Tales & Traditions

By Lifson, Amy | Humanities, March/April 2007 | Go to article overview

Tales & Traditions


Lifson, Amy, Humanities


IN ONE STORY, A KING TESTS THE worthiness of his daughter's suitors; in another, a mysterious bear befriends a poor man and makes him rich; and in a third, a group of World War I conscripts celebrate on the train taking them to the front. These stories, along with analyses, are among the 350 tales to be published in a six-volume series, Folktales of the Jews.

"Most religions are top down," says Ellen Frankel. "You have experts, scholars, rabbis, setting the laws. What I love about folklore is that it's bottom up. It's the people speaking their own experiences."

Frankel is editor in chief of the thirteen-year, NEH-supported project of the Jewish Publication Society. Since the first immigrants began arriving in Israel several decades ago, volunteers began recording and transcribing their folktales for the Israel Folklore Archive. So far, twenty thousand tales have been collected from far-flung communities in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia.

'Assembling the tales from different Jewish communities, and analyzing and commenting upon them, demonstrates the similarity between the traditions of Jewish communities and at the same time the distinctive features of the narrative repertoire of these traditions," says Dan Ben-Amos, series editor for Folktales of the jews. "Instead of tailoring the tales to a concept I might have had about the respective traditions, I let the narrators speak for themselves and include many of the tales which they told even if they did not conform to an image I might have had."

"Folktales of the Jews, represent the oral traditions that common people told," explains Ben-Amos. "By and large, the tales represent Jewish life and literature not in terms of their religiosity and piety, but as earthy secular lore."

The first volume, published last November, represents the Sephardic tradition and includes stories from Judeo-Spanish narrators. It was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award in the category of Sephardic culture. Below is a story from the tales of the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe, translated from Yiddish, to be published in July.

"THE HAPPY MAN"

TOLD BY ESTHER BERGNER KISH

At the start of World War I, some Galician Hasidim, who had been conscripted, were traveling to the front. They rode in third class. Even though they were on their way to the front, they sang and had a jolly time, because it was Hanukkah. Everyone who saw them thought they must be people without a care in the world.

A high-ranking officer was traveling in first class. He, too, was en route to the front. He heard the singing and the noise that the Hasidim were making and, knowing that they were headed for the front, went to their carriage, "Why are you so merry?" he asked. "Don't you know that you are going to the front to fight?"

The Hasidim told him the following story about the happy man.

Once there was a merchant who traveled with his clerk. They carried a chest full of money to buy merchandise in the city. While they were traveling through a thick forest, the chest disappeared. The clerk was very much distressed by the loss, but the merchant himself only laughed, They stopped for the night at an inn. The clerk, who was too upset to close his eyes, went back to the forest to search for the chest of money. At last he found it, and not a single penny was missing. …

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