Jewish Identity Kept Alive by Storytelling

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A BRIDGE OF LONGING: THE LOST ART OF YIDDISH STORYTELLING By David G. Roskies Harvard University Press 419 pp., $37.50 THE EARTH IS THE LORD'S: THE INNER WORLD OF THE JEW IN EASTERN EUROPE By Abraham Joshua Heschel Jewish Lights Publishing 109 pp., $12.95 A PASSION FOR TRUTH By Abraham Joshua Heschel Jewish Lights Publishing 336 pp., $18.95 In the chronicles of the ancient kings of Israel, it is written that workmen restoring the Temple one day discovered a lost volume of the scriptures. The scribes brought the scroll to King Josiah. "And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the Law, that he rent his clothes." The king cried out: "Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according to all that which is written concerning us." (II Kings, 22: 11, 13). David Roskies, professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, cites this story at the beginning of his survey of Yiddish storytelling, arguing that modern Jews are "the People of the Lost Book." Indeed, although the Jews of Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine no longer exist as a living culture, their world continues in a tradition of fables and humorous tales. Generations of Jewish artists used Yiddish, the universal language of European Jewry, to record folk tales and legends and to create new myths. Through these written tales, the vanished world of the European Jews is preserved. Professor Roskies's account, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling, begins with Reb Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810). One day, in the summer of 1806, the Rabbi announced, "The time has come for me to begin telling stories." The worsening social and economic status of Jews in the "Pale of Settlement," the area of Russia where the Jews were allowed to live, combined with the internal squabbles and controversies among the feuding rabbis, made it impossible to speak openly. Only through parables could the truth be revealed. From this simple beginning emerged a remarkable tradition, extending into our century. Written in a richly idiomatic language, these stories were accessible in every country, from the Pale to Palestine. Roskies accompanies many of his translated excerpts with a generous selection of irresistible quotes, transliterated for the reader. A character in one of I.M. Dik's tales is described as "a sly bird, strong and hearty, a hard drinker, a first-class boor, and not much of a Jew to boot." It is easy to see how these tales, read aloud in laughter from the local paper in Warsaw, London, or New York, created a shared folklore for the dispossessed. From this wondrous, imaginative response to the sorrows of persecution and exile, one is led naturally to consider the magical world of Hasidism. …