Cap­tur­ing the Moon: Clas­sic and Mod­ern Jew­ish Tales

Rab­bi Edward M. Feinstein
  • Review
By – January 27, 2012

How won­der­ful to have anoth­er book of retellings of fab­u­lous folk­tales and midrashim, clas­sic and mod­ern, to add to the store­house of tellable sto­ries! These thir­ty-six tales trans­mit Jew­ish cul­ture and val­ues accord­ing to six themes, such as Doing What’s Right” and Teach­ers and Friends.” Each brief sto­ry (2 – 5 pages) con­cludes with some insight­ful com­men­tary about its les­son and ques­tions that explore its theme. At the end of the book, there is also a Val­ues Index. The sto­ries take place in var­i­ous cen­turies and places, includ­ing ancient Israel, the East Euro­pean shtetl, the State of Israel, and the USA

In Rab­bi Feinstein’s ver­sions of these sto­ry gems, he engages in a cre­ative riff that pro­duces some twists and turns dif­fer­ent than the tra­di­tion­al tales. In oth­er words, he has cre­at­ed vari­ants of well-known sto­ries through his adap­ta­tions. Some­times those changes work won­der­ful­ly (as in Chal­lahs in the Ark”) but, at oth­er times, the mes­sage is stretched (such as The Bird in the Tree”) or even mis­con­ceived (such as The Magi­cian”). How­ev­er, there is a major omis­sion and weak­ness in this col­lec­tion. This book lists no sources for any of the sto­ries oth­er than an occa­sion­al men­tion of a spe­cif­ic rab­bi and time peri­od. Some sto­ries are midrashim that could have been eas­i­ly sourced, but oth­er tales that seem’ to be midrashim, or anoth­er genre, may, in fact, be cre­ative writ­ing or pure inven­tion (such as The Rab­bi and the Glad­i­a­tor” and The Last Sto­ry of the Wise Men of Chelm”). In fact, when tales are not iden­ti­fied as a midrash, a folk­tale, an orig­i­nal tale, or a tale based on an his­tor­i­cal event, it leads to con­fu­sion about the stories. 

Adap­ta­tion of sto­ries is part of the vibrant flu­id folk­lore process, but we need to know that the sto­ry comes from a source, such as the Tal­mud or midrash, or is most iden­ti­fied with a spe­cif­ic Hasidic rab­bi or a bib­li­cal-turned-folk­lore char­ac­ter. In his intro­duc­tion, Rab­bi Fein­stein writes: I did not com­pose these sto­ries. Some of them I read in books. Some I heard at a Shab­bat din­ner table. Some I remem­ber from my child­hood. There are great schol­ars of Jew­ish sto­ries who can tell us where a sto­ry came from, who first told it, and how in dif­fer­ent ver­sions devel­oped. I have great rev­er­ence for such schol­ar­ship. But that’s not my exper­tise. I’m inter­est­ed in a story’s pow­er to teach. And so, to make the most of that pow­er, I have tak­en the lib­er­ty of retelling the sto­ries in my own way.” This expla­na­tion” may be a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Rab­bi Fein­stein to retell these clas­sic folk­tales, but it does not go far enough. As Jews, we always respect sources and proof-texts. We always want to know where a sto­ry or idea comes from. Not every­one may read that dis­claimer” in the Intro­duc­tion and, thus, may assume that Rab­bi Fein­stein is the author” of these sto­ries or they are the ver­sions he read/​heard/​remem­bers. I am glad to see that his cred­it line on the cov­er is Retold by Rab­bi Edward M. Fein­stein” but that, too, is not enough. 

The pow­er of teach­ing comes from con­nect­ing our sto­ries to our rich oral and lit­er­ary tra­di­tion, sacred and sec­u­lar. We need to teach our young peo­ple, from the ear­li­est ages, that these sto­ries are ground­ed in sacred, cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal con­texts. They are sto­ries told by Jews wher­ev­er they have lived and over the cen­turies and why. Yes, we need to hon­or our sources. And also note how the reteller has changed the tra­di­tion­al folk­tale and why. Pub­lish­ers of books for young and old now include pages of sources at the end of a book or at least a source is giv­en at the end of each sto­ry. Librar­i­ans and all edu­ca­tors can teach the sto­ry bet­ter when they know the source and genre in order to use the sto­ries for dis­cus­sion and teach about var­i­ous eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties. I would hope that when this book is reprint­ed (or even before the pub­lish­er sells out the first batch), the pub­lish­er will insert a few pages of sources for these sto­ries. Then the book would be more wor­thy of being a tool of teach­ing since we would know for sure that the val­ues and lessons embed­ded in these sto­ries are based on a strong foun­da­tion that is acknowl­edged and hon­ored. This book of sto­ries can appeal to a great range of ages from 6 to 120.

Penin­nah Schram, well-known sto­ry­teller & author, is Pro­fes­sor of Speech and Dra­ma at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty’s Stern Col­lege. Her lat­est book is an illus­trat­ed anthol­o­gy, The Hun­gry Clothes and Oth­er Jew­ish Folk­tales (Ster­ling Pub­lish­ing) and a CD, The Min­strel & the Sto­ry­teller, with singer/​guitarist Ger­ard Edery (Sefarad Records). She is a recip­i­ent of a Covenant Award for Out­stand­ing Jew­ish Edu­ca­tor and the 2003 Nation­al Sto­ry­telling Net­work’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award.

Discussion Questions