Defining folk literature with a wide brush, Neugroschel offers over 90 stories from 28 Yiddish sources from the 16th to the 20th centuries. His range is remarkable for including Yiddish adaptations that give a Jewish twist to world folklore. Adventurous tales of Sir Gawain and the Italian lover and fighter Bovo stand alongside traditional Ashkenazi folklore, such as tales of the wonders wrought by Rabbi Leyb. Original Jewish literary tales with folkloric elements and alternate retellings of Biblical tales complete the collection. Unfairly, one reviewer criticized Neugroschel for leaving out “The Dybbuk,” which was already presented in one of his two previous anthologies.
What is here are translations of almost all of the teaching tales of one of the first Yiddish women writers, Glikl; parables told by the Dubner Maggid and those about Buddha; “Sonya the Wise Woman Tales” recorded by Litvin; Der Nister’s mystical stories within story; and Sholom Aleichem’s satire “The Red Jews.” Here are the escapades of Yankel Mogenshtern’s “Simkhe Plakhte or the Universal Swindler,” the poor water carrier who becomes a revered rebbe once he has new clothes and a proper prayer shawl and whose story was later turned by others into a novel and a play. From Vaysenberg’s lyrical realism to Linyetski’s anti-Hasidic fable, Neugroschel gives faithful voice to textual retellings both artistic and awkward.
The publisher’s claim that these folk tales were “never before published” is misleading; readers may know Ansky’s “A Sack of Flour” told as “The Case against the Wind” by Peretz, and others appear elsewhere, but perhaps the publisher meant only that these particular sources have not been translated before. Brief notes introduce each entry, outlining history, such as the evolution of Khelm tales from German stories about the fools of Schildburg. Though some note terms, like Maskilic, require background knowledge, the stories themselves may be enjoyed straight. Picaresque, pious, and full of fantasy, action, stark shtetl reality, and humor, Neugroschel’s anthology gives us a new window into the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe and some new folk stories to add back into our lives. Intro.
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.