1. As a way of introducing my readers to your wonderful collection of Jewish folk tales, tell us about Israel Folktale Archives, the “A Tale for Each Month” series and what inspired you to work on this volume. What was your motivation, and what role did you play in selecting in selecting and preparing these stories?
I have always been fascinated by Jewish folk tales. Many of them convey to me our ideas and values, hopes, fears and dreams., the many-hued traditions of Judaism, the texture of Jewish life, the customs and mode of perception, while also reflecting the universality of the human condition.
The Israel Folktale Archives, part of the University of Haifa, served as my primary source and reservoir of tales, for which I am very grateful. I also used folk tales from various anthologies found in the United States.
The ingathering of Jewish immigrants after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 presented a unique opportunity to discover, gather, record and preserve tales from diverse Jewish backgrounds and cultures, yet sharing common Jewish religious and ethical traditions. This, therefore, became the goal of Israel Folktale Archives (IFA), founded by professor Dov Noy in 1955.
Israel Folktale Archives published a series of selected tales in Hebrew in their “A Tale for Each Month” series. For my present volume I have selected, translated and retold folk tales from that series, published between 1961-1978. I believed that many of these mostly unknown tales ought to be translated to afford another window into Jewish culture for English speaking audiences.
To translate and retell them I have read many versions of each story, sometimes revealing different physical and cultural environments. Conveying their essence, I hope I have made them interesting and accessible to a new generation of readers.
2. What are some of the special qualities of Jewish folk tales in general, and can you name some stories in your book that show them particularly well?
Jewish folk literature usually conveys a message, frequently of a religious and moral nature. The messages, sometimes strong, may at other times be subtle, barely touching the reader’s consciousness.
Jewish folktales in general and those in this work in particular are distinguished by their unique populations of characters: rabbis and scholars, students and sages, marriage brokers, magicians and physicians, demons, tzaddikim (righteous men) and angels, all in the service of one God. And, of course, by a population of women.
Jewish folk tales differ from other tales by their predominant themes: piety, the value of education and charity breathe from every page. Some tales portray reverence without end. Others suggest rebellion against the deeply ingrained, established attitudes (The Bride Who Argued With God).
There is a remarkable lack of violence, except in tales reflecting the suffering and persecution of Jews. The stories offer hope for a better world, and the possibility of atonement and renewal.The supernatural has a place in Jewish folk tales, and magic is frequently wed to faith, but most of the time our protagonists work for and deserve their miracles. Occasionally God works His will through human intervention.
Folk tales were used for information, education, entertainment, and as vehicles to transmit ideas, sometimes political and too dangerous to express openly, and thus to affect behavior. Folk tales served as agents of change. Norms of behavior change slowly, especially if attributed to the will of the One Above. But life goes on, and folk tales reflect and mirror the true ideas and customs of their times. Slowly, by force of custom, prevailing ideas are humanized, bringing the accepted norms up to date.
Some of the tales in this collection are uniquely Jewish, meaning that there would be no tale, but for its Jewish content. Other tales are known in world folklore. They were adopted and adapted to Jewish needs by according them Jewish names, Jewish settings, such as synagogues, Jewish occasions, such as weddings, and by weaving them into Jewish historical events. They became part of the Jewish tradition. These distinction are obvious or subtle.
3. Many of the tales focus on love and marriage and the role of women, in their various aspects. Why did you choose to highlight these themes?
Women were not equal in ancient cultures and in later generations, and in many respects are not equal even in our times.Within the cultures surrounding the Jews women were sometimes valued not higher than an ox, and could even be sold. I wanted to discover and present images of women emerging from Jewish culture and tradition, their position and role in the family and community, and their relationships as wives, mothers, daughters, providers and scholars.
Talmudic sages comprehended the vital importance of marriage and family life, and devoted several tractates specifically to the relationship between husband and wife, stressing love, trust, peace in the home, the protection of women and the resulting welfare of children and the community. Marriage was divinely sanctioned. In Hebrew the term for marriage is Kiddushin, meaning sanctification or consecration.
Echoes of Talmudic voices speak loudly:
“ Never have I called my wife by any other word but my home (adapted from the Talmud, Shabbat 118b).
The ketubbah (marriage agreement), a sociological-cultural-legal document protects the material interest and welfare of the woman. This was necessary in a patriarchal society, where most rights were vested in the male. Love and romance were not neglected. Family lineage and scholarship were vitally important. In the tales I have selected there is no mention of sex, even though it is a frequent subject and a powerful factor in biblical literature.
The Talmud, in its many utterances, expects uncompromising modesty in act and speech. Chastity before marriage was deeply implanted in Jewish youths, and adultery after marriage was a sin against God and a transgression against family and community, whose control was absolute , zealous and sometimes devoid of compassion.
