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Showing posts with label Jewish Folktales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jewish Folktales. Show all posts


Letter on the Wind: A Chanukah Tale (2007)

Retold by Sarah Marwil Lamstein

Illustrated by Neil Waldmen

Pran watercolors and Micron archival inking pens on Arches cold-pressed watercolor paper

Boyds Mills Press

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah... not to mention the night before Thanksgiving and my son's birthday. There was some snow in the wind on the walk home from the train station, but it became mere rain - cold rain - as I finally approached our house.

I have several books on Purim reviewed on this blog, but none on Chanukah. I am trying to remedy that oversight. This story is a based on "A Letter to the Almighty," the author informs us, which was collected in the book Folktales of Israel published in 1963, edited by Dov Noy. But she doesn't stop there. "Meir Amrusi recorded the original tale," she continues, "as told by his Tunisian-born father."

It's been around for a long while.

Something which struck me as similiar to this as many of the other Jewish folktales I've reviewed on this blog, is that God does not make an appearance, nor is there anything supernatural about the proceedings. It all hinges on a grand misunderstanding. Hayim, the poorest man in his village, writes a letter to God, asking him to please provide the oil necessary for Chanukah, lest the entire village goes without their holiday for the season. The letter is carried off by the wind, and lands in the hands of Ger Yehudah, a wealthy merchant, who assumes the letter is from God... You see how these things happen.

The faith in God is what is important, to be a man of faith is what is most praised. The story charts the lives of both men, strangers to each other, and their eventual meeting, which is moving for both of them.

Perhaps  I was wrong when I said there was nothing supernatural:

From that time on in the village, there was never a year without Chanukah. The rain was a friend, the olive trees blossomed, and there was oil enough to light the menorahs.


Mazel and Shlimazel (1967)

Written by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Illustrated by Margot Zemach

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

In a faraway land, on a sunny spring day, the sky was as blue as the sea, and the sea was as blue as they sky, and the earth was green and in love with them both.

This kind of prose always comes as a surprise when I pick up a picture book, a genre in which words are typically chosen for their conciseness. I had assumed - incorrectly - that Margot Zemach was simply adapting an Isaac Bashevis Singer story as a picture book. It didn't occur to me that the Nobel Prize winning author of Enemies, a Love Story and Yentil the Yeshiva Boy was equally well-regarded for his contribution to children's literature, and that he actually wrote picture books.

As far as I can tell, this story springs entirely from Singer's imagination, but it certainly reads like a classic folktale from long ago, beginning with one of my favorite folksy motifs: the wager.

Mazel and Shlimazel - which sounds like something Laverne and Shirley would chant on their way to work - are the names of two spirits, walking unseen through the world of humans, one representing good luck, the other bad luck, and of course they get to arguing about who is more powerful. They decide to test their powers on a young, poor boy.

"What can take you a year to accomplish, I can destroy in one second," boasts Schlimazel.

Mazel, on the other hand, has a full year - an entire year! - to use all of his powers of good luck to turn a poor boy into a great man with riches, with power, with a beautiful princess by his side, the whole deal. Page after page, Singer details all of the great, lucky things which happens to this boy, one triumph begets another, and another, on and on. "Cards and minstrels sand of his deeds. High officials came to him for advice." It seems he could not possibly be more assured of his fortune.

But then, after the lucky year is up, Schlimazel is given exactly one second to destroy absolutely all of it, which he does in an extremely clever and effective manner. I'll leave it to you to find the book and see how he does it.

A part of me kind of wishes that had been the end of the book, that it had ended on such a clever punch line, but it continues on toward a happy ending, in which all is not lost and Mazel is shown to be in the right. Ah well. I kind of wanted Mazel to be taken down a few pegs. I admired Schlimazel's craftiness more than Mazel's altruism.


It Could Always be Worse (1976)

Retold and Illustrated by Margot Zemach

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This is a funny one, reads just like a well-told, well-timed joke, building and building until the release of the perfect punchline.

I suppose the subtitle, "A Yiddish Folktale," should have clued me in, but nonetheless, I did not at first realize that this was meant to be a humorous tale. I really thought I was going to be reading an overwrought tale of the suffering of a large Jewish family. The pages are filled with wonderful - yet garish - details, fighting, arguing, bare-bottomed babies toppling bowls. The patriarch of the chaotic family is only ever referred to as a "poor, unfortunate man." He does the only thing he knows to do - go to the rabbi and plead for some holy advice. So far, so desolate.

However, the rabbi's advice is rather peculiar. His solution to the overcrowding seems to be inviting the chickens to live in the house as well!

This does not at first appear to be the best idea in the world. In fact, as one would predict it only adds to the mayhem, and Zemach's chaotic illustrations add to this.

Three times the poor, unfortunate man comes to the rabbi, and three times the rabbi's advice is the same, adding more and more farm animals to the melee.


"Now with the crying and quarreling, with the honking, clucking,
and crowing, there are feathers in the soup! Rabbi, it couldn't be worse!"
"Tell me, do you happen to have a goat?"


And now with goats.


And now with cows.

Finally, exasperated, on the verge of a mental breakdown, the man once again journeys to the rabbi, imploring with him for some solution, any solution, the barest tidbit of halfway decent advice, anything! "The end of the world has come!" he in fact shrieks.

As you may perhaps have been able to predict, the Rabbi, in his esteemed wisdom, now commands his devoted follower to release the animals back outside. To this, the poor unfortunate man is only too eager to comply.

