JEW­els: Teas­ing Out the Poet­ry in Jew­ish Humor and Storytelling

  • Review
By – February 13, 2023

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 and a school librar­i­an for forty years in NYC, 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