Packing a suitcase ready to go with 179 short retellings of his personal favorites from traditional folklore, jokes, and reminiscences, Zeitlin shares what he groks as the verbal heart and fullnessness of Jewish experience. He views Jews as cultural, religious, and historical travelers, carrying their own stories as well as the time-honored, forging new connections with encounters. It’s the humanity in the stories and jokes which matter to him. This is exemplified in Rabbi Edward Schecter’s telling of a tale where rabbis have been nitpicking the exact moment when night turns into day for morning prayers, and the third rabbi says simply:
When you can recognize the face
of your fellow human being.
For portability, Zeitlin has reframed each selection for JEWels as a short free-verse poem capturing the human essences of a particular story or joke. The majority of pieces were written or adapted by Zeitlin from texts and with other people, whom he fully credits. From wry quotes by Golda Meier to bawdy “Abe and Becky” jokes told by seniors and life-reinforcing philosophical humor in the midst of pain, JEWels delights with surprise. There will be something new here for everyone.
Zeitlin divides the collection into ten sections, including, of course, relationship with food, from a woman’s blessing when placing bread in the oven to which ethnicities are crafting bagels these days. Though jokes have their own section, they abound throughout and comprise the largest division, along with Meaning of Life. The book aptly opens with a traditional tale adapted from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov about how merely telling the story of details lost over time can rekindle the sacredness of the Baal Shem Tov’s effective method of praying. He closes with a modern traditional tale — Itzhak Perlman’s words after he continued to play a concert when one of his violin strings snapped:
Our job is to make music
with what remains.
Zeitlin, author of Because God Loves Stories: An Anthology of Jewish Storytelling, has gathered a company of well-known Jewish comedians, writers, storytellers, and rabbis from the past as sources for the stories he shares here. He also turns to current friends within the Jewish community, such as the poet Mark Kaminsky, Howard Schwartz, and Zev Shanken. Peninnah Schram also takes the lead in commentaries, which offer a wide range of historical tidbits and personal insights as buoyant as the tales. Commentaries, sometimes two for one poem, range widely, exploring the place of magic in Judaism, what makes a community Jewish for someone, and offering additional perspectives on themes within each poem.
Zeitlin promotes retelling stories from the past to create memory bonds and offers accessibly short lines, conversational commentaries, and a discussion section at the back as ways to do this. With a wealth of information and story poems, JEWels offers a sparkling place to begin.
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.