Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid
Sep 28, 2017–Jan 28, 2018
The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
About this Resource
This exhibition guide is a multimedia adventure through the world of folktales, storytelling, culture, and contemporary art. Intended for educators or anyone interested in exploring the themes and ideas of Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid, this guide may be used before or after a visit to The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM), or as a stand-alone resource for teaching. Teachers—this guide provides ideas for teaching about folktales, stories, and their relationship to culture and includes an array of resources such as audio clips of storytellers, video interviews of studio visits with artists, high-resolution images of works of art from the exhibition, as well as background information on folktales and their origins. Feel free to mix and match! This resource is especially designed to support elementary school English Language Arts Curriculum areas.
Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.
Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
Compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story (e.g., Cinderella stories) by different authors or from different culture
About the Exhibition
Folktales are steeped in tradition and history and yet continue to delight and challenge modern audiences. Utilizing the rich Jewish tradition of stories that incorporate religion, horror, and superstition, the original exhibition Artist as Maggid: Jewish Folktales Retold invites contemporary artists to create new works of art in response to a selection of tales from Jewish folklore. The Hebrew concept of maggid has multiple meanings and layers, with the most basic definition that of a religious teacher and teller of stories, who acts as a transmitter of cultural and social knowledge. With this exhibition, The CJM asks artists to act as modern maggids—interpreting these traditional tales and characters and delivering new insights to twenty-first century audiences. The exhibition lives in both The Museum and on a digital catalog; it includes sculptures, photographs, video installations, paintings, and immersive projects in addition to containing audio and video resources about folktales and the exhibitions’ artists.
Through this resource students will:
- Create a working definition of a folktale
- Recognize the characteristics of folktales, including: character archetypes; elements of magic, fantasy or the supernatural; a message or lesson; connections to a culture or particular place and time
- Understand how folktales are connected to the cultures they come from and notice similarities between folktales across cultures
- Make connections between a text and an artist’s interpretation of that text
Facts about Folktales
Did you know . . .
- Fairy tales, legends, fables, and parables are all types of folktales?
- Folktales (literally tales of the people) have their origins in oral tradition, have been passed down verbally by storytellers and ultimately written down?
- Folktales typically have a moral or some sort of instruction?
- Fairy tales are a type of folktale featuring magical characters like witches or trolls, or during which magical events occur?
- Folktales typically feature memorable but not well-developed character “types” that appear over and over again?
- Although many fairy and folktales are specific to a particular region or culture, there are often similarities in these tales across cultural and geographic lines?
- Many folktales have inspired popular culture—like movies, comic books, or TV shows?
Introduce your students to folktales by reading a folktale of your choice. Suggestions from the Common Core are The Treasure by Uri Shulevitz, which comes from Jewish tradition, or Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young. Another good choice is The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster and other Jewish Stories by Ann Jungman.
Discuss the following questions based on your reading
What is a folktale?
- Introduce the ideas of folktales to the class. Brainstorm answers to the following questions, integrating some of the “facts about folktales” from above.
- What folktales have you heard or read?
- What are the characteristics of folktales? How are they different from other types of stories?
- Make note of the types of characters, the plot, and the setting of these stories.
- How do you know what culture a folktale comes from? What clues do folktales give us about this?
- What did you notice about the story we read? How did it fit in to the idea of a folktale?
- Where else do we see these types of stories? Can you think of a movie, TV show, etc. that might have been inspired by a folktale?
Folktales, Culture, and Oral Tradition
- A folktale is a story that is passed down from person to person. Any beliefs or traditions that are passed down in a group of people are called “folklore.” What types of stories, traditions, songs, or beliefs have been passed down to you? Do they have a lesson or teaching? How do they reflect your culture, family, or community?
Background: What is a Jewish folktale?
Professor Dov Noy, founder of the Israel Folktale Archive stated 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:
- Is it set at a Jewish time, such as Shabbat or one of the holidays?
- Is it set in a Jewish place, such as a synagogue, or sukkah or in the Land of Israel?
- Does it have Jewish characters, such as Elijah, or King Solomon or the demoness Lilith?
- 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.” 
Discuss: What types of characters do we find in folktales? What do they have in common?
View: M. Louise Stanley, Casting Call for Cautionary Tales
- What is going on in this image?
- What can you tell about where it is taking place?
