Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

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Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

Beta version

NN Theatre

Jewish fables and tales

In Yiddish there is a word majse, describing both a fairy tale, and a tale, a story. The same word in Hebrew (pronounced differently – maase) has a broader meaning and derives from verb asa – to act, to make, to create. This verb is used to describe the creation of the world by God. Therefore Hebrew word maase also means an event, a creation.

Jewish fables and tales
Jewish tale "A Sabbath Lion", illustration by Robert Sawa

Types of fables

The word majse ususally does not appear on its own. For instance – folks majse – a folk fable, wunder majse – a fairy tale, not unlike tsjober majse – a fable of supernatural powers and spells. There are kinder majses – fables for the children, szabes majses – Sabbath stories, awantur majses – adventure stories.

We also have bobe majse – literally it means a grandma tale, but in reality it describes nonsense, tall tales. There is also lign majse – a tale, which hides a fictional story under the guise of a real one.

There is also a great variety of facetious tales: witsik majsele, szpasik majsele, chochmele, sztuke, szpitsele. Sometimes a term chsidisze majse is used or – regarding Hassid stories (also known as sipurim), or others – mesojres (legends).

There is also majser szeoje – a true story. The classification of Jewish stories was made by the editor and publisher of many Jewish fable anthologies, Howard Schwartz, who distinguished four main categories. He also stressed that in the Jewish tradition – in fact: since the Biblical times – there had always been a dynamic relation between oral tales and their written accounts; fables were being written down, then told again to be written down once again later. Such was the case with the famous tales from Chełm, for instance – Menachem Kipnis asked his readers to send stories to the "Hajnt" paper he wrote for. He would publish them there, so that they came back to their tellers.

According to Schwartz we can distinguish:

1. Fairy tales
2. Folk fables
3. Supernatural stories
4. Mystical tales.

Each of these categories serves its own specific purpose.

Fairy tales are magical stories, folk fables depict the lives of common folk, often enriched with divine or magical intervention. Supernatural tales express fear of evil forces – such as dybbuks, demons (especially the widespread stories of demoness Lilith, reflecting male fears about a beautiful woman able to cast an evil spell). Mystical tales on the other hand show wondrous deeds of great people, usually prominent rabbis: rabbi Akiwa, the Seer from Lublin, or Ari (Izaak Luria). 

Ad 1. Jewish fairy tales, just like the fairy tales of other peoples, speak mostly of striving to reach a goal and overcoming many obstacles during that journey. Usually they have a happy ending, which cannot be said about other categories of Jewish tales. For instance in the tale "King – beggar" king Solomon, forced to travel on a gifted bread only, overcomes successive obstacles on the way to reclaiming his throne. In a Jewish fairy tale from India "A Golden Tree" a king goes on a search for a tree of his dreams.

In Jewish fairy tales there often is a distinctive mesh of magical and spiritual elements. King Solomon – the protagonist of a great many tales – owns a ring with an engraved unpronounceable Name of God (Tetragrammaton). By using the ring Solomon defeats the lord of demons, Asmodeus, performing many miracles on his way there. Therefore the power of king Solomon is limited to being able to speak the Name of God, while the miracles in fact are performed by God.

Ad 2. Folk fables. Actually about all the four categories distinguished by Howard Schwartz one could say they are the folk fables, although in a broad meaning of the term. Here it means a story which is neither a fairy tale nor a supernatural or mystical tale. Miracles happen in here too, although not in an enchanted world (as is with fairy tales), and are performed by wise men. For instance in a tale about a Pesach feast (seder) at rabbi Chaim Pinto's place "a magical goblet of wine" grows to an enormous size. In a tale "A Sabbath Lion" Queen Sabbath sends a lion to guard an abandoned boy who refused to travel on Sabbath (as it is forbidden).

A source of many tales is Talmud itself, as well as collections of midrashes and haggadahs (legends), constituting "fictionalised" commentaries to the Torah or filling the gaps in the Biblical narration. They are the basis or models for many versions created throughout the centuries until today.

