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.