by Howard Schwartz

No one would deny that Mar­tin Buber and Ger­shom Scholem are colos­sal fig­ures in the fields of Hasidism and Kab­bal­ah. But not every­one real­izes that there was anoth­er colos­sus who also taught at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty. That was Pro­fes­sor Dov Noy (19202013), who sin­gle-hand­ed­ly estab­lished the study of Jew­ish Folk­lore in Israel, and estab­lished the Israel Folk­tale Archives (IFA) in Haifa, which today has col­lect­ed more than 25,000 sto­ries oral­ly from every eth­nic com­mu­ni­ty in Israel, rep­re­sent­ing every Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the world. (Dov’s broth­er, Meir Noy, estab­lished a Jew­ish music archives in Tel Aviv).

When still a young man, Dov Noy, him­self an immi­grant from Kolo­miya in Poland, real­ized that the immi­grants who came to Israel from East­ern Europe and the Mid­dle East brought their sto­ries with them. But they knew these sto­ries in their native lan­guages, pri­mar­i­ly Yid­dish and Ara­bic. Their chil­dren spoke Hebrew, mak­ing it much more dif­fi­cult to trans­mit their rich folk­tale tra­di­tion to them. Dov Noy under­stood that some­how the sto­ries must be saved before those who knew them all died out.

Noy pre­pared him­self for this epic under­tak­ing by study­ing Folk­lore at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty in Bloom­ing­ton. He was for­tu­nate to have Stith Thomp­son, the founder of the mod­ern study of folk­lore, as his teacher. Thomp­son lat­er com­ment­ed that Noy was his finest pupil. Along with the Finnish schol­ar Antti Aarne, Thomp­son pub­lished Types of the Folk­tale, iden­ti­fy­ing hun­dreds of plots that appeared in tra­di­tion­al folk­lore. Dov Noy and his stu­dents, espe­cial­ly Heda Jason, expand­ed these cat­e­gories by insert­ing spe­cif­ic Jew­ish tale types. This made it pos­si­ble to clas­si­fy and ana­lyze the var­i­ous types of Jew­ish folk­tales, dis­cern­ing their unique­ly Jew­ish aspects as well as uni­ver­sal tale types. Today Dov Noy’s stu­dents, such as Dan Ben-Amos, Aliza Shen­har, Eli Yas­sif, Tamar Alexan­der, Haya Bar-Itzhak and Galit Hasan-Rokem, teach Jew­ish Folk­lore at major uni­ver­si­ties in Israel, the Unit­ed States, and oth­er coun­tries. Dan Ben-Amos has ded­i­cat­ed him­self for the past decade to edit­ing a mul­ti-vol­ume col­lec­tion of folk­tales col­lect­ed by the IFA, Folk­tales of the Jews.

Dov Noy had an astound­ing mem­o­ry. Wher­ev­er he went, he remem­bered the names of his hosts and their fam­i­ly, remem­bered what­ev­er they had dis­cussed, and some­how man­aged to stay in touch with every­one. When­ev­er any­one need­ed to know some­thing that no one else knew, they were always sent to Dov Noy, who inevitably knew the answer. In 1977 I was on sab­bat­i­cal in Israel edit­ing an anthol­o­gy of mod­ern Jew­ish poets. I want­ed to include an Ethiopi­an poet, but when­ever I asked if any­one knew of one, they always replied, Ask Dov Noy.” So I called up Pro­fes­sor Noy and asked to meet with him. He told me to come to his home at 9 PM on Mon­day night. When I arrived, his small apart­ment was com­plete­ly full, with at least fifty peo­ple. It turned out he had told every­one to meet him at the same time. He had us squeeze into his liv­ing room and intro­duce our­selves. I met artists, musi­cians, folk­lorists, schol­ars and very inter­est­ing vis­i­tors from many lands. When I was able to speak to Noy for a moment, I told him about my quest for an Ethiopi­an poet, and he promised me that such a poet would be there next week. And he was. By then I was hooked on these unpre­dictable Mon­day night gath­er­ings, and for the rest of my year in Israel I came as often as I could. 

