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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

The Story Will Out: Why Folktales Still Matter

Thursday, June 06, 2013 | Permalink
by Sharon Elswit

Throughout the ages, folklore has spoken to people. From pulpits and hearth fires and in classrooms, these stories forge a connection between the generations, pass on the values of a community, teach lessons, and help us make sense of ourselves and understand the world around us. They connect us with each other, a shared history of knowing. They help us face our fears. They validate our dreams. They heal. They entertain. And they offer us choices. A story attributed to the Preacher of Dubno makes a case for Truth being much more palatable when it is dressed up as a Parable. 

Times do change, but underlying human truths and struggles do not. Relationships within families, between people and government, between friends and lovers—these go on. These are the subjects of folktales. There will always be a gossip, a miser, and a cheater. There will always be loneliness, sickness, and loss. There will always be someone else who bravely speaks up or cleverly thwarts a nefarious plan. Our folktales take this messy world and help us think about it by taking us on a journey outside of our own lives. They help us remember. They challenge us to make the world a better place within our own communities and outside. As in the tale of a captive bird that learns from the example of his cousin how to feign death and fly away, stories themselves show us how.

First told orally and then written down, these stories have been passed down from grandparents to children and their children, from teachers, from rabbis, from storytellers. We now find them, too, printed in collections and picture books and on the web. Sharing folktales with others is a gift. There are even folktales about the value of participating by telling stories and by listening: 

  • a father and daughter who have become separated recognize each other through a shared tale about a shofar 
  • a story passed down about a certain ritual and prayer performed by the Baal Shem Tov continues to help save the world, though the story itself is all that remains
  • King Solomon gets at the truth by telling a story and judging people’s reactions 
  • a disciple releases another man from the lie he has been living by bringing him a story which lets him know he has been forgiven
  • a man brings what comfort he can to others in Auschwitz by listening to their stories 
  • a haughty rabbi learns to make a difference by changing the tone of the stories he tells 
  • a king realizes how unfairly he has treated his wife when he overhears her telling a doll the story of her unhappiness 
  • and finally, as Avi Weiss asserts, people need to interact with the fire of stories in the Torah to forge new connections through the generations. 
The storyteller Joel ben Izzy makes a strong case in The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness for the relevance and necessity of folklore in resolving problems in one’s personal life. After he lost his voice, it was that title story—a folktale where King Solomon loses his identity when Asmodeus throws his ring across the world—which seemed to embody the storyteller’s own struggles to reclaim his world and his career. 

There are stories for each stage of the life cycle. In one, Lailah, the angel, tells unborn children the history of mankind and their lives to be, and then touches them right above the upper lip so they forget all the moment they are born. Need a story to celebrate a couple getting married? Wish for the couple to have children who will thrive just like them, as told in “The Wedding Blessing” in Peninnah Schram’s Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another. Share “The Magic Gourd” by Debra Gordon Zaslow from Goldie Milgram’s Mitzvah Stories, where a couple postpones using a wedding gift which may only be used once by relying on themselves and each other throughout their lives together. Trouble with marriage? A man who has had no luck providing for his family is harshly sent by his wife to bang a drum in the cemetery, where he encounters a sympathetic bear. With children? In one tale, a father anguished by his teenage daughter’s escapades prays for her to become a bat. Aging? An elderly cantor does not take well to being replaced and sends his raspy voice to haunt the young new cantor. In another story, Moses pleads that it is not yet his time to die. Three sons, whose father has just died, wonder which of them now possesses the true ring. Two sons in another story try to puzzle out just what is the treasure their father said he was leaving them, as they continue to work the land they have inherited. 

Folktales are not just for children. In one story, a man who doubts his wife’s fidelity takes revenge with an arrow shot through Rabbi Adam’s magic mirror. In another, a woman’s brothers bring the husband who has turned away from her to the king to hear a story of a trespassing lion so he will know that his wife did remain true to him. Howard Schwartz’s fantastical collections, such as Leaves from the Garden of Eden, Elijah’s Violin, Miriam’s Tambourine, and Lilith’s Cave spin timeless tales filled with sensual imagery and supernatural occurrences. 