Ad 3. Supernatural stories. They usually do not have happy endings, and tell of conflicts with evil and – often, but not always – invisible powers. They speak of the travelling souls of the dead, which sometimes appear as ghosts, other times possess people's bodies, usually these of women. They are the dybbuks, which have to exorcised, which can only be done by a rabbi knowing the proper ritual. Demons are waiting for people they could lead astray. Their lord is Satan, sometimes called Samael, other times: Lucifer. Sometimes it is said that demons are ruled by kind Asmodeus, whose wife is demoness Lilith.

The best known are various versions of a tale about a man (usually a goldsmith from Poznań), who married Lilith and lived with her in the basement of his house, simultaneously living with his real wife and children. After their deaths the house was taken over by demon offspring of Lilith, which various miracleworkers, with Joel from Zamość at the forefront, attempted to banish.

Lilith also appears in Hassid fables, where she lurks and waits for the most righteous of tzadiks. One of the stories, "A Woman from the Forest" speaks of something that happened to rabbi Elimelech from Leżajsk, when one day he wondered in a forest and strayed from his usual path. He saw a light between the trees, and when he came closer it turned out it was coming from a wooden house, in its window a young woman with long, black hair, and wearing a nightgown. She asked him to come in, and he did not refuse, as he thought it was about a favour of some kind. The woman asked him to sin with her, saying she is pure, so the sin would be slight. With these words, she loosed the gown. Elimelech fought against himself, and though the fight was not easy, he still managed to say "no". At once the house disappeared, and Elimelech was standing alone in an empty forest. There is no doubt that this holy man was being harassed by Lilith herself.

It must not be forgotten, that an overwhelming majority of tales about Lilith expressed the fears of men, but there are known stories of Lilith, which depict women who do not fear the demoness, or even take up a fight against her. Such is a story from Yemen, for instance, "A Hair in the Milk" – about a midwife who protected a newly born child from Lilith by catching her in a bottle. The motif of a wise and brave midwife is quite frequent in fables.

A great part of folk tales come from the written accounts of oral tales (compare Jewish art of storytelling), created by a group of Jewish folklore researchers (the so–called zamlers) – the ones who took part in the ethnographic expedition organised by Sz. An–ski, by collectors gathered around the JIWO (Jidiszer Wisnszaflecher Institut) in Vilnius in the 1920s and 30s, as well as by others acting individually, like Menachem Kipnis mentioned previously.

Ad. 4 Mystical tales are about exceptional characters –Talmudic sages, Kabbalists, and mystics, as well as tzadiks. In these stories they were attributed a wondrous power. Sometimes they act alone, other times they work in tandem with such characters as prophet Elijah – one of the most popular characters, the tales of whom would be enough to fill a sizeable book. Almost every one of those sages is like a successor of a miracleworker of old. And so Izrael Luria of Safed took after Szymon Bar Jochal, while Baal Szem Tow after Izrael Luria. Baal Szem Tow was in turn an inspiration for all Hassidic masters.

One of the most important motifs, present in many versions of mystical tales, is the thirty six righteous ones (lamed wow tsadikim), thanks to whom the world exists, and who exist in every generation. They are hidden, anonymous, they appear as common men, unrecognised by others.

In other mystical tales appears a motif of a golem created by a Praha rabbi and Kabbalist Maharal. The golem was made of clay and animated by a piece of paper with the Name of God written on it. In many versions of this tale the golem is created to protect the Jewish community from a real threat of a pogrom, but it rebels against his creator who has to destroy it.

What decides whether these are Jewish tales – fables? Or rather: in which elements should we seek the distinctive Jewish characteristics? A distinguished Jewish ethnologist Dov Noy established four such factors:

1. Time
2. Place
3. Characters
4. The message.

Ad 1. A Jewish tale takes place in the time defined by a Jewish calendar: one of the Jewish holidays is mentioned – Rosh Hashanah, Pesach, or Yom Kippur – or things happen on Sabbath.

