The People of the Stories

Howard Schwartz

The Jewish people are not only the People of the Book—the book being the Hebrew Bible—but they are also the People of the Stories. Wherever they wandered, they took their stories with them. Of course, there are glorious stories in the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible that many of us have been raised with: the story of creation, of Adam and Eve, of Cain and Abel, of the Tower of Babel, of Noah, and the stories of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. And there is the greatest Jewish story of all—the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah. Just this is a rich tradition of storytelling, but it doesn’t end there. The secret is the tradition that there are two Torahs—the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. As it says in the Midrash: “God dictated the Torah to Moses during the day, and at night He explained it to him.” These oral explanations, known as the Oral Torah, were used to justify any changes or additions to the biblical stories, and are the magic key to the abundance of post-biblical Jewish literature.  

The Oral Torah was supposed to remain oral, and it did for a thousand years. But after the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and the Babylonian exile was imminent, the rabbis realized that if they didn’t preserve the Oral Torah, they would lose it. That is when they created the Talmud, the most sacred Jewish text after the Hebrew Bible, which is said to be the writing down of the Oral Torah. Just in the Talmud, there are hundreds of stories—stories elaborating the stories in the Hebrew Bible, stories about the sages, such as Rabbi Akiba or the wandering sage Rabbah bar bar Hannah, and stories about the four sages who entered Paradise. Did you know, for example, that Moses did not only ascend Mt Sinai, but a cloud carried him into heaven, where he met God seated on His throne, with the angel Sandalphon weaving garlands out of the prayers of Israel, and placing them on God’s head?  And this is only the beginning. The Talmud, dating from the fifth century, is followed by hundreds of books known as the Midrash, which solve all problems found in the text of the Torah, and preserve a myriad of tales told among the people—claiming, of course, to be based on the Oral Torah. Then, starting in the thirteenth century, there is the emergence of the Zohar, an enormous text that is filled with stories about the reputed author, Shimon bar Yohai, who lived in the second century. But modern scholarship has demonstrated that it was written in Spain in the thirteenth century, and that the probable author was Moshe de Leon. 

After the invention of printing, there was an explosion of folktale anthologies in the sixteenth century, both among the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe and the Sephardic Jews of the Middle East. By the eighteenth century there was a whole new source of Jewish tales, those told among the Hasidim, a spiritual revival in Judaism founded by Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov. And in the nineteenth century there was the emergence of the unique, visionary tales of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. Today many people consider Rabbi Nachman to be the greatest Jewish storyteller of all time. Among Rabbi Nachman’s stories is “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster,” one of the stories that will be told by a storyteller and the source of inspiration for an artist in the exhibition Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid.

One of the most important developments in Jewish folklore took place in Israel about 50 years ago, centered around Professor Dov Noy of Hebrew University. When still a young man, Dov Noy, himself an immigrant from Kolomiya in Poland, realized that the immigrants who came to Israel from Eastern Europe and the Middle East brought their stories with them. They knew these stories in their native languages, primarily Yiddish and Arabic, but their children spoke Hebrew, making it much more difficult to transmit their rich folktale tradition to them. Noy understood that somehow the stories must be saved before those who knew them all died out. So after receiving his PhD in Folklore at Indiana University, where he studied under Stith Thompson, the world’s leading folklorist, he single-handedly established the study of Jewish folklore in Israel, and succeeded in raising a whole generation of Jewish folklorists, who now teach at all the universities in Israel and throughout the world. So too did he establish the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) in Haifa. This archive actively sought tales from every ethnic group in Israel, where there are Jews from everywhere, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews and all of the others—Jews from India and China and Ethiopia, for example. Today the IFA has collected more than 25,000 stories orally from every ethnic community in Israel, representing every Jewish community in the world. For his great success in preserving Jewish folktales, Dov Noy received the Israel Prize in 2004. 

Among the folktales collected by the IFA are four of the tales in this exhibition, which come from Egypt (“Elijah’s Violin”), Iraq (“The Bird of Happiness”), Morocco (“The Golden Mountain”), and Eastern Europe (“Milk and Honey”). The other stories also come from a variety of countries and time periods: Spain (“Drawing the Wind”), Italy (“The Dybbuk in the Well”), Tunisia (“Lilith’s Cave”), Palestine (“The Princess in the Tower”), Eastern Europe (“The City of Luz,” “The Enchanted Island,” “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster,” “The Golem,” and “The Souls of Trees”).