The stories that take hold of us and won’t let go, we keep and change. We need the narrative, the wonder, the danger, the humor, and the magic. Folktales are malleable. That is their resilience. Stories have changed with the teller and with the countries in which people live. Some sumptuous Jewish tales either inspired or were inspired by Tales from the Arabian Nights. Humorous Joha tales differ from the Djuha trickster/fool in Arabic lore only by some of the traditions portrayed. And Peninnah Schram and Rachayl Eckstein Davis turned the American story of the boy who goes looking for a little red house with no windows and no doors and a star inside into The Apple Tree’s Discovery, a tale of self-esteem, with special relevance for Rosh Hashannah. Some general Internet anecdotes that reflect Jewish values are included in Seymour Rossel’s newest collection The Essential Jewish Tales. Just about eight of the stories told by fifty-four rabbis in Laney Becker’s Three Times Chai, have been adapted from universal tales. 

More recently, it seems that adaptation is also going the other way around, with Jewish stories as a base for other cultural adaptations. You might not call Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride a Jewish story, but his film certainly took flight from the Hasidic story of the young man who playfully places his wedding ring on a tree root he finds sticking up like a finger from the ground only to find out that he is now wedded to a demon. General versions of It Could Always Be Worse, that tale of the rabbi who keeps advising the man in the overcrowded house to bring more animals inside each day, abound. Eric A. Kimmel is our most prolific story culture mixer. He recently set an Arabic Joha character in a Jewish Yemenite story of “The Answered Prayer.” His out-of-print Mishka, Pishka, and Fishka combines Ukrainian and Jewish culture in tales told to him by his Jewish grandmother. 

Good stories will out. You can find a version of “The Treasure,” where a man goes to Prague looking for the treasure he dreamt about only to discover that the treasure has been buried back at home, set in China. There is a Jewish version of “The Magic Pomegranate” and one with three Middle Eastern princes and a special orange. There are African and Chinese versions of the story where a man brings water instead of wine to the barrel for a communal celebration, thinking no one will notice when it mixes in, and several Jewish takes, including the one by Nina Jaffe where neither husband nor wife put in the coins they promised while saving up to buy hamantaschen for Purim. And stories with Chelm-like humor have been told by the Uygur People in western China. 

Current retellers pick stories they love and dig into character and motivation to make them relevant in today’s environment. Some exciting story reinterpretations have made an appearance in picture book form in the last few years. Gathering Sparks by Howard Schwartz, Ann Redisch Stampler’s The Wooden Sword, and Kimmel’s Joseph and The Sabbath Fish reach out to connect with new subtleties and warmth. One can truly believe that the prince in Stampler’s The Rooster Prince of Breslov has accepted acting like a human when, on his own, he thinks to share the blanket with his shivering teacher. Each year brings new retellings of the Golem legend and “If Not Higher,” for these are stories which stir powerful emotions, unforgettably strong and beautiful. Possession in “The Dybbuk” has been explored through dance, puppets, video, and theater, some of them parodies. 

There are original tales, too, created with beloved folklore characters. Kimmel caused a sensation in 1994 with Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, based on the character Hershel of Ostropol. He also refashioned some traditional Chelm stories in The Jar of Fools so that the events take place during Hanukkah and invented some of his own Chelm tales, a difficult task to do well. 

When things have already happened, then it is poetry which brings succor or rejoices with us and gives words to our feelings so right on that a breath catches. When we stand on the cusp or in the middle of an event and decisions have to be made, then we need a story with characters to help guide us through. Here is the captive bird wondering how he will get free; here is the brother who has sent his own brother to Azazel, rather than help him prepare for Passover; here is the king who goes into a little hut to remind himself how it is for the people he rules; here is the wife whose husband has wrongly accused her of misconduct; here is the grandmother hugging her grandson after he almost drowns in the ocean and, in the same breath, berating God for not returning his hat; here is the daughter who does not want to wear her mother’s wedding dress. There are folktales for all of these situations. What happens next may be fantastical—demons holding the girl prisoner inside her new dress—but she has our empathy. Meaning grows from understanding. An old tale freshly told, one that has taken the hand of people through years and even centuries, may bring laughter and wisdom, warnings and warmth to befriend us. We may become the human heroes of our own journeys with folktales to light the way.

Sharon Elswit, head hibrarian at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School, is author of the first and second edition of The Jewish Story Finder: A Guide to 668 Tales Listing Subjects and Sources, as well as The East Asian Story Finder.