A Treasure Trove of Tales Collection Introduces Folklore to Modern Readers

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GABRIEL'S PLACE Jewish Mystical Tales Selected and retold by Howard Schwartz 414 pages, Oxford, $27.50

SOME CLASSICS, like Thoreau's "Walden" or Dickinson's poems, evolve only after a little aging or the discovery of an unpublished manuscript. Others, like "Gone With the Wind" or Haley's "Roots," strike immediate and lasting public acclaim.

"Gabriel's Palace" by Howard Schwartz may lie somewhere in between. It is a collection of 150 tales drawn from the long traditions of Jewish mysticism and retold by Schwartz in an incomparably beautiful style for modern readers. Those who have known Schwartz, a professor of English literature at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, might have foreseen his production of this major work. He has, after all, written or edited nearly a score of books including many unique collections of Jewish folklore.

Several elements marking "Gabriel's Palace" as a classic are its timelessness and its universal appeal. The stories have been painstakingly researched, collected and retold in four groups dating from the fifth century to our time. Some have existed in the oral tradition. Others have been taken from sources scattered over at least three continents. (I counted 12 countries of origin, not including the United States.)

The stories are both sacred and secular in theme, and are arranged in sections of rabbinic and Kabbalistic tales, mystical folktales and Hasidic tales. As Schwartz describes them in his introduction, they "cover a range of mystical experiences, virtually all presented as true accounts, not only of mystical union but of visions, dreams, soul travel, encounters with angels and demons, possession by both good and evil spirits, miracles, and experiences out of body and out of time. …