Jewish Folktales and Double CrossingThe Characteristics of Jewish Folktales
Sources of Jewish Folktales
Humor in Jewish Folktales
The Tales of Chelm
Just Published: Cursing Columbus,
the exciting sequel to Double Crossing!
In my story Double Crossing, Raizel loves to tell the stories she learned from Bobbe, her grandmother. These stories are folktales, passed down from one generation to another with personal changes made by each teller. Today, with the popularity of books, television, and computers, few people take the time to tell each other folktales. Instead, we open a book to read a folktale. This is what I did to find the folktales I used in Double Crossing.
Every culture of the world has its own folktales. Many stories told by one culture are similar to those of another. Some of the stories Raizel told may sound familiar to you. The story about the bear eating the children in Chapter Seven is a variation of the Grimm Brother’s tale “The Wolf and the Seven Kids.” You can read the Grimm’s version at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm005.html.
What characterizes a Jewish folktale?
1. Time – The story is often connected with a Jewish holiday like the Sabbath or New Years, or an event that occurs during the life of a Jewish person, such as a Bar Mitzvah or wedding celebration. In chapter one, Raizel tells a story about the River Sambatyon which hinges on the commandment to honor the Sabbath.
2. Place – Many stories are set in a place associated with Judaism, like a synagogue or Israel. In Chapter Nineteen, Papa tells a brief story of the Baal Shem Tov (a rabbi who lived in the 16th century and founded the Hassidic Movement) who was prevented from entering the Holy Land, the land of Israel.
3. Characters - Many of the characters are rabbis, or historical figures from the Bible or later periods. The most popular Jewish folk hero is Elijah the Prophet who acts as a magic helper assisting people in trouble. (For a modern story featuring Elijah, see Miriam Bat Ami’s Dear Elijah: A Passover Story.) In the story in chapter five of Double Crossing, a rabbi discovers how to get rid of the mischievous goblin by throwing his prayer book at him, which demonstrates the power of the holy words.
4. Message – Unlike many folktales, whose sole purpose is to provide enjoyment for the listener, Jewish folktales try to teach a lesson about life and the listener’s duty to God, family, and community. In the Jewish tradition, storytelling was often used to instruct students.
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Sources of Jewish Folktales
Although the Bible does not contain folktales, it does contain common folktale motifs found throughout the world. The magic staff of Moses turns into a snake and discovers water in the desert. Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish and survives, while Balaam’s ass can speak. In a later period, heroes from the Bible came to feature in folktales.
After the Bible was completed, Jewish rabbis and scholars added a second body of laws called the Mishna. The laws of the Mishna were in turn interpreted in the Talmud. For centuries, hundreds of learned rabbis worked on these books. Included in the Talmud alongside a legal explication of the laws of the Mishna is the Agadah, a collection of stories used to help interpret and explain the law. The stories of the Agadah (“agadah” means “story” in Hebrew) grew out of Jewish folklore and are an important source of Jewish folktales. A great variety of stories are also found in the Midrash collected over the centuries to help interpret Jewish law.
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During the Middle Ages, Jews both created their own stories and adapted those of the cultures they lived in. Because they often traveled as merchants and traders, they were instrumental in bring the tales of Asia into European folklore. With the invention of printing, compilations of folktales began to appear in Yiddish. The Hasidic movement in the 18th century contributed a unique body of stories about wonder-working rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov. Although Raizel naturally tells stories that originated among the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe, there is also a large body of Sephardic folktales.
Laughter Through Tears: Humor in Jewish Folktales
Jews have been a persecuted minority for thousands of years. How did a people who have suffered so much develop a tradition of humor? There are many theories on the origins of Jewish humor:
- The Bible contains instances of satire and irony, particularly in the writings of the Prophets
- The system of intellectual reasoning developed in the Talmud can become humorous when taken to an extreme, and lends itself to satire. This reminds me of a story.
- The isolated, insulated Jewish communities of Europe fostered an egalitarian tradition that permitted the mocking of the rich and powerful and the use of humor as self-criticism. At weddings, a man called a “badchen” acted like a jester to poke fun at everyone. (In Jane Yolen’s novel The Devil’s Arithmetic, the badchen at the wedding is both jester and prophet).
- The huge discrepancy between the hardships of everyday life and the distant promise of an ideal world to be ushered in with the coming of the Messiah created a sense of irony.
