Milk and Honey” and “The City of Luz.” Tracey Snelling was intrigued by the mirror in “Lilith’s Cave,” which also works as a portal. The mirror in “Lilith’s Cave,” which also serves as a portal, intrigued Tracey Snelling. David Kasprzak was drawn to the image of the princess in “The Golden Mountain,” communicating, from inside her mountain, on a golden seashell, a kind of cell phone (or shellphone). Mads Lynnerup liked the notion of a leaf from a tree that becomes a map leading a different princess to her hurt prince. The painter Vera Iliatova was inspired by a story about magical painting, “Drawing the Wind,” where a boy’s painting of a ship on a prison wall becomes a real ship with which the prisoners can escape. Michael Arcega selected the story of the rabbi who chooses not to blow a shofar (he made the wrong choice). Julia Goodman was inspired by the story of the king who spends an hour every day looking in his mirror and reflecting on poverty. M. Louise Stanley depicts a casting call for folktale characters, imagining them as participating in a twentieth and twenty-first century media genre, film. Chris Sollars, in a video work based again on “Milk and Honey,” casts a wandering goat as an intermediary who allows the audience to view landscapes that humans, or at any rate bourgeois San Franciscans, do not always see. Youngsuk Suh was drawn to the story of the mystical Hasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in “The Souls of Trees.” With his ability to hear things others cannot, he tells the infertile couple that they cannot conceive because the sound of the voices of the trees they have cut down, although inaudible to them, is loud enough to ward off the angel of fertility.   

This seems to me to reflect a very Silicon Valley, or maybe an early twenty-first century, appreciation of Jewish folktales. We live in an era of miraculous communication technologies, and we are always telling stories—about our lives, the world, politics—that hinge on the ways that words and ideas and images are transmitted rapidly, remarkably, for good or for ill. Thus we are sensitive to the ways that storytellers at other points in history, in other places, also tell those kinds of narratives. Jakobson and Bogatyrev wrote that “The work only becomes a fact of folklore once it has been accepted by the community.” The community of artists represented in Jewish Folktales Retold, then, has accepted a selected group of the Jewish folktales that Schwartz collects, validating them as still relevant. Jakobson and Bogatryev would have been confident that these artists, diverse though they are, constitute a kind of folk of their own. These scholars rejected the notion that the only kind of community that can legitimately be understood as fostering folklore is a homogenous and archaic one: among educated people in their own revolutionary Soviet Union, they recognized “rumors and gossip… social conventions and fashion” as varieties of folklore. [1] If they lived today, they would find folklore on the Internet, in the images that circulate on cellphones—and they would, I am certain, recognize the stories we tell about electronic communication technologies as another kind of folklore. I would argue, then, that the works of art in Jewish Folktales Retold are modern Jewish folktales.

This is possible in part because compared to other genres of folklore, stories are promiscuous; they travel easily from one community to another. They are not as dependent on a specific language and wording as songs or riddles; they are less reliant on context than jokes; they can be easily adapted for new audiences. Mayses (Yiddish folktales) moved from Jews to co-territorial peoples in Eastern Europe and back, especially because so many Jews worked as merchants, interacting with non-Jewish buyers and sellers; they were traveling musicians who performed at Christian weddings and other parties; and Jewish men worked as craftsmen (such as carpenters or metal-workers) who would spend a week fixing or building something in a Christian house, and then go home on the weekends, for Shabbat. This economic environment provided opportunities for folktale transmission.

Folktales travel readily and adapt quickly to new environments. Take the story of the rich and the poor brother. A beggar (perhaps the prophet Elijah in disguise) asks a rich man if he can spend the night and is turned away. Then the beggar goes to the man’s poor brother, who welcomes him. In the morning, the mysterious visitor rewards the poor brother a hundredfold. Although the details vary, the poor brother is always rewarded and the miserly rich one often punished. In one version, the poor brother is tormented by shlimazl (bad luck), personified as a kind of demon, but he outwits it and traps it in a jug that he casts into a swamp, and then he grows very wealthy. When the rich brother hears of his newfound fortune, he is resentful and he frees the shlimazl, hoping it will go back to the brother—but instead it attaches to him and makes him poor. A version of that story published in 1938 by Yehude-Leyb Cahan ends, “When you dig a pit under someone else, you fall in yourself.” This kind of proverbial ending is typical of Jewish tales, but it was not only Jews who told stories about the rich and poor brother—so did their Slavic neighbors. In one Russian tale, “Misery,” a rich brother outwits bad luck; in another, “Shemiaka’s Judgment,” a judge punishes the rich brother to the benefit of the poor brother. In another version published by Cahan, the stranger gives the poor brother a blessing, “Let the first thing you touch be lucky.” The poor brother puts on his tallis (a prayer shawl) to pray, and his house fills with valuable tallises. These examples suggest that in the process of folklore transmission, Jewish versions of popular regional stories gained elements of Jewish realia (everyday objects such as tallises) and at times a moral as well. Jews could adapt stories they had heard from their Christian customers by adding this kind of ending; a maggid could even use one in a sermon. (Of course, storytellers could also make a tale less moralistic and funnier. Cahan’s version with the tallises ends when the stranger says to the rich brother that the first thing he does should be lucky. “The rich man thought that he should count money. And because he wanted to start counting, he had the desire to piss, and he went outside to piss. And it is wet there even today.” [2])

