Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, great-grandson of the founder of the mystical Hasidic Jewish movement, told stories in Yiddish and Hebrew in the late 18th and early 19th century. These fairy tales have been preserved and translated word-for-word by his followers and adapted by others, like Hans Christian Andersen’s creations, as if they were folklore. Here, Neil Philip retells seven of Rabbi Nahman’s more child-friendly stories. Four of these — “The Pirate Princess,” “The Gem Prince,” “The Merchant and the Poor Man,” and “The Lost Princess” — adapt Rabbi Nahman’s original fairy tales. Three — “The Fixer,” The Turkey Prince,” and “The Treasure”— adapt traditional, well-known tales which the teacher also told.
Rabbi Nahman spun intricate stories. “The Merchant and the Poor Man” fills 22 pages and involves multiple changes of fortune and testing of faithfulness. On one level, Rabbi Nahman meant for his tales to teach repentance and redemption for repairing an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. On another level, the tales are pure entertainment, with plots which twist and turn. And then there are Kabbalistic symbols; a princess may be “the wandering part of God.” In the title story, an emperor’s clever daughter outwits pirates, merchants, sailors, women-in-waiting, and kings who desire her, until she is, in disguise, crowned king and becomes reunited with the prince she loves. “The Pirate Princess” and “The Lost Princess,” have been retold more often than the other two original Nahman creations which are included here, and it is a treat to have all four in this collection.
In his eloquent introduction, Philip presents background on Rabbi Nahman and his tales and explains his own approach to changing these stories for a “general readership.” Twelve pages of notes detail and justify specific decisions Philip made. The notes also draw psychological insight from Rabbi Nahman’s battle with depression and the death of his son. They draw parallels to folklore motifs from Chinese and Slavic cultures. These lively notes will be of more interest to adults, but they are printed in the same readable 13.5 point font. Philip’s narrative style is straightforward, without talking down to young readers. He lets the plot carry the excitement. The 8 1⁄2” x 11” pages are illustrated throughout with full-color gouache art, displaying a style of frozen action and surface expression. One might question some of the editorial decisions made in the publishing of this book. Why allot full pages for illustrations when the spots show more vitality? Why not reference more of the retellings of Rabbi Nahman’s stories? Should Nahman’s name also be on the cover of the book? Still, the presentation of Rabbi Nahman’s tales in this well-researched, large format, large-font, colorfully illustrated collection is unique and will expand the audience for his wonderful fairy tales. An introduction, notes for adults, and a bibliography are included. The stories are for ages 8 – 12.
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.