How is it that I came to know Professor Noy and got to explore the Israel Folktale Archives? In 1977 I was on sabbatical in Israel, editing an anthology of modern Jewish poets. In order to be inclusive, I wanted to include an Ethiopian poet. But whenever I asked if anyone knew of one, they always replied, "Ask Dov Noy." So I called up Professor Noy and asked to meet with him. He told me to come to his home at 9pm on Monday night. When I arrived, his small apartment was completely full, with at least fifty people. It turned out he had told everyone to meet him at the same time. He had us squeeze into his living room and introduce ourselves. I met artists, musicians, folklorists, scholars and very interesting visitors from many lands. When I was able to speak to Noy for a moment, I told him about my quest for an Ethiopian poet, and he promised me that such a poet would be there the next week. And he was. By then I was hooked on these unpredictable Monday night gatherings, and for the rest of my year in Israel I went as often as I could. For some reason, Dov took a liking to me, and we started to meet at his home during the day. He told me about his great struggle to establish a Department of Folklore at Hebrew University, and to establish the IFA. Eventually he offered me the key to his kingdom, the Archives, and told me to take whatever I wanted. One of the oral stories I found there was called “Elijah’s Violin.” I was immediately struck by the title, and decided to edit a book of Jewish fairy tales with that title. Elijah’s Violin was published in 1983, and I have been collecting and retelling Jewish folktales ever since.

Dov Noy also had a wonderful sense of humor. Among the types of

stories he collected were jokes, and he often told them. Once, when I was driving with him, I asked, "Dov, what makes a Jewish story Jewish?" His reply: "If a Jew tells it, it's a Jewish story!" But he was actually more discerning than that. In one important essay, he explained that there are four characteristics of a Jewish folktale, and as long as it has one of these characteristics, it can be considered a Jewish story: 

  1. Is it set at a Jewish time, such as Shabbat or one of the holidays? 
  2. Is it set in a Jewish place, such as a synagogue, or sukkah or in the Land of Israel? 
  3. Does it have Jewish characters, such as Elijah, or King Solomon, or the demoness Lilith? 
  4. Or, my favorite, does it have a Jewish meaning? As long as it has a Jewish message, it doesn’t matter if there are explicit references to Jewish time, place, or character.

Among the stories collected by the IFA, about half are explicitly Jewish stories and the other half are universal stories, such as those that start, “Once upon a time there were a king and queen who lived in an enchanted kingdom.” Of the folktales selected for this exhibit, only “The Golden Mountain” is a universal type of story, in this case about a princess trapped in an enchanted cave. All the others, in one way or another, should be classified as explicitly Jewish tales. Of these others, “Milk and Honey” is about a young shepherd from Eastern Europe who chases a goat into a cave and arrives in the Land of Israel. “The Bird of Happiness,” with echoes of Exodus, is about a family of Jewish slaves who have run away and are trying to reach the city of Jerusalem. “Drawing the Wind” is about a father and son who are imprisoned after the Spanish inquisition for refusing to convert, and their miraculous escape. “Elijah’s Violin” is very much a fairy tale, but here the magical figure is the prophet Elijah, about whom there are more Jewish stories than anyone else. “The City of Luz” is about a mission two rabbis undertake to reach a city of immortals. “The Dybbuk in the Well” is about a woman who is possessed by a dybbuk who lives in a well. “The Enchanted Island” is about a Hasid who washes up to an island after his ship sinks and his remarkable discovery there. “The Princess in the Tower” is about the daughter of King Solomon, who is sent to live in a tower for a year, to prevent her from marrying a poor man. “The Souls of Trees” is a story about Rabbi Nachman in which he figures out why an innkeeper and his wife can’t have children. “The Golem” is about a man made out of clay by Rabbi Judah Loew, who protects the Jews of Prague from the Blood Libel. “Lilith’s Cave” is about a daughter of Lilith who lives in a mirror and takes possession of the young girl who has that mirror in her bedroom. And, as noted, “The Prince Who Thought He was a Rooster” is about a young prince who has the delusion that he is a rooster. These stories are an excellent representation of the diverse kinds of stories found in Jewish folklore that are told in virtually every land where Jews live. This exhibition has invited some of the very best storytellers and artists to present these stories to the fortunate audiences of The Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Howard Schwartz has edited five collections of Jewish folktales, including Elijah’s Violin & Other Jewish Fairy Tales; Miriam’s Tambourine: Jewish Folktales from Around the World; Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural; Gabriel’s Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales; and Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales. His book Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism won the National Jewish Book Award in 2005. His book A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav is forthcoming in 2018.

Note that all stories included in this exhibition are from Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales (Oxford University Press, 2008).