The pursuit of happy endings

While some of the tales in this book are uniquely Jewish, others are versions of popular legends.

leaves book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
leaves book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Leaves from the Garden of Eden By Howard Schwartz Oxford University Press 525 pages; $34.95 In the title story of this compendium, an orphaned stable boy named Hayim dies and later appears to his former employer, Shepsel, in a dream. Hayim promises to bring leaves from Eden that can cure any illness. Shepsel awakens to find the fragrant leaves scattered on his bed. He boils them with water and takes the tea to his ailing daughter, who is miraculously healed. Soon she marries and bears a son she names Hayim. Like the other folktales gathered here by Howard Schwartz, Leaves has universal Cinderella elements of magical miracles that confer happily-ever-after status on those who deserve it and despair of it. "Most Jewish folktales follow the recognizable models of world folklore," Schwartz writes. A National Jewish Book Award winner and editor of four previous collections of Jewish lore, Schwartz divides this volume into fairy tales, folktales, supernatural tales and mystical tales. He assigns deep cultural significance to these often formulaic yarns about princesses, kabbalists, dybbuks and wise peasants. "The stories people tell not only serve as bearers of their tradition but also reveal a great deal about them, especially their fantasies and fears," he writes. What sets them apart from the Brothers Grimm and makes them "Jewish" are their setting in time and place (Shabbat or Pessah, for example, in a synagogue or the mystical city of Safed), characters (patriarch, prophet, Israelite king, noted rabbi or simple Jew) or instructional message in keeping with Jewish teachings. Some of the fairy-tale story lines are versions of popular legends, Judaicized through the use of Jewish characters and infused with Jewish family values. These stories often conclude not with the wedding of the prince and princess but with the birth of their first child. The rabbi's daughter Kohava, who falls into a coma when a jealous queen steals her magic necklace and is saved by the handsome prince? Sleeping Beauty. The long-haired daughter of King Solomon sent to live in a tower to prove that nothing can thwart God's matchmaking efforts? Rapunzel, of course. The Turkish tale of a tiny girl sent by the prophet Elijah to brighten the life of a poor widow? Thumbelina, no doubt. And the mountain full of gold treasure, accessible only to a penniless yingele with a magic oud? Clearly Aladdin. Yet many others are uniquely Jewish. "The Enchanted Journey" stars Rabbi Adam, who causes a gentile king to have a vision that transforms him into a great protector of his Jewish subjects. "The Sabbath Lion" is a version of the well-known "Yosef Mokir Shabbat" about a pious youngster whose refusal to desecrate Shabbat is rewarded with the companionship of a kindly lion during an arduous journey. Supernatural tales featuring the demon Lilith and mystical tales about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai draw on Talmudic sources. Some of the stories reveal subtleties of the eras in which they arose. "The Homunculus of Maimonides," for example, casts the staunch rationalist in an unlikely role reminiscent of the Maharal of Prague or Dr. Frankenstein. Schwartz notes that although folktales "are not the usual mode of expression for... religious conflict," this one "must be considered to be a folk expression of the controversy that raged at several periods... over the writings and teachings of Maimonides." Beyond the obvious and hidden worth of each individual story, there is much to be said for Schwartz's preservation and presentation of the corpus. For one thing, the stories reflect the great breadth of the exilic experience. They have origins as old as fifth-century Babylon and hail from 22 lands, although the majority can be traced to 19th-century Eastern Europe. Poignantly, too, they illustrate how a persecuted people maintained hope for happy endings through millennia of darkness. Jewish folklore was transmitted mainly orally until the last century, when Jewish ethnologists such as S. Ansky and Dov Noy, head of the Israel Folktale Archives, began methodically cataloguing the stories. Schwartz has built admirably upon their efforts. Regrettably, the work is marred by a number of typos and errors that should have been caught in production. For instance, in "A Palace of Bird Beaks," "hoopoe" is misspelled three times as "hoopee." And although not technically a mistake, the use of the term "Palestine" as a source for several early legends carries a faintly political connotation and results in the absence of "Israel" - even "ancient Israel" - as a category in the countries-of-origin appendix. The book's greatest assets are its "Sources and Commentaries" section and its appendices. The stories are explained and categorized by source (for example, the midrash), by "cycle" (for instance, stories about Abraham or the Kotzker Rebbe), by country of origin and by specialized tale types (ghost stories, journey sagas). Looking for tales about demon marriages or angel encounters, magic spells or epic quests? They're all right here, and then some.