Is there, then, a consistent difference between Jewish and non-Jewish folktales? The early-twentieth-century Russian-Jewish folklorist S. An-sky (Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport) wrote an article about this question in 1908, based on his own collection and study of Jewish and Russian folklore. He argued that whereas non-Jewish stories—which have pagan roots—celebrate physical strength, violence, and military heroes, Jewish stories—which emerge from monotheism—celebrate rabbis, prophets, scholars, and other kinds of people who defeat their enemies with words. “Physical strength, warlike abilities, martial passion are not at all the weapons of the Jews. Jews have other, more effective weapons: prayers, fasts, ‘cries and tears,’” methods for attracting the attention of God, who then saves them from their enemies. An-sky retells stories of bridegrooms who impress their guests with wise speeches, wonder-workers who become invisible, or travel great distances, by pronouncing the secret name of God, rabbis who debate the Pope, rabbis who scare off angry crowds with miraculous words, and even rabbis who use words and logical arguments to defy God (and God submits). “In general,” he writes, “we find in the works of Jewish folklore almost all the fundamental elements of the folklore of other nations. However, they have all been shifted from a material to a spiritual basis, they are suffused with a Biblical-Talmudic spirit and marked with a strong religious mood.” [3]

An-sky’s arguments are appealing, but they may not be correct. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we know that Jews do celebrate military strength. Some of them did in An-sky’s own time as well: even while he idealized nonviolent Jewish folklore, An-sky was working as a propagandist for the Socialist Revolutionaries, a radical group that supported acts of terror against the Russian imperial government. An-sky and his fellow revolutionaries tended to describe their actions of shooting or throwing bombs as communication rather than violence, but we know that they were in fact not speaking, but killing people. At the same time, I think that we should not be too quick to dismiss An-sky’s argument. He draws our attention to something that is in fact pervasive in Jewish folklore—a fascination with words, and a sense that the rapid transmission of information or images can be magic, meaning that it can act in the world to disproportionate effect, for good or for ill. Perhaps this means that An-sky was modern, a creature of our own communication-obsessed age. He was an early adopter of his own era’s new technology: he showed slides on magic lanterns, he used a gramophone to record songs on wax cylinders, he was intrigued by film. This might also mean that An-sky, like the artist-maggids whose works of art are displayed in The Contemporary Jewish Museum, found something modern in Jewish folklore, stories that—as Jakobson and Bogatyrev would have understood—we still feel the desire to retell.


Gabriella Safran, the Eva Chernov Lokey Professor in Jewish Studies at Stanford University, teaches in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She is the author and editor of prize-winning books on how Russian novels describe Jewish assimilation and on the relation between Jewish literature and anthropology. Her biography of a pioneering Russian Jewish writer, ethnographer, and revolutionary, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator, S. An-sky, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010. Safran is currently finishing a book on listening, transcription, and verbal imitation across class lines in the mid-nineteenth-century Russian Empire, and beginning another book about the international pre-history of the Jewish joke.


1. Peter Bogatyrëv and Roman Jakobson, “Folklore as a Special Form of Creativity,” The Prague School: Selected Writings: 1929–1942, ed. Peter Steiner, trans. John Burbank, Olga Hasty, Manfred Jacobson, Bruce Kochis, Wendy Steiner (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 37, 42.

2. Yehude-Leyb Cahan, Yidisher folklore (Vilnius: Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut, 1938), 111, 113.

3. S. A. An-skii, “Evreiskoe narodnoe tvorchestvo,” Perezhitoe, vol. 1 (St. Petersburg: Brokgauz-Efron, 1908), 293, 314.