Ad 2. The action takes place in either the Land of Israel, in a synagogue or Beth Midrash, a Jewish cemetery, in a Sukkot hut etc. The settings can be Jewish districts, or towns themselves, such as Chełm for instance.

Ad 3. The protagonist is one of Jewish Patriarchs, tzadiks, prophets, kings, or even a common man.

Ad 4. The message is usually a moral or teaching in some way connected to the ethics of Judaism and that – in Dova Noya's opinion – is the indispensable trait of any Jewish tale.

Of course there are many Jewish tales and stories of a more universal character, with no Jewish element to extract from them by Noya's key. Such is almost a half of the collection gathered in Israel Folktale Archives. The Jewishness of these tales – aside from the fact that they were gathered from Jewish sources or storytellers – is evidenced by the message. Sometimes in a single tale there are elements both Jewish and universal. Just like in the Jewish version of the Cinderella, "The banished Princess". A rebellious daughter of a king runs from home, gets lost in a forest and then is taken in by rabbi's wife as a servant. The princess in her regal garments is present at Jewish wedding receptions, but nobody recognizes her. Rabbi's son falls in love with her, ignorant of the fact that she is his parents' servants. The rabbi allows his son to marry this non-Jewish girl, without demanding her conversion to Judaism, which makes the tale improbable in a realistic Jewish context.

All Jewish tales are woven around mythological motifs constituting their foundation. They usually derive from Torah and one could distinguish ten basic categories.

1. Myths about God;
2. Myths about the Creation;
3. Myths about the Heavens;
4. Myths about Hell;
5. Myths about the Sacred Word;
6. Myths about the Sacred Time;
7. Myths about holy people;
8. Myths about the Holy Land;
9. Myths about the Banishment;
10. Myths about the Messiah.

There are tales, where we can find several myths, but there are also such ones, where one could find elements of any of the aforementioned ten. Such is for instance a mystical tale "A Vision at the Wailing Wall":

Rabbi Izrael Luria (known as holy Ari or holy lion) was gifted with an incredible mystic power. When he looked at the forehead of a person he could see what lay in that person's soul. He could also overhear the voices of angels. He could point to a stone in a wall and say whose soul in captured in it. On the first day of the new year he could also foresee who will be written down in the Book of Life and who will not.

He tried to not abuse his skills, although he once made an exception. Seeing rabbi Abraham Beruchim he said: "I know that it may be the last year of your life, but it can be changed if you do what I tell you to". As Beruchim express willingness to follow, Ari told him to go back home, fast for three days and nights, and repent. Then he should go to the Western Wall of the former Temple of Solomon, called the Wailing Wall, and pray there to his soul's contents. If Shekhinah (God's presence, female aspect of God) appears before him, he should live twenty two more years, but if she does not appear, then it means that Beruchim will have to die.

Rabi Beruchim did as he had been told, even more so, as after a three-day fast he went to Jerusalem on foot, even though he could have ridden a donkey. When he arrived at the Western Wall, he found a crowd of great many people, as it was a time between the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). With some trouble he found a place at the wall and started to pray fervently. He saw a woman in mourning, and when he stared into her eyes he felt sadness and grief so great that he had never felt before, as it was the pain of a mother who felt sympathy for her children in banishment. Rabi Abraham fainted and fell on the ground and experienced a second vision of Shekhinah. This time it was a beautiful woman in a wedding gown. She embraced him and whispered in his ear: "Do not worry, Abraham, my son. My banishment shall soon come to an end, and my legacy will not be for naught, as it is said: '"There is hope for your future," [..] "And your children will return to their own territory'" (Jr 31,17) Beruchim regained consciousness and rose light as a feather and returned to his hometown of Safed. When holy Ari saw him, he said: "You do not have to say anything, I can see by the halo around your head that you saw Shekhinah You shall live twenty two more years". And so he did.

In this story there are directly or indirectly present all categories of mystical Jewish motifs.

The God Myth – it is said that during the new year God makes an entry in the Book of Life or the Book of Death. In accordance with Kabbalistic doctrine, one of the authors of which was Ari, it is also said that God has a female aspect, Shekhinah.

