Folk­tales of the Jews, Vol­ume 3: Tales from Arab Lands

Dan Ben-Amos, ed and commentator
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
Ben-Amos has select­ed 60 folk sto­ries from 47 nar­ra­tors who immi­grat­ed to Israel from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Moroc­co, Syr­ia, Tunisia, and Yemen for the third vol­ume in this award-win­ning series drawn from the Israel Folk­tale Archives at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Haifa. As in the first vol­ume, sto­ries are divid­ed into leg­ends, moral tales, folk­tales, and humor­ous tales (only two in this last cat­e­go­ry). Two-thirds will be new to Eng­lish-speak­ing read­ers.

In his intro­duc­tion, Ben-Amos describes Jew­ish peo­ple liv­ing in these Arab lands as pro­tect­ed aliens rec­og­niz­ing the pri­ma­cy of Islam.” Some sto­ries reflect the ten­sion of this sta­tus. From Bagh­dad, a jeal­ous min­is­ter sets a Jew­ish coun­selor up to look bad before the king. Many oth­er tales occur sole­ly with­in Jew­ish house­holds and com­mu­ni­ty. From Moroc­co, an ever­pa­tient wife rein­ter­prets her husband’s fool­ish­ness, and from Yemen, a miser learns a les­son in char­i­ty from Eli­jah. Also includ­ed are Jew­ish ver­sions of sto­ries wide­ly told in the Arab world. Both hus­band and wife become preg­nant in The Apple Tree’s Daugh­ter,” nar­rat­ed by an Egypt­ian Jew.

Behind each sto­ry, fas­ci­nat­ing com­men­tary exam­ines cul­tur­al, his­tor­i­cal, and lit­er­ary back­ground, trac­ing, for instance, the evo­lu­tion of sto­ries about King Solomon’s ring. Notes refer to Jew­ish as well as to cross-cul­tur­al sources, like Ara­bi­an Nights. Four years lat­er, there is a new trans­la­tor for this lat­est vol­ume in Folk­tales of the Jews. Lan­guage flows more eas­i­ly, and Ben-Amos’s choic­es of tales are more like­ly to be shared beyond the schol­ar­ly realm. It was worth the wait. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, biogra­phies of col­lec­tors and nar­ra­tors, index­es of motifs, tale types, subjects.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

Discussion Questions