by Sharon Elswit

Through­out the ages, folk­lore has spo­ken to peo­ple. From pul­pits and hearth fires and in class­rooms, these sto­ries forge a con­nec­tion between the gen­er­a­tions, pass on the val­ues of a com­mu­ni­ty, teach lessons, and help us make sense of our­selves and under­stand the world around us. They con­nect us with each oth­er, a shared his­to­ry of know­ing. They help us face our fears. They val­i­date our dreams. They heal. They enter­tain. And they offer us choic­es. A sto­ry attrib­uted to the Preach­er of Dub­no makes a case for Truth being much more palat­able when it is dressed up as a Parable. 

Times do change, but under­ly­ing human truths and strug­gles do not. Rela­tion­ships with­in fam­i­lies, between peo­ple and gov­ern­ment, between friends and lovers — these go on. These are the sub­jects of folk­tales. There will always be a gos­sip, a miser, and a cheater. There will always be lone­li­ness, sick­ness, and loss. There will always be some­one else who brave­ly speaks up or clev­er­ly thwarts a nefar­i­ous plan. Our folk­tales take this messy world and help us think about it by tak­ing us on a jour­ney out­side of our own lives. They help us remem­ber. They chal­lenge us to make the world a bet­ter place with­in our own com­mu­ni­ties and out­side. As in the tale of a cap­tive bird that learns from the exam­ple of his cousin how to feign death and fly away, sto­ries them­selves show us how.

First told oral­ly and then writ­ten down, these sto­ries have been passed down from grand­par­ents to chil­dren and their chil­dren, from teach­ers, from rab­bis, from sto­ry­tellers. We now find them, too, print­ed in col­lec­tions and pic­ture books and on the web. Shar­ing folk­tales with oth­ers is a gift. There are even folk­tales about the val­ue of par­tic­i­pat­ing by telling sto­ries and by listening: 

  • a father and daugh­ter who have become sep­a­rat­ed rec­og­nize each oth­er through a shared tale about a shofar 
  • a sto­ry passed down about a cer­tain rit­u­al and prayer per­formed by the Baal Shem Tov con­tin­ues to help save the world, though the sto­ry itself is all that remains
  • King Solomon gets at the truth by telling a sto­ry and judg­ing people’s reactions 
  • a dis­ci­ple releas­es anoth­er man from the lie he has been liv­ing by bring­ing him a sto­ry which lets him know he has been forgiven
  • a man brings what com­fort he can to oth­ers in Auschwitz by lis­ten­ing to their stories 
  • a haughty rab­bi learns to make a dif­fer­ence by chang­ing the tone of the sto­ries he tells 
  • a king real­izes how unfair­ly he has treat­ed his wife when he over­hears her telling a doll the sto­ry of her unhappiness 
  • and final­ly, as Avi Weiss asserts, peo­ple need to inter­act with the fire of sto­ries in the Torah to forge new con­nec­tions through the generations. 
The sto­ry­teller Joel ben Izzy makes a strong case in The Beg­gar King and the Secret of Hap­pi­ness for the rel­e­vance and neces­si­ty of folk­lore in resolv­ing prob­lems in one’s per­son­al life. After he lost his voice, it was that title sto­ry — a folk­tale where King Solomon los­es his iden­ti­ty when Asmodeus throws his ring across the world — which seemed to embody the storyteller’s own strug­gles to reclaim his world and his career. 