Polygamy surfaces in one tale: “The Two Wives of Our Teacher Rabbi Gershom”, only to teach us about its dangers. Even though permitted in ancient times, it was seldom practiced among Jews, and only by the very rich. None of the known Talmudists had more than one wife. Polygamy was abolished among the Jewish population of European lands in the 11th century. This prohibition did not extend to Jews living in Moslem lands, who usually followed the customs of their neighbors. Jewish dispersion and adaptation to the surrounding cultures sometimes resulted in practices foreign and conflicting with Jewish teachings, as reflected in “The Woman Who Might Not Weep.”
Each tale in my work presents an image of a woman as seen by her contemporaries, and reflecting their perceptions of her role.
4. What is you personal favorite folk tale, and why?
I love them all. The tales I did not like or thought as unworthy of retelling were not included in my book.
However, I do have some favorites – tales embodying some of the qualities and ideas I wished to emphasize.
“The Bride Who Argued With God” is one of them. The bride’s name was not given in the earlier versions of the stories, and the title was: The Story of Rabbi Reuben. It was quickly apparent, however, that the real subject of the tale was the young bride of his son, Amos. The early storytellers told their audiences about a teenage girl who was brave enough to take even God to task, to protect her husband. To her, God was accountable for His actions.
Girls were not expected to be educated, but obviously the audience respected and applauded her scholarly argument, thus questioning the status quo. “Batya, the Beast Maiden” is another girl-scholar the audiences must have admired.
“To Whom Does The Hump Belong” sheds light upon Jewish customs, such as “tenaim,” the premarital agreement and the bride’s freedom to reject the match. It also presses home the value placed on education, character and wisdom.
“Her Husband’s Crown” humorously shows who truly is the head of the home and the family .
The entire chapter on “Daughters” flies in the face of the common desire for and preference of a sons over daughters.
“The Circumcision That Wasn’t” reflects the helplessness of the Jews in the lands of their dispersion and demonstrates how an authentic Jewish historical figure, Dr. Lieberman, was woven into a tale that could be of any ethnic group.
“The Wiesel and the Well” demonstrates a great concern for “the woman scorned.”
“The woman Who Spat in Rabbi Meir’s Eye” presents the Jewish serious attitude to vows, but it ridicules the husband’s dominance and his preserving the letter of the law, while violating its spirit. The image of Rabbi Meir reflects humility and concern for “peace in the home” above his own dignity.
And audiences never tire of “A Promise Is a Promise.” It sounds contemporary and close to home.
“The Glowing Robe” usually stimulates a lively discussion. On its face, it is a story about charity. But is it truly a Jewish tale? Some consider it a foreign import, arguing that the Robe is too tangible for Jewish belief in a purely spiritual deity. And selling a wife would not be part of a truly Jewish tale.
5. Why would it be beneficial for non-Jews as well as for Jewish readers, to read you book and familiarize themselves with the tradition of Jewish folk tales? Are the lessons they teach universal or particular to Jewish culture? Who did you have in mind as the audience for your book?
Due to Jewish dispersion throughout the world and the resulting various influences, Jewish culture is diverse and truly international. And yet every story touches upon universal human feelings and needs, such as love, hate, ambition, fear, compassion. The tales, therefore, can be appreciated by all, Jews and non-Jews alike. I wrote them for a wide and varied audience: the general reader, women who may be particularly interested in them, the clergy and youth leaders who may utilize them in the course of their work. But I did not neglect the scholars, by providing accurate source notes and various indices, a glossary and a bibliography.
The position and role of women in our lives, and the complex and often thorny relationship between men and women are also familiar and of interest to all. This is not a children’s book, even though it may be used with older children.
Both Jews and non—Jews will appreciate the characters populating the tales and their dilemmas, not so different from our own. The attitudes of the Talmudists, frequently displayed, will, I hope, afford the readers a closer glimpse and understanding of Jewish values, character and soul. Could it, perhaps, somewhat influence perceptions?
6. How do you think different readers might use the book? For example, children, teaches, librarians and the casual reader?
I hope the book will give hours of pleasurable reading to all. Teachers, youth leaders and librarians may use some of the tales as springboards for discussion. Some suggested questions for discussion are included in the volume.
7. The tone of the tales is lively and accessible; why did you choose this style over a more literary or didactic style?
I have retold the tales for our time, for the contemporary reader, and suitable for reading aloud. And yet, I was respectful of and, hopefully, preserved whenever possible, the linguistic flavor of the tales, the atmosphere, the culture, the environments, and, above all, the meaning, spirit and message of each tale. I will be pleased if they bring joy and pleasure to all readers.
Ms. Ben-Zvi, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and share your thoughts with my readers!