As I read these and other more complicated explanations, it seems to me that they all ignore the most obvious answer: it is easier to bear hardship and suffering if you find something to laugh at. As hard as it may be to believe, there was even humor in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. This humor acted as a defense mechanism that helped people cope with unimaginable suffering. For examples, see http://www.holocaust-trc.org/holocaust_humor.htm.
The Tales of Chelm
Chelm is a real city located in Eastern Poland, but in Jewish folklore it is a mythological village of fools, a type of story sometimes called “noodleheads” in folktale classification. The people of Chelm fail at everything they set out to do. Sometimes they use logical reasoning, but somehow arrive at the wrong answer. At other times, they take a simple problem and try to solve it using a complicated solution that turns out all wrong. The humor of many of these tales lies in the fact that while the actions of the characters appear to be logical, they are really harmless nonsense. The people who live in the mythological Chelm are all stock character types such as a rabbi, a sage, or just a man. Even when they are given a name, like “Zelig” in the story Raizel tells to Papa in Chapter 6 of Double Crossing, they have no special traits that differentiate them from the other characters and make them realistic. Chelm tales are characterized by the absence of evil: nothing really bad seems to happen in Chelm and there are no evil people, only foolish ones. For an interesting discussion of this type of tale in world folklore plus sources of contemporary retellings, see http://www.eldrbarry.net/roos/books/nood.htm.
Here are a few examples of some of my favorite Chelm stories, slightly adapted from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, edited by Nathan Ausubel  New York: Crown, 1963:
The rabbi of Chelm and one of his students were spending the night at the inn. The student asked the inn servant to wake him at dawn because he had to take an early train. Not wishing to wake the rabbi, the student groped in the dark for his clothes and, in his haste, put on the long black clothes of the rabbi. He hurried to the station, entered the train, and was struck dumb with amazement as he looked at himself in the compartment mirror.
“What an idiot that servant was!” he cried angrily. “I asked him to wake me, and instead he went and woke the rabbi!” (page 326)
A Sage of Chelm went bathing in the lake and almost drowned. When he raised an outcry, other swimmers come to his rescue. As he was helped out of the water he took a solemn oath: “I swear never to go into the water again until I learn how to swim!” (page 333)
Excavation in Chelm
The citizens of Chelm were digging a foundation for a new synagogue when one of them suddenly paused in his labors, rested on his spade, and began stroking his beard. “What are we going to do,” he asked of no one in particular, “with all this earth we’re digging up?”
“I never though of that,” said another. “What, indeed, are we going to do with it?”
“Ah, I know,” the first went on, “we will make a pit, and into it we’ll put all this earth we’re digging up for our synagogue.”
“But wait a minute,” said the other, “that doesn’t solve it at all! What will we do with the earth from the pit?”
“I’ll tell you what,” said the first, “we’ll dig another pit, twice as big as the first, and into it we’ll shovel all the earth we’re digging now, and all the earth from the first pit!”
Then both went back to their digging. (Page 338)
You can find a few Chelm tales on-line:
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Now for dessert, this story, found on page 4 of A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, illustrates how Talmudic reasoning taken to the extreme can create humor:
The old rabbi had left the room for a moment, then returned to his studies, only to find his eyeglasses missing. Perhaps they were between the leaves of his book? No . . . Maybe there were somewhere on the desk? No . . . Surely they were in the room. No . . . So, in the ancient sing-song, with many a gesture appropriate to Talmudic disputation, he began:
“Where are my glasses? . . .
“Let us assume they were taken by someone. They were taken either by someone who needs glasses, or by someone who doesn’t need glasses. If it was someone who needs glasses, he has glasses; and if it was someone who doesn’t need glasses, then why should he take them?
“Very well. Suppose we assume they were taken by someone who planned to sell them for gain. Either he sells them to one who needs glasses, or to one who doesn’t need glasses. But one who needs glasses has glasses, and one who doesn’t need them, surely doesn’t want to buy them . . . So much for that.
“Therefore . . . this is a problem involving one who needs glasses and has glasses, one who either took someone else’s because he lost his own, or who absentmindedly pushed his own up from his nose to his forehead and promptly forgot all about them!
“For instance . . . me!” And, with a triumphant sweep of thumb to forehead, signalizing the end of his analysis, the rabbi recovered his property.
“Praised be the Lord, I am trained in our ancient manner of reasoning,” he murmured. “Otherwise I would never have found them!” [ellipses in original]
My novel Double Crossing weaves Jewish folktales into the suspensful narrative of a young girl's immigration to America. To get a sense of how folktales were once part of daily life, read more about Double Crossing.
For a bibliography of books of Jewish folktales, visit the
Organization of Jewish Libraries.