There are sto­ries for each stage of the life cycle. In one, Lailah, the angel, tells unborn chil­dren the his­to­ry of mankind and their lives to be, and then touch­es them right above the upper lip so they for­get all the moment they are born. Need a sto­ry to cel­e­brate a cou­ple get­ting mar­ried? Wish for the cou­ple to have chil­dren who will thrive just like them, as told in The Wed­ding Bless­ing” in Penin­nah Schrams Jew­ish Sto­ries One Gen­er­a­tion Tells Anoth­er. Share The Mag­ic Gourd” by Debra Gor­don Zaslow from Goldie Milgram’s Mitz­vah Sto­ries, where a cou­ple post­pones using a wed­ding gift which may only be used once by rely­ing on them­selves and each oth­er through­out their lives togeth­er. Trou­ble with mar­riage? A man who has had no luck pro­vid­ing for his fam­i­ly is harsh­ly sent by his wife to bang a drum in the ceme­tery, where he encoun­ters a sym­pa­thet­ic bear. With chil­dren? In one tale, a father anguished by his teenage daughter’s escapades prays for her to become a bat. Aging? An elder­ly can­tor does not take well to being replaced and sends his raspy voice to haunt the young new can­tor. In anoth­er sto­ry, Moses pleads that it is not yet his time to die. Three sons, whose father has just died, won­der which of them now pos­sess­es the true ring. Two sons in anoth­er sto­ry try to puz­zle out just what is the trea­sure their father said he was leav­ing them, as they con­tin­ue to work the land they have inherited. 

Folk­tales are not just for chil­dren. In one sto­ry, a man who doubts his wife’s fideli­ty takes revenge with an arrow shot through Rab­bi Adam’s mag­ic mir­ror. In anoth­er, a woman’s broth­ers bring the hus­band who has turned away from her to the king to hear a sto­ry of a tres­pass­ing lion so he will know that his wife did remain true to him. Howard Schwartzs fan­tas­ti­cal col­lec­tions, such as Leaves from the Gar­den of Eden, Elijah’s Vio­lin, Miriam’s Tam­bourine, and Lilith’s Cave spin time­less tales filled with sen­su­al imagery and super­nat­ur­al occurrences. 

The sto­ries that take hold of us and won’t let go, we keep and change. We need the nar­ra­tive, the won­der, the dan­ger, the humor, and the mag­ic. Folk­tales are mal­leable. That is their resilience. Sto­ries have changed with the teller and with the coun­tries in which peo­ple live. Some sump­tu­ous Jew­ish tales either inspired or were inspired by Tales from the Ara­bi­an Nights. Humor­ous Joha tales dif­fer from the Djuha trickster/​fool in Ara­bic lore only by some of the tra­di­tions por­trayed. And Penin­nah Schram and Rachayl Eck­stein Davis turned the Amer­i­can sto­ry of the boy who goes look­ing for a lit­tle red house with no win­dows and no doors and a star inside into The Apple Tree’s Dis­cov­ery, a tale of self-esteem, with spe­cial rel­e­vance for Rosh Hashan­nah. Some gen­er­al Inter­net anec­dotes that reflect Jew­ish val­ues are includ­ed in Sey­mour Rossel’s newest col­lec­tion The Essen­tial Jew­ish Tales. Just about eight of the sto­ries told by fifty-four rab­bis in Laney Becker’s Three Times Chai, have been adapt­ed from uni­ver­sal tales. 

More recent­ly, it seems that adap­ta­tion is also going the oth­er way around, with Jew­ish sto­ries as a base for oth­er cul­tur­al adap­ta­tions. You might not call Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride a Jew­ish sto­ry, but his film cer­tain­ly took flight from the Hasidic sto­ry of the young man who play­ful­ly places his wed­ding ring on a tree root he finds stick­ing up like a fin­ger from the ground only to find out that he is now wed­ded to a demon. Gen­er­al ver­sions of It Could Always Be Worse, that tale of the rab­bi who keeps advis­ing the man in the over­crowd­ed house to bring more ani­mals inside each day, abound. Eric A. Kim­mel is our most pro­lif­ic sto­ry cul­ture mix­er. He recent­ly set an Ara­bic Joha char­ac­ter in a Jew­ish Yemenite sto­ry of The Answered Prayer.” His out-of-print Mish­ka, Pish­ka, and Fish­ka com­bines Ukrain­ian and Jew­ish cul­ture in tales told to him by his Jew­ish grandmother. 

