Folk­tales of the Jews, Vol­ume I: Tales From the Sephardic Dispersion

Dan Ben-Amos, ed.
  • Review
By – March 30, 2012

Folk­tales of the Jews, Vol­ume 1: Tales From the Sephardic Dis­per­sion is a mon­u­men­tal, Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award-win­ning mas­ter­work of mem­o­ry, his­to­ry, and min­hag­im. These sev­en­ty-one tales, edit­ed by Dan Ben-Amos with Dov Noy, are gems from the rich repos­i­to­ry of the Israel Folk­tale Archives (IFA).

The IFA, named in hon­or of its founder, Pro­fes­sor Dov Noy, is the mas­ter col­lec­tion of over 23,000 Jew­ish folk­tales culled from world­wide immi­grants into Israel, telling the sto­ry, beyond his­to­ry, of K’lal Yis­roel. Noy gleaned a first Eng­lish sam­pling in Folk­tales of the Jews (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1963). Since then, schol­ars, edu­ca­tors, rab­bis, and sto­ry­tellers have drawn from this well­spring to tell our Jew­ish sto­ry. Numer­ous authors/​storytellers, notably Bar­bara Rush, Penin­nah Schram, and Howard Schwartz, have com­piled influ­en­tial and engag­ing antholo­gies and record­ings, advanc­ing the sto­ries’ life and evo­lu­tion. As Noy states in the Pref­ace, the sto­ries “…rep­re­sent the end­less cre­ativ­i­ty of the Jew­ish imagination.” 

A major­i­ty of the trea­sured IFA tales have not been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. With the pub­li­ca­tion of this first vol­ume (of a pro­ject­ed five vol­umes) in the series Folk­tales of the Jews, this long-await­ed fif­teen year project com­mences with Sephardic folk­tales. Four sec­tions reveal their breadth and scope: Leg­ends, Moral Tales, Folk­tales, and Humor­ous Tales. There are nor­ma­tive Jew­ish themes of tzedakah, prayer, and right­eous­ness, with more spe­cif­ic empha­sis on Sephardic motifs of clev­er­ness, mir­a­cles, and sur­vival. Sub­jects and themes inter­weave, form­ing a rich and enrich­ing mosa­ic tapes­try of Sephardic every­day life, con­cerns, tra­di­tions, his­to­ry, cul­ture, and dreams. The sto­ries show­case both the sim­i­lar­i­ties and the unique shad­ings of Sepharad, open­ing new per­spec­tives on Jew­ry. Unlike Ashke­nazi Jew­ish his­to­ry, the begin­nings of the Jew­ish set­tle­ment in Spain are shroud­ed in leg­end, tan­gled in invent­ed tra­di­tions, and fab­ri­cat­ed by fake doc­u­men­ta­tion” while the Expul­sion is well documented. 

Sto­ries are gath­ered from Greece, Turkey, Ser­bia, Bul­gar­ia, Moroc­co, Jerusalem, and beyond. Char­ac­ters include Mai­monides, King Solomon, the Ari, the trick­ster Djuha, and, sur­pris­ing­ly, the East­ern Euro­pean Baal Shem Tov! Many tales have female heroes. The read­er is immersed in the lands of Span­ish Dias­po­ra, not only learn­ing fas­ci­nat­ing and reveal­ing sto­ries, but also their con­text: the nar­ra­tors and col­lec­tors, folk­tale motifs and types, lit­er­ary back­ground, and fur­ther bib­li­o­graph­ic resources. One brief tale can have pages of notes, com­men­tary, and cross-ref­er­enc­ing of motifs, all essen­tial aspects of the stories. 

Edu­ca­tors, rab­bis, and sto­ry­tellers will find gems for impart­ing liv­ing knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence of cul­tures, his­to­ry, hol­i­days, cus­toms, val­ues, and life-cycles with­in the tales in this trea­sure-trove col­lec­tion. Not all of these tales are tell-able in their present form. They are, after all, tra­di­tion­al re-tellings from infor­mal nar­ra­tors,” exclu­sive of the orality/​polish of pro­fes­sion­al sto­ry­tellers and lit­er­ary ren­di­tions. How­ev­er, they con­tain intrigu­ing glimpses into the life and spir­it of the Sephardic com­mu­ni­ties. The anthology’s first sto­ry, The Tenth for a Minyan,” for exam­ple, includes Jerusalem his­to­ry, Eli­jah, Yom Kip­pur, hala­chot, min­hag­im, mitzvot, and a miracle! 

A sam­pling of themes serves to show the breadth of these fas­ci­nat­ing tales. The Rich Man and His Two Sons” (Turkey) imparts eth­i­cal teach­ings. The Preg­nant King” (Italy) humor­ous­ly shows heal­ing through diver­sion. An Old Man’s Advice” (Turkey) is a turn­ing of a known Near East­ern Jew­ish and Moslem tale. This Too Shall Pass” is a Moroc­can ver­sion of the famous Solomon sto­ry. Let­ter from the Angel of Death” (Israel/​Greece) has Jew­ish vari­ants from eight oth­er countries. 

Folk­tales of the Jews is a pro­found­ly valu­able col­lec­tion, a resource of liv­ing his­to­ry, extend­ing our knowl­edge of K’lal Yis­roel through the medi­um of our sto­ries. We are, after all, the peo­ple of the sto­ry, when­ev­er and wher­ev­er we have lived. Abbre­vi­a­tions, bib­li­og­ra­phy, col­lec­tors, index­es, and narrators.

Cherie Karo Schwartz is a sto­ry­teller, author, and edu­ca­tor from Den­ver Col­orado. She was a co-found­ing coor­di­na­tor of the Jew­ish Sto­ry­telling Net­work of the Coali­tion for the Advance­ment of Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion. She has writ­ten My Lucky Drei­del, The Kids’ Cat­a­logue of Passover (with Bar­bara Rush), and Cir­cle Spin­ning: Jew­ish Turn­ing and Return­ing Tales. Cherie has shared spir­it-filled, engag­ing sto­ries, per­for­mances and work­shops around the USA and abroad for over forty years. www​.ham​sa​pubs​.com.

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