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 has been helping students visiting 826 Valencia locations around the city to write stories and poems and getting adults up and retelling Jewish folktales to share with their own spin.