Good sto­ries will out. You can find a ver­sion of The Trea­sure,” where a man goes to Prague look­ing for the trea­sure he dreamt about only to dis­cov­er that the trea­sure has been buried back at home, set in Chi­na. There is a Jew­ish ver­sion of The Mag­ic Pome­gran­ate” and one with three Mid­dle East­ern princes and a spe­cial orange. There are African and Chi­nese ver­sions of the sto­ry where a man brings water instead of wine to the bar­rel for a com­mu­nal cel­e­bra­tion, think­ing no one will notice when it mix­es in, and sev­er­al Jew­ish takes, includ­ing the one by Nina Jaffe where nei­ther hus­band nor wife put in the coins they promised while sav­ing up to buy haman­taschen for Purim. And sto­ries with Chelm-like humor have been told by the Uygur Peo­ple in west­ern China. 

Cur­rent retellers pick sto­ries they love and dig into char­ac­ter and moti­va­tion to make them rel­e­vant in today’s envi­ron­ment. Some excit­ing sto­ry rein­ter­pre­ta­tions have made an appear­ance in pic­ture book form in the last few years. Gath­er­ing Sparks by Howard Schwartz, Ann Redisch Stampler’s The Wood­en Sword, and Kimmel’s Joseph and The Sab­bath Fish reach out to con­nect with new sub­tleties and warmth. One can tru­ly believe that the prince in Stampler’s The Roost­er Prince of Breslov has accept­ed act­ing like a human when, on his own, he thinks to share the blan­ket with his shiv­er­ing teacher. Each year brings new retellings of the Golem leg­end and If Not High­er,” for these are sto­ries which stir pow­er­ful emo­tions, unfor­get­tably strong and beau­ti­ful. Pos­ses­sion in The Dyb­buk” has been explored through dance, pup­pets, video, and the­ater, some of them parodies. 

There are orig­i­nal tales, too, cre­at­ed with beloved folk­lore char­ac­ters. Kim­mel caused a sen­sa­tion in 1994 with Her­shel and the Hanukkah Gob­lins, based on the char­ac­ter Her­shel of Ostropol. He also refash­ioned some tra­di­tion­al Chelm sto­ries in The Jar of Fools so that the events take place dur­ing Hanukkah and invent­ed some of his own Chelm tales, a dif­fi­cult task to do well. 

When things have already hap­pened, then it is poet­ry which brings suc­cor or rejoic­es with us and gives words to our feel­ings so right on that a breath catch­es. When we stand on the cusp or in the mid­dle of an event and deci­sions have to be made, then we need a sto­ry with char­ac­ters to help guide us through. Here is the cap­tive bird won­der­ing how he will get free; here is the broth­er who has sent his own broth­er to Azazel, rather than help him pre­pare for Passover; here is the king who goes into a lit­tle hut to remind him­self how it is for the peo­ple he rules; here is the wife whose hus­band has wrong­ly accused her of mis­con­duct; here is the grand­moth­er hug­ging her grand­son after he almost drowns in the ocean and, in the same breath, berat­ing God for not return­ing his hat; here is the daugh­ter who does not want to wear her mother’s wed­ding dress. There are folk­tales for all of these sit­u­a­tions. What hap­pens next may be fan­tas­ti­cal — demons hold­ing the girl pris­on­er inside her new dress — but she has our empa­thy. Mean­ing grows from under­stand­ing. An old tale fresh­ly told, one that has tak­en the hand of peo­ple through years and even cen­turies, may bring laugh­ter and wis­dom, warn­ings and warmth to befriend us. We may become the human heroes of our own jour­neys with folk­tales to light the way. 

Sharon Elswit, head hibrar­i­an at Léman Man­hat­tan Prepara­to­ry School, is author of the first and sec­ond edi­tion of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er: A Guide to 668 Tales List­ing Sub­jects and Sources, as well as The East Asian Sto­ry Find­er.

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.