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Recalling Professor Dov Noy: World's Foremost Jewish Folklorist

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 | Permalink

by Howard Schwartz

No one would deny that Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem are colossal figures in the fields of Hasidism and Kabbalah. But not everyone realizes that there was another colossus who also taught at Hebrew University. That was Professor Dov Noy (1920-2013), who single-handedly established the study of Jewish Folklore in Israel, and established the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) in Haifa, which today has collected more than 25,000 stories orally from every ethnic community in Israel, representing every Jewish community in the world. (Dov's brother, Meir Noy, established a Jewish music archives in Tel Aviv).

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. But they knew these stories in their native languages, primarily Yiddish and Arabic. Their children spoke Hebrew, making it much more difficult to transmit their rich folktale tradition to them. Dov Noy understood that somehow the stories must be saved before those who knew them all died out.

Noy prepared himself for this epic undertaking by studying Folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington. He was fortunate to have Stith Thompson, the founder of the modern study of folklore, as his teacher. Thompson later commented that Noy was his finest pupil. Along with the Finnish scholar Antti Aarne, Thompson published Types of the Folktale, identifying hundreds of plots that appeared in traditional folklore. Dov Noy and his students, especially Heda Jason, expanded these categories by inserting specific Jewish tale types. This made it possible to classify and analyze the various types of Jewish folktales, discerning their uniquely Jewish aspects as well as universal tale types. Today Dov Noy's students, such as Dan Ben-Amos, Aliza Shenhar, Eli Yassif, Tamar Alexander, Haya Bar-Itzhak and Galit Hasan-Rokem, teach Jewish Folklore at major universities in Israel, the United States, and other countries. Dan Ben-Amos has dedicated himself for the past decade to editing a multi-volume collection of folktales collected by the IFA, Folktales of the Jews.

Dov Noy had an astounding memory. Wherever he went, he remem­bered the names of his hosts and their family, remembered whatever they had discussed, and somehow managed to stay in touch with everyone. Whenever anyone needed to know something that no one else knew, they were always sent to Dov Noy, who inevitably knew the answer. In 1977 I was on sabbatical in Israel editing an anthology of modern Jewish poets. 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 9 PM 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 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 came as often as I could.

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. In one important essay, he explained that there are four characteristics of a Jewish folktale and as long as it had one of these characteristics, it could 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 does it have a Jewish meaning? As long as it had a Jewish message, it didn't matter if there were explicit references to Jewish time, place, or character.

Dov often told me stories about his adventures and those of his students in collecting Jewish folktales. Once he told me that he received a letter from one of his students, who was collecting tales in a nursing home from an old man who knew a great many tales. She wrote that he was an exceptional storyteller, but whenever he would tell a fairy tale, he would skip the wedding—normally the highlight of the story. Noy wrote back that the old man must be getting tired, and to let him rest up after telling a tale. The student then wrote that she was certain that wasn't the problem, and he needed to come there and see for himself. So Dov took the bus to that town and met with the old man and asked him to tell a fairytale. And he did, in great detail, but when it was time for the wedding, he skipped it. Dov said to him, "You're a wonderful storyteller. I know that story. In fact, we have collected a hundred variants of it. But why didn't you include the wedding at the end of the story?" The old man said, "My mother gave birth to me when she was 16, and she never married. I never married. I only tell stories about things I know. Since I never had a wedding, I can't speak about it." In this anecdote Dov taught me that every storyteller adds a bit of himself to the tale, which is why the tale is never told the same way twice. I think that anyone who has told a tale recognizes this. And for Dov Noy, it wasn't a flaw, it was a sign of the teller's humanity and of the folk process, which he held in awe.

There is no doubt that the vast archives of the IFA are Dov Noy's greatest accomplishment. Israel recognized this when he received the Bialik Prize in 2002 and the Israel Prize in 2004. I feel certain that in time the IFA will come to be seen as important as the YIVO archives collected in Eastern Europe during the expeditions of S. Ansky, the first modern Jewish folklorist. Together YIVO and the IFA form a kind of Oral Torah, saving precious folk traditions, especially folktales, just as the rabbis preserved the Oral Torah in the Gemara of both Talmuds. You see, Dov Noy was a short, modest man, generous with everyone, a Polish gentle­man, but he was also a colossus, who created an army of folklorists who sought out storytellers among the many ethnic communities in Israel, and gathered their tales, saving them.


In Memory of Dov Noy

you brought back the merchants trading tales,
the grandmothers whispering buba mayses,
brought back so many fairy tales
told by the stove,
warming so many generations.
If all the storytellers are silent,
who can blame them?

Even now,
the wonder child sheds tears in her sleep—
how will the prince vault over the silence
and recover the shining jewel
that could save her?
And the boy awaiting the bird of happiness
is still stranded in the desert,
with no hint of how to find his way
to Jerusalem.

the princess trapped in the golden mountain
needs the spell
you learned from a magic oud,
the winds need someone who knows their language,
the storytellers are parched for the waters
of eternal life.
It was you who recovered the golden dove
we lost in the desert,
and now we have lost you.

Howard Schwartz's most recent collection of Jewish folktales is 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.

Related Content: Jewish Folktales Reading List