The Creation Myth – present (indirectly) through Ari, as a creator of the concept of the world emanating from the Divine Being – some vessels holding God's light got broken, and the sparks of the light were held up in these vessels' remains. It is people's task to free these sparks to let them return to God.  

The Heavens Myth – in the heavens there are the Book of Life and the Book of Death, from which Ari could read, and which are mentioned in the tale. It is God who with black fire makes an entry on white fire.

The Hell Myth – it appears indirectly, as Beruchim is supposed to fast, wear a sackcloth and have ash on his head, as well as to show repentance for his sins. After death the soul repents in Gehinom (hell) and only after the cleansing it can experience paradise.

The Sacred Word Myth – as it was previously said, Ari could read from the most sacred of books – those of Life and Death, where entries are made by the Supreme.

The Sacred Time Myth – the events take place between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During that time God makes decisions regarding the life and death of every human and only then can this decree be changed.

The Holy Man Myth – it is represented here by rabbi Izrael Luria, the creator of the so–called Lurianic Kabbalah, which was in a way presented to him by prophet Elijah.

The Holy Land Myth – the action takes place in the two most sacred towns in the land of Israel – Safed and Jerusalem, while the most sacred of places is the Western Wall surviving the destruction of the Temple.

The Banishment Myth – Beruchim has a vision of Shekhinah, who like mother Rachel in the Book of Jeremiah mourns the children of Israel going on a Babylonian banishment. And just as in that vision she is comforted and reassured that the children will return from the banishment (compare above).

The Messiah Myth – Shekhinah speaks in the words of Jeremiah that the banishment will be over, and according to tradition it is the coming of the Messiah that ends the banishment.

These myths one can find in Jewish fables and stories, regardless of the place they were created – whether in Mid-Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, or in Africa (Maroko, Tunisia), or in the Middle East. It is so because they all take from the sacred book of Judaism – the Torah (the Bible), Talmud, midrashes (which were being created until late Middle Ages), or from later collections.

One can say with confidence, that they were not subject to evolution, but consistently, in various versions, repeated the same motifs. We also find them in the literature closer to modern times and that of the most recent years – both created by Jews and by non–Jews.

Fables sensu stricto

Fables in the strictest sense, according to the majority of accepted definitions, are stories, the protagonists of which are animals, plants, or inanimate objects, and they contain a moral, a teaching. These fables, just like other ones, also grew out of oral folklore. The researchers hold an opinion that Hebrew fables are among the oldest ones preserved in a written form, and they may date back to the 15th or 14th century BC, or even earlier.

Fables of this kind are described by a Hebrew word maszal – a parable, aphorism, allegorical story. We can find examples of them in the Torah (Hebrew Bible), eg. in Ez 17 3 – 12 we have an allegorical tale about two eagles, in II Sm 12 1 – 14 there is a parable of a rich man and a beggar, which Natan told to David. We can also find a tale in Judges 9, 8 – 15, it is a tale of how trees decided to elect a king from among them.

Of course a source of these fables is predominantly Talmud and midrash literature. As the two most distinguished storytellers Talmud nominates rabbi Hilel and Jochanan ben Zakaj. Jochanan specialised in tales of foxes, fables "from under a palm tree", but as the foremost storyteller remained rabbi Meir, who – as the tradition holds, probably with some exaggeration – knew three hundred tales of foxes which he would tell his students. It is worth stressing that the majority of fables from the Talmudic period is about foxes, and in the Great Midrash for Genesis (78, 7) we can read that it is the fox who tells the best stories.

In the opinion of Jehuda Lejb Gordon, a poet and expert on folklore, R. Meir's stories were in a way borrowed from Aesop, as R. Meir learned them thanks to his teacher Elisza ben Awui knowledgeable of Greek culture. Indeed many fables show similarities with those of Aesop, although in the Hebrew ones the moral is more clear and supported with a quote from the Scripture.

