Radi­ant Days, Haunt­ed Nights: Great Tales From the Trea­sury of Yid­dish Folk Literature

Joachim Neu­groschel, ed. and trans.
  • Review
By – July 9, 2012

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 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