Tree of Souls: The Mythol­o­gy of Judaism

Howard Schwartz; Caren Lobbel-Fried, illus.

  • Review
By – September 21, 2012

Dov Noy, pro­fes­sor of folk­lore at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty and founder of the Israel Folk­tale Archives, put Jew­ish folk­tales on the world folk­lore map by link­ing them to Stith Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Lit­er­ature in his dis­ser­ta­tion on Tal­mu­dic- Midrashic lit­er­a­ture. Now, Howard Schwartz, the major Jew­ish anthol­o­gist and pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-St. Louis, has put Jew­ish mythol­o­gy on the world mythol­o­gy map with his amaz­ing book, Tree of Souls: The Mythol­o­gy of Judaism. Here the Jew­ish myth­i­cal tra­di­tion, often con­tro­ver­sial or even denied, is tru­ly acknowl­edged in an anthol­o­gy to celebrate.

Schwartz defines the term myth” as a people’s sacred sto­ries about ori­gins, deities, ances­tors, and heroes.” This is a sin­gu­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant gath­er­ing of near­ly 700 key Jew­ish myths drawn from the Bible, the Pseude­pigrapha, the Tal­mud and Midrash, the kab­bal­is­tic lit­er­a­ture, medieval folk­lore, Hasidic texts, and oral lore col­lect­ed in the mod­ern era.

The anthol­o­gy is divid­ed into ten books, which rep­re­sent the ten cat­e­gories of Jew­ish mythol­o­gy: Myths of God, Myths of Cre­ation, Myths of Heav­en, Myths of Hell, Myths of the Holy Word, Myths of the Holy Time, Myths of the Holy Peo­ple, Myths of the Holy Land, Myths of Exile, and Myths of the Mes­si­ah. To delve into these myths is a jour­ney of epic pro­por­tions. It is a wan­der­ing and a search for mean­ing amidst myr­i­ad facets of inter­pre­ta­tion, all of which are explored bril­liant­ly in this book.

Our guide, Howard Schwartz, a tal­ent­ed and skilled folk­lorist, schol­ar and sto­ry­teller, has select­ed the myth­ic texts from hun­dreds of sources, sacred and sec­u­lar, and accom­pa­nied them with infor­ma­tive com­men­taries, as well as an exten­sive intro­duc­tion. For those who are inter­est­ed in the schol­ar­ship of the myths, there are sources and com­pre­hen­sive notes. But for those inter­est­ed pri­mar­i­ly in Jew­ish myths — and what myths there are in our tra­di­tion — this book will serve as a moth­er lode!

Howard Schwartz writes with a riv­et­ing, imag­i­na­tive lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ty and a storyteller’s gift of nar­ra­tive. Because the myths are in a dif­fer­ent type-face, the read­er can choose to read only the myths. How­ev­er, the schol­ar­ly com­men­taries add many dimen­sions to this fas­ci­nat­ing, beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten book.

Penin­nah Schram, well-known sto­ry­teller & author, is Pro­fes­sor of Speech and Dra­ma at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty’s Stern Col­lege. Her lat­est book is an illus­trat­ed anthol­o­gy, The Hun­gry Clothes and Oth­er Jew­ish Folk­tales (Ster­ling Pub­lish­ing) and a CD, The Min­strel & the Sto­ry­teller, with singer/​guitarist Ger­ard Edery (Sefarad Records). She is a recip­i­ent of a Covenant Award for Out­stand­ing Jew­ish Edu­ca­tor and the 2003 Nation­al Sto­ry­telling Net­work’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award.

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