In Medieval literature we can find fables about animals too, for instance in the apocryphal Alphabet of Sirah we find an interesting story about a fox and Leviathan. In the 11th century there was a collection of rabejnu Nisim of Kairuan (currently in Tunisia) written in Arabic. It is known in Europe thanks to the Hebrew translation from 1519 – Maasijot sze baTalmud.

Foxes are the protagonists of one of the most popular collections, Miszlej Szualim, composed in the late 12th century by Berachia haNakdan. They allude to midrashes and Talmud. The fable quoted the most often is one about a fox and fish, and was supposedly taken from rabbi Akiwa. Certainly this collection exhibits similarities to Western European fables about foxes, especially Marie de France.

Miszlej Szualim were translated to Yiddish in the late 16th century and were often published, among others in Warsaw. They were also circulated in Latin, and some of them were translated to German by Gotthold Efraim Lessing himself (Abhandlung ueber die Fabel), there is also an English translation, Fables of a Jewish Aesop from 1967.

A Jewish Aesop was a name attributed, with some exaggeration, by Mojżesz Mendelson to maggid of Dubno, Jakow Kranc (compare Hassid fables), as it was noted that some of his stories were woven around Aesop's fables, such as "A Dog, Rooster, and Fox". However in Kranc's commentaries to the Chapters of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) there are fables about animals as well.

Aesopic tradition also includes Hebrew fables of Izaak haLevi of Satanów, whose Miszlej Asaf are similar in style to the Wisdom of Sirach. Szlojme Etinger of Zamość fashioned his Yiddish fables after German literature, predominantly after Lessing.

In the second half of the 19th century poet Jehuda Lejb Gordon published Miszlej Jehuda, which were first of all a translation of Jean de La Fontaine. In the 20th century translations and adaptations appeared, both Hebrew and Yiddish, of the fables by Aesop, Lessing, and Iwan Kryłow. The best known adaptations and translations to Hebrew came from Chananii Reichman. He also translated to Hebrew the most original fables to ever be created in Yiddish whose author was Elizer Sztejnbarg of Czerniowce (Meszolim).

An important publication was Jalkut Meszalim (1952), a collection of stories from one of the Jewish coryphei, Chofec Chaim (Izrael Meir haKohen), who included religious fables among them.  Three years later appeared a collection in Yiddish of 540 fables gathered from oral tradition by Naftali Gross, Majselech un Meszolim, although stories about animals constituted a minority (24).

In the largest collection of fables and tales – Israel Folktale Archive – there are not many stories about animals either (about 2%). They had basically disappeared from oral tradition, and they remain the most present in Talmudic and Midrash literature, as well as in the collections from the Middle Ages. 

Jewish fables and tales in literature and film

The best known author of tales woven around the motifs from Jewish fables and legends, creating within the limits of the Ashkenazi Jews, was Icchok Baszewis Singer. But before and next to him there were others still, for instance: Icchok Lejbusz Perec, Micha Josef Berdyczewski (Bin Gorion), Sz. An–ski, Elizer Sztejnbarg, Jechiel Jeszala Trunk, Icyk Manger.

Currently novels and movies are created, where motifs from Jewish tales appear. The one most frequently used is the legend of the thirty six righteous ones. It is hard to mention all of the examples, but I will at least address some of them:

Films: "Men in Black" by Barry Sonnenfeld, Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man", Werner Herzog's "Invincible", and "Time of the Wolf" by Michael Haneke. This motif also appears in Michael Chabon's novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Jodi Picoult's Keeping Faith, or The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne.

A character frequently used is the Golem, starting with the probably the best known of its incarnations, one by Gustav Meyrink. But even contemporary fantasy writers use that character, such as Andrzej Pilipiuk in Księżniczka [Princess], Terry Pratchett in his novels Feet of Clay or Going Postal, even Andrzej Sapkowski in Boży Bojownicy [Warriors of God] or Lux Perpetua. "Golem" motifs also appeared in two episodes of TV show X-Files"Kaddish" and "Arcadia".

written by Bella Szwarcman–Czarnota