The Angel and the Cholent: Food Rep­re­sen­ta­tion from the Israel Folk­tale Archives

Idit Pin­tel-Gins­berg

  • Review
By – November 8, 2021

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 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