- How would you describe the characters in the painting? What is familiar about them? Unfamiliar?
- How might they relate to folktales?
- The artist, M. Louise Stanley, calls this painting Casting Call for Cautionary Tales. How does the title help you interpret this painting?
- Share with students that a casting call is a way to audition large numbers of people for a part in a play or movie. Explore the term “cautionary tales.” What could that mean? How is a folktale a form of cautionary tale?
- Folktales and fairy tales often include character archetypes—a type of person who appears again and again—such as the trickster, the hero, or the poor man. Discuss a character you know who might fit an archetype.
Activities for further exploration:
- Choose a character in the painting. Who could this character be? Write a “character analysis” for this figure.
- Play a game of charades, in which students must act out archetypical characters while their classmates guess. Character types could include: the damsel in distress, the wise old woman, the hero, the villain, the poor man, the innocent, etc.
Overall Guiding Question Set
Use this set of questions to discuss the folktales and images featured in the next section of this resource. (Each section also contains questions specific to the story or work of art)
Listen to the story:
- What do you notice about the characters featured in this story? What character archetypes can you find? Which characters are similar across stories?
- Are there elements of magic or the supernatural? What are they?
- What clues does the story give you about the culture it comes from?
- What other folktales (fairytales, legends, myths) might you compare this to? What elements are similar to other stories you’ve read?
- Can you find a lesson or teaching in this story? What could it be?
- What do you think is the most important element of the story? If you were going to represent this story in an artwork, what would you create?
Look at the artwork:
- What elements of the story do you recognize in this work of art?
- How did the artist choose to interpret this story?
- How might this work of art help you think about the story in new ways?
The Golden Mountain
Synopsis: A princess seeking knowledge of the mystical, becomes trapped inside a mountain, her only connection to the outside world a giant shell through which she can hear conversations going on all over the world.
Specific Question Set
- What stands out to you about the characters in this story? How are they similar to or different from other characters in folktales or fairy tales that you have read?
- A scholar of Jewish folktales describes this story as “universal”  meaning there aren’t specific clues that this story is connected to Jewish culture. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
- Folktales often include a magical object—a magic mirror, a wand, or in this case, a shell. Artist David Kasprzak chose to represent the story with one single object from the story—the shell. Discuss why you think he made this choice. Then, think of a folktale that you have read. If you had to represent this tale with one object what would it be? Create a one-object artistic interpretation of your favorite folktale, and see if the class can guess what story it represents.
The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster
Synopsis: A wandering wise man helps “cure” a young prince who acts as if he were a rooster.
Specific Question Set
- Folktales typically have a lesson. What do you think is the lesson of this story?
- Read a picture book version of this tale, The Rooster Prince of Breslov by Ann Redisch Stampler or The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster and other Jewish Stories (Folktales from Around the World) by Ann Jungman. (Many versions of this story exist.) How do these tellings differ from the one you listened to?
- Look at the illustrations in the stories you read. Casting Call for Cautionary Tales features the Rooster Prince as one of the characters “auditioning” for the folktale, but this story isn’t featured on its own in this exhibition. Create your own artistic interpretation of this story—what would it look like?
- The Rooster Prince goes through a transformation in this story. Try writing the story from his perspective, in the style of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. How would it be different from the retellings you read or listened to?
Milk and Honey
Synopsis: A young boy follows his goat through a cave and finds himself in the Holy Land, a term for the land of Israel.
Specific Question Set
- Listen to the story and then look at the two very different artists’ interpretations. What part(s) of the story did each artist choose to focus on?
- Chris Sollars and Mike Rothfeld each focus on a different aspect of the young boy’s journey–Sollars on the goat the boy follows; Rothfeld on the magic cave that is a portal to the Holy Land. The journey is often a key element of a folktale. See how many stories you can name where a journey takes place. What is the setting of the journey? How does the character get there? Is there a magical location or element to these tales? Where or what is it?
Setting and culture:
In Milk and Honey, a cave is a magical portal to the Holy Land, a place very important in Jewish culture. Think of a place important to your culture, your family, or your community. What does it look like? What journey would you take to get there? What magical portal would take you there? Design an artwork to represent this portal or journey to a special place.
The Bird of Happiness
Synopsis: A magical bird anoints a poor boy as the next king, but he never forgets his humble roots.