Dov Noy also had a won­der­ful sense of humor. Among the types of sto­ries he col­lect­ed were jokes, and he often told them. Once, when I was dri­ving with him, I asked, Dov, what makes a Jew­ish sto­ry Jew­ish?” His reply: If a Jew tells it, it’s a Jew­ish sto­ry!” But he was actu­al­ly more dis­cern­ing. In one impor­tant essay, he explained that there are four char­ac­ter­is­tics of a Jew­ish folk­tale and as long as it had one of these char­ac­ter­is­tics, it could be con­sid­ered a Jew­ish sto­ry: 1) Is it set at a Jew­ish time, such as Shab­bat or one of the hol­i­days? 2) Is it set in a Jew­ish place, such as a syn­a­gogue, or sukkah or in the Land of Israel? 3) Does it have Jew­ish char­ac­ters, such as Eli­jah, or King Solomon or the demoness Lilith? 4) Or does it have a Jew­ish mean­ing? As long as it had a Jew­ish mes­sage, it did­n’t mat­ter if there were explic­it ref­er­ences to Jew­ish time, place, or character. 

Dov often told me sto­ries about his adven­tures and those of his stu­dents in col­lect­ing Jew­ish folk­tales. Once he told me that he received a let­ter from one of his stu­dents, who was col­lect­ing tales in a nurs­ing home from an old man who knew a great many tales. She wrote that he was an excep­tion­al sto­ry­teller, but when­ev­er he would tell a fairy tale, he would skip the wed­ding — nor­mal­ly the high­light of the sto­ry. Noy wrote back that the old man must be get­ting tired, and to let him rest up after telling a tale. The stu­dent then wrote that she was cer­tain that was­n’t the prob­lem, and he need­ed to come there and see for him­self. So Dov took the bus to that town and met with the old man and asked him to tell a fairy­tale. And he did, in great detail, but when it was time for the wed­ding, he skipped it. Dov said to him, You’re a won­der­ful sto­ry­teller. I know that sto­ry. In fact, we have col­lect­ed a hun­dred vari­ants of it. But why did­n’t you include the wed­ding at the end of the sto­ry?” The old man said, My moth­er gave birth to me when she was 16, and she nev­er mar­ried. I nev­er mar­ried. I only tell sto­ries about things I know. Since I nev­er had a wed­ding, I can’t speak about it.” In this anec­dote Dov taught me that every sto­ry­teller adds a bit of him­self to the tale, which is why the tale is nev­er told the same way twice. I think that any­one who has told a tale rec­og­nizes this. And for Dov Noy, it was­n’t a flaw, it was a sign of the teller’s human­i­ty and of the folk process, which he held in awe.

There is no doubt that the vast archives of the IFA are Dov Noy’s great­est accom­plish­ment. Israel rec­og­nized this when he received the Bia­lik Prize in 2002 and the Israel Prize in 2004. I feel cer­tain that in time the IFA will come to be seen as impor­tant as the YIVO archives col­lect­ed in East­ern Europe dur­ing the expe­di­tions of S. Ansky, the first mod­ern Jew­ish folk­lorist. Togeth­er YIVO and the IFA form a kind of Oral Torah, sav­ing pre­cious folk tra­di­tions, espe­cial­ly folk­tales, just as the rab­bis pre­served the Oral Torah in the Gemara of both Tal­muds. You see, Dov Noy was a short, mod­est man, gen­er­ous with every­one, a Pol­ish gentle­man, but he was also a colos­sus, who cre­at­ed an army of folk­lorists who sought out sto­ry­tellers among the many eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties in Israel, and gath­ered their tales, sav­ing them.


In Mem­o­ry of Dov Noy

you brought back the mer­chants trad­ing tales,
the grand­moth­ers whis­per­ing buba may­ses,
brought back so many fairy tales
told by the stove,
warm­ing so many gen­er­a­tions.
If all the sto­ry­tellers are silent,
who can blame them?

Even now,
the won­der child sheds tears in her sleep—
how will the prince vault over the silence
and recov­er the shin­ing jew­el
that could save her?
And the boy await­ing the bird of hap­pi­ness
is still strand­ed in the desert,
with no hint of how to find his way
to Jerusalem.

the princess trapped in the gold­en moun­tain
needs the spell
you learned from a mag­ic oud,
the winds need some­one who knows their lan­guage,
the sto­ry­tellers are parched for the waters
of eter­nal life.
It was you who recov­ered the gold­en dove
we lost in the desert,
and now we have lost you.

Howard Schwartz’s most recent col­lec­tion of Jew­ish folk­tales is Leaves from the Gar­den of Eden: One Hun­dred Clas­sic Jew­ish Tales. His book, Tree of Souls: The Mythol­o­gy of Judaism, won The Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in 2005.

Relat­ed Con­tent: Jew­ish Folk­tales Read­ing List

Howard Schwartz’s most recent col­lec­tion of Jew­ish folk­tales is Leaves from the Gar­den of Eden: One Hun­dred Clas­sic Jew­ish Tales. His book, Tree of Souls: The Mythol­o­gy of Judaism, won The Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in 2005.