Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folktales of the Jews, Volume III: Tales from Arab Lands

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folktales of the Jews, Volume III: Tales from Arab Lands

Article excerpt

Folktales of the Jews, Volume III: Tales from Arab Lands. Edited by Dan Ben-Amos. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011. Pp. xxviii + 844, map, foreword, acknowledgments, introduction, note on commentaries, illustrations, narrator and collector biographies, bibliography, motif and tale type indexes, general index. $75.00 cloth.)

The most significant aspect of this book (and the other volumes in the projected five-volume series, Folktales of the Jews), is that all the tale texts come directly from oral tradition rather than written sources. This fact makes a powerful statement about the continuity of oral narrative in Jewish societies. Thanks to a project begun in the mid-1950s by Professor Dov Noy, the founder of modern folklore studies in Israel, some 25,000 narratives have been recorded and placed in the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) at the University of Haifa to date. The tales comprising Folktales of the Jews come exclusively from the IFA, in contrast to most previous collections which, with notable exceptions, were anthologized from written sources, especially the Talmudic-Midrashic literature.

The stories in Tales from Arab Lands are entertaining, engaging, and evocative of Jewish worlds different from those in the United States, Europe, and modern Israel. To help unpack their meaning the book contains what for me is the most impressive and enlightening aspect of this work, its "apparatus": i.e., the commentary, notes, bibliography, and especially the short biographies of narrators and collectors. I found these brief life stories to be among the chief delights of the book, even though they were not intended as stories but as contextual information. In Israel the social distance between collector and narrator is often not as great as in many folklore collecting contexts because a lot of the collecting, especially in the early days, was done by enthusiast collectors who were new immigrants themselves, even if of a different ethnicity than their informants, and perhaps saw folktale collecting as one of the ways they could contribute to building a new society. Folktales of the Jews, which I believe will become the classic work on Jewish folktales, stands on the work of these collectors and performers.

There was, however, a two-fold language problem with the early years of collecting. First, collectors did not always speak the native language of the immigrant performer, which, in the case of the tales in this volume, was Arabic or Judeo-Arabic. Thus, simplified texts in Hebrew, the immigrants' newly learned language, were obtained rather than the fluent, poetic and fuller texts in the Arabic in which they had been told for generations. Second, one of the main motivations for collecting folktales in the 1950s and '60s was to adapt them as simple Hebrew texts that would engage new immigrants learning Hebrew -an applied folklore project, using folklore to solve a social problem, the integration of immigrants into a new society via the acquisition of language skill. …

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