Specific Question Set
- Listen to the audio of this story. What images stand out to you? If you were going to capture this story in a work of art, which images would you include and why?
- Look at Julia Goodman’s installation of handmade paper. How do you think this relates to The Bird of Happiness?
- Painter Inez Storer was inspired by this folktale and many other folktales from around the world when she created her dream-like paintings. Take a look at one of them, then create your own story based on what you see in the painting. What is the setting, who are the characters, and what is the problem? What happens in the beginning, middle, and end?
- [Watch the video interview with artist Julia Goodman.] She talks about leaders needing to remember their past as well as look to the future. Imagine you have just been appointed king or elected president. What do you think you should remember from your past? What do you want to see in the future? Collage words and images to represent your reminders for the past and the future onto two separate mirrors, one for the past and one for the future, and install them in a classroom exhibition.
Middle and High School
Synopsis: One of the most recognized characters emerging from Jewish folklore, the golem is a magical protective creature made out of clay to protect and defend the Jewish community. There are many different versions of golem stories. In this particular retelling, a rabbi creates a golem to defend the community from persecution after the Jews are falsely accused of killing a child.
Specific Question Set
- Compare and contrast the two artist depictions of a golem. How is the photograph different from the sculpture?
- Look at Dina Goldstein’s photograph. How would you describe the setting of the image? The creator? The golem? Why might the artist have chosen to represent this story with a modern setting and robot-like golem?
- After listening to the story, what does this folktale tell you about Jewish culture at this time? What might a golem for our time look like? Who would it protect against what?
- Using simple materials like clay and/or found materials like those used by Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor, create your own miniature protective creature. Write a companion story to describe who it protects and from what or whom.
- The golem, a protective creature, has influenced literature, art, and popular culture. Do some research to see if you can identify other golem-like creatures from TV, movies, books, graphic novels, comics, and beyond. How are they similar to the golem story? How are they different? (See this background information for more about the golem’s myriad influences.)
The Souls of Trees
Older elementary school and up
Synopsis: An innkeeper and his wife learn that their inability to have children is a result of using sapling trees to build their inn. Once they re-plant new trees, they are able to conceive a child.
Specific Question Set
- What do you think is the lesson or message of this story?
- This story is connected to Jewish environmental traditions, including laws about not destroying fruit trees, not harvesting fruit in the early stages of a tree’s life, and more. Read a folktale from another culture about nature, or a book like The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Compare and contrast these stories about nature or the environment.
- Compare and contrast the works of art by both artist couples: Andy Diaz Hope & Laurel Roth Hope and Young Suh & Katie Peterson. How does each artist interpret the idea of “the souls of trees?”
- Imagine you were invited to participate in Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid. Design an artwork or installation inspired by “The Souls of Trees.”
- Create a portrait (a photograph, drawing, or collage) of your family. Using Suh and Peterson’s photographs and captions as a model, write a poetic description of your family “forest” and all of the unique members and their relationships. Be as creative as you can
How to Book a Tour
Three Ways to Tour Jewish Folktales Retold
1. FOLKTALES TOURS
Interactive tours of Jewish Folktales Retold connect to themes in literary arts—including comparative folktales, character archetypes, and culture, as well as contemporary art. Tours are aligned with the Common Core and keep student voices and ideas central to the conversation while promoting critical thinking, creativity, and observation skills. Tours can be combined with an art-making workshop.
2. FOLKTALES TOURS AND PERFORMANCES
Oct 10, 2017
Nov 2, 14, 2017
Dec 12, 2017
Jan 11, 23, 2018
This unique two-hour experience combines a tour of Jewish Folktales Retold with an engaging storytelling performance.
3. THE CJM + MOAD COMBINED TOUR
Thursdays and Fridays, Sep 20, 2017–Jan 28, 2018
How do stories, dance, and masquerade transmit messages about culture? Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) and The CJM are pleased to co-present a new initiative exploring the meaning behind the stories we tell. Experience ways alternate forms of narration both expose and inform a culture. Grades K–12.
Begin with a tour of Jewish Folktales Retold at The CJM at 10am followed by a tour of EN MAS: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean at MoAD at 11am.
- Howard Schwartz, Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid (San Francisco: The Contemporary Jewish Museum, 2017) “Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid,” folktales.cjm.org.