In thirty tales relating to food customs, plus one short story epigraph as an appetizer, Idit Pintel-Ginsberg shares unusual finds collected from twenty-nine storytellers in the Israel Folktale Archives. Her menu represents seventeen different locales and ethnic groups from 1960 to 1995. Here are misers, gluttons, a bride who pretends she knows how to cook rice (rather than take advice from her mother-in-law), selfish husbands, and clever wives. The Baal Shem Tov is sure that his neighbor in the World-to-Come cannot possibly be the hefty blacksmith who gulps down bread even before the blessings are done, until he hears that the man’s father was a malnourished peddler burned by rioters. Pintel-Ginsberg thoughtfully sorts these tales into chapters covering taste, gender, class, Kashrut, and sacred times, with playful titles, such as “He Brought a Chicken for Her to Cook” and “With a Good Eye and from All Their Hearts.” None of the chosen stories have appeared in print before.
Bread, salt, beans, chicken, rice, and fish set off a wide range of interactions between story characters sharing food: husbands and wives, hosts and guests, Jews and gentiles, parents and children, rich men and poor. Pintel-Ginsberg deftly details historical, religious, and social backgrounds for each tale. Usefully, the discussions also define unfamiliar terms used by the storyteller. As academic coordinator of the IFA at the University of Haifa for over ten years, and co-editor with Haya Bar-Itzhak of The Power of the Tale (2019), she is uniquely poised to share information about the storytellers themselves and to place the stories within folklore types and among their variants inside and outside of the archives.
Pintel-Ginsberg’s story and analytic choices lean toward those with marital and social/economic injustices that arise when people eat together or struggle to observe sacred holidays or keep Kosher. A maid shows her rich master what “poor man’s beans” taste like. A poor wife believes she has done three great mitzvahs when she goes to the sickbed and then the funeral of a beggar to whom she has also generously, but unwittingly, fed the couple’s only fish, which spoiled sitting on their windowsill.
In a tradition where the task of women on Shabbat and other holidays has been “to bring to the table the very best dishes, dishes worthy of the day’s sanctity,” Pintel-Ginsberg champions both the accomplishments of women and the rebellion of those who have been wronged. In a tale told by a Muslim Israeli, peace between two households is restored only when the resourceful women in one household work all night to prepare a breakfast the men in both families will need to share together in the morning. A merchant who challenges the rabbi’s wife to explain why she uses inferior flour in baking challah subtly learns of her meandering husband. The women of Vilna try unsuccessfully to strike on Shavuot, refusing to prepare food for their men unless the Torah is changed to read, “She will rule over him!” and end up having to scramble together last minute dairy meals. The stories themselves offer more for study than for sharing aloud, but with this book, a feast has been served.
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.