Leaves From the Gar­den of Eden: One Hun­dred Clas­sic Jew­ish Tales

Howard Schwartz; Kristi­na Swarn­er, illus.
  • Review
By – January 9, 2012
Four years after Tree of Souls took our breaths away with myths of the Jew­ish tra­di­tion, three-time Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award win­ner Howard Schwartz now brings us a ref­er­ence puls­ing with one hun­dred mag­i­cal, mirac­u­lous, and spir­i­tu­al Jew­ish sto­ries. Forty-eight are quest sto­ries, sev­en involve mar­riage with demons; six engage Lilith; ten are by the Hasidic mas­ter Reb Nach­man of Brat­slav. There are angels, dreams, enchant­ed palaces; mag­i­cal com­bat, charms, and heal­ing; and jour­neys to heav­en and hell. The tales Schwartz has cho­sen orig­i­nat­ed over four­teen cen­turies and through four con­ti­nents from 5th c. Baby­lon to 20th c. Unit­ed States. Post­bib­li­cal, they are equal­ly divid­ed among fairy tales, folk­tales, super­nat­ur­al tales, and mys­ti­cal tales. 

Schwartz defines fairy tales as inhab­it­ing won­drous realms where obsta­cles are over­come with mag­i­cal objects and end­ings are hap­py. This is where he places The Witch­es of Ashkelon” and The Lost Princess.” Rab­bis become heroes and per­form mir­a­cles set in our world in the folk­tale sec­tion, which includes Draw­ing the Wind,” The Sab­bath Lion,” and The Groom Who Was Des­tined to Die on His Wed­ding Day.” The super­nat­ur­al tales are grand, dark fan­tasies that embody sex­u­al fears and bat­tles for people’s souls against forces of evil. In Helen of Troy,” Joseph del­la Reina, warped and tor­ment­ed after fail­ing in his quest to bring back the Mes­si­ah, forces him­self upon the beau­ti­ful, vir­tu­ous Queen Dol­phi­na in his world and then tries to sum­mon the most beau­ti­ful woman from the past. Twen­ty-five mys­ti­cal tales cen­ter on the pow­ers of known Hasidic and Kab­bal­is­tic rab­bis and sages, dur­ing and after their lives. 

Schwartz built his retelling of these tales from a vari­ety of orig­i­nal sources, print­ed and oral: Hasidic and medieval writ­ings, Kab­bal­ah, Midrash, Israel Folk­lore Archives, Tal­mud. Read­ers will rec­og­nize many of these sto­ries from Schwartz’s pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions for adults and chil­dren, but gath­ered togeth­er here, they rep­re­sent a mem­o­rable core in one vol­ume. Com­pre­hen­sive notes and com­men­tary root each sto­ry and draw its ties to Jew­ish tra­di­tion. The five appen­dices are crown­ing jew­els, which also define and index the tales by source, sto­ry cycle (of, about, and by key pro­tag­o­nists), coun­tries of ori­gin, spe­cial­ized sub­ject types, and Arne-Thomp­son tale types. Bibilog­ra­phy of orig­i­nal sources, Eng­lish bib­li­og­ra­phy, glos­sary, intro­duc­tion, subject/​story name index.

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