Off the Shelf: Folktales and legends

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Humans are storytellers and the stories we tell give insight into our particular culture. We use stories to teach lessons to the younger generations or offer quiet criticism of the status quo, in addition to their being an entertaining way to pass the time. Whether we’re talking about Aesop’s fables with their explicit morals or Homer’s poetry about Greek heroes whose deeds inspire emulation, storytellers and lecturers seek to engage, educate and amuse us. Examples of these types of works can be found in “The Angel and the Cholent: Food Representation from the Israel Folktale Archives” by Idit Pintel-Ginsberg (Wayne State University Press) and “Filled With Fire and Light: Portraits and Legends from the Bible, Talmud, and Hasidic World” by Elie Wiesel (Schocken Books).

In “The Angel and the Cholent,” Pintel-Ginsburg analyzes 30 folktales from the Israel Folktale Archives collection that focus on food. She notes that food is “a cardinal presence in human life” and its presentation in these tales “reflects the customs, beliefs, and cultural perceptions” of the storyteller. Each tale is transcribed as it appears in the archive (although translated into English) and is followed by Pintel-Ginsburg’s analysis. The book is divided into five parts – for example, “Worldly Pleasure: Food and Taste,” “He Bought a Chicken for Her to Cook: Food and Gender” and “Fish in Honor of the Shabbat: Food and Sacred Time” – although many stories could belong in several sections.

The majority of the tales are only a few pages long and range from humorous to serious. There is a wonderful story about a man who eats at restaurants when his wife is out of town and one day has a strange request. In another, a rich man takes a poor man to court to make him pay for enjoying the smell of his food. An interesting comparison is made between Christians and Jews in their religiously segregated hells that shows the Christians in a far better light than the Jews. Another tells of a rich man who wants to try a poor man’s fare, that is, until he really learns what that means. A serious story concerns a blood libel against the Jews of a town in Russia, which, fortunately, ends on a positive note. No one seems exempt from criticism: the rich, the poor, men, women and religious leaders.

Some of the commentary Pintel-Ginsburg offers about the stories came as a surprise: the majority of the tales are actually a critique of the storytellers’ family or community. At first, it seemed as if the interpretations were going far behind the tales’ meaning, but her analysis does work. For example, Pintel-Ginsburg sees the story about the man who was forced to eat in restaurants while his wife traveled as critical of her leaving her husband and therefore not performing her wifely duties. Many of the stories contain thinly veiled complaints about Jewish society, particularly those that criticize the rich for not helping their poorer brethren, although boorish behavior on the part of the poor is also criticized. The differences between the generations – that of traditional parents and their more secular children – are also found in several stories. 

Pintel-Ginsburg notes the many variations of these tales, in both Jewish and other cultures. While the tropes may be the same in several cultures, Jewish storytellers do put a unique spin on some of them. While the commentary is interesting, it’s also possible to enjoy the stories on their own. However, as the author writes in her epilogue, “this book enables one to discern the common themes that have preoccupied Jewish culture for centuries. Prominent is the existential need to maintain identity, whether personal or gender, as well as collective identity as a minority group struggling to survive.” According to Pintel-Ginsburg, these tales also clearly show the Jews’ “deep fear of annihilation,” both cultural and physical annihilation, which makes sense since many of these stories come from a Europe where Jews suffered “forced religious conversion, expulsion, and persecution, horrifically culminating in the Holocaust.”

While the writing in “The Angel and the Cholent” is dry as befitting a scholarly work, the legends in “Filled With Fire and Light” are recounted in far more dramatic tones. The essays were originally lectures and offer insights into biblical figures (the prophet Elisha, King Josiah and the portrayal of God in the first five books of the Bible); several stories of talmudic rabbis, along with a rabbinic look at Satan; and tales of Chasidic rabbis. 

Wiesel notes that the Torah does not always answer the questions that contemporary readers ask of it, but suggests the real reason one should study these texts is “to create through learning a community from which it is possible to draw, as from an inexhaustible fountain, a joy that is exhilarating and pure. One studies these texts not out of a desire to please or conquer but to better understand things that both elude and envelop our being in an endless quest for transcendence.” That means Wiesel doesn’t question the miracles that take place in the tales he discusses, including those of the more modern Chasidic rabbis, which will strike some readers as more legend than reality.

However, the lectures are powerfully written. For example, Wiesel writes vividly about the unlikely friendship of two talmudic rabbis, Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish. The story of an almost saintly rabbi and a Jewish bandit who becomes a scholar shows how close the two men became and how one comment can destroy lives. Wiesel’s essay about God in the Torah allows him to come to questioning what occurred during the Holocaust, but, even though he had been in a concentration camp, Wiesel can’t condemn God. That means that piece ends on a positive, although extremely sad note. The essay “Satan in Ancient Memories” is an excellent look at Jewish ideas about Satan and shows how his place in Judaism differs from that in Christianity. Wiesel also portrays those who cruelly attack Jews as the true followers of Satan.

The difference in tone between “The Angel and the Cholent” and “Filled With Fire and Light” shows the varying approaches of non-fiction Jewish works. “The Angel and the Cholent” qualifies as the more scholarly because the author takes a dispassionate look at the stories. “Filled With Fire and Light” is a more religious work; while some parts offer objective takes on the text, that cannot be said for the majority of the book. These are not complaints about either work since each is attempting to do something completely different, and each succeeds in its own way.