"Holy Rabbi, you have made life sweet for me.
It's so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful... What a pleasure!"

 Cue drumroll and cymbal clash. The subtitle of the book is, "A Yiddish folk tale," but I didn't find any more information on the history or age of this particular tale, or how it came to become a part of Margot Zemach's storytelling arsenal, but it seems a real natural story to be adapted visually. Every page is filled with movement and a hundred details, with the final image of the snoozing, slumbering household one of satisfying tranquility.


The Way Meat Loves Salt (1998)

Retold by Nina Jaffe

Illustrated by Louise August

Linocuts painted in full-color oils on rice paper

Henry Holt and Company

"A Cinderella Tale from the Jewish tradition," reads the subtitle of this one. Having already featured Raisel's Riddle and interviewed its author, I figured I was an old hat when it came to Jewish Cinderellas. Well, shows what I know. In fact, I would say that this was more of a Jewish inversion of the Cinderella story.

Some aspects run parallel. The Fairy Godmother is here the bearded Prophet Elijah. The fancy dress ball is a wedding feast in Cracow, and the prince is the handsome son of Rabbi Yitskhok ben Levi of Lublin, with whom our Cinderella is living at the time. Her name is Mireleh, by the way. And how did she come to be destitute, living a life in the margins of society, a poor beggar girl given shelter in the attic of a kindly Rabbi? Well, it is a family tragedy. I can hardly bear to write it down.

You see, not long ago, Mireleh had been the youngest, carefree daughter of a rabbi herself. Even though she had no special gifts, her father held a special place in his heart for her. But then, one dark day, Rabbi Reyzeleh was besieged by a quandary for which not even the Talmud held an answer.

"I know that I love my children," he said to himself, little realizing the horror his line of thinking would soon inflict. "But how much do they love me?"

He decides, in a moment of insight, to actually ask his daughters! A cunning plan, which seems at first to work perfectly:

"As much as diamonds!" answers the first daughter.

"As much as gold and silver!" is the second reply.

But finally, young Mireleh goes and screws things up royally with this enigmatic response:

"Father, I love you the way meat loves salt."

"What?!!" he shrieks. "You love me no more than salt??"

And for this, Mireleh is banished from the house, in shame and in disgrace.

Fortunately, Old Prophet Elijah is on hand with a Magic Stick that will grant her wishes, as a consolation.

So, that's the beginning of the story. Now, into the Cinderella-ness of it. Armed with the magic stick, Mireleh produces for herself, "a dress of satin, embroidered with pearls! A garland of roses for my hair and a pair of satin slippers for my feet!" Then: ZAP! She appears at the wedding feast, and everyone is shocked to see this beautiful stranger, especially the bride and groom who are just trying to get married.

Well, it pays off. The rabbi's son is stricken with love, little realizing that Mireleh is the very same beggar girl he was looking down on just two pages ago! That's what I meant by an inversion. In this story, the handsome prince and the wicked stepsisters are one in the same.

And here's another inversion: The rabbi's son then goes out and decides it would be a good idea to cover the front steps of the house with tar. Why? So that he can hide and wait for the beautiful stranger to leave. When one of her shoes gets stuck in the tar, she runs off without it. All a part of his plan, you see.

Now he goes around, trying the shoes of the lovely Jewish maidens in the village, promising his parents that he will marry whomever the errant shoe belongs to. But when he realizes it belongs to the beggar girl under his own roof, what is he to do? Follow his heart?

"You came to us a poor beggar, covered with mud and dust. We let you stay here for tsedokeh!"
Eh, sort of.

That night, the disembodied spirit of Prophet Elijah appears to the rabbi: "Your son must keep his vow and promise, or misfortune will follow!"

Yikes! I don't recall Cinderella's godmother making such a threat!

"Your son must keep his vow and promise, or misfortune will follow!"

So, it should come as no surprise then that indeed, he does marry Mireleh. A large wedding feast is planned! But, before it starts, Mireleh runs to the cooks and instructs, "Don't put any salt in the food!"

Later, during the ceremony, who is that old man, retching at disgust at the food which is offered? "This food tastes terrible! It has no salt!"

"But, Father, don't you remember? I told you I love you the way meat loves salt and you drove me from your house!"

"You spoke only words of truth to me!" he exclaims, and they are united.

So the next time someone asks you how much you love them, don't use any of your cute metaphors, oy vey!


The King's Fountain (1971)

Written by Lloyd Alexander

Illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats

Acrylics on canvas

E.P. Dutton and Co

What a great find this one was, buried amongst the stack of picture books at my local library. Two enormous talents: Lloyd Alexander of the Prydain Chronicles, and Ezra Jack Keats, who is most well-known for his series of books about Peter the young child. Who knew they ever collaborated on a children's picture book together? Not I.

I found it in the folklore section - where I find most of my books - but I'm not certain if this is a retelling of an old story, or something original which sprung from the minds of these two men. The only clue I got was in the afterword, in which Alexander is quoted as saying, "I wanted to explore ideas of personal responsibility and of people discovering in themselves resources they never suspected. The best way seemed to be though the form and flavor of the Hebrew parables or ancient Sufi teaching-stories."

It definitely has the flavor of an ancient parable. The story concerns a magnificent fountain which the king will be installing in his garden. However, should the fountain become operational, all water to the city will be stopped. The hero is a poor man with a long hasidic beard, sitting in a wonderful Keats' barren room (he really does paint the most gorgeous barren rooms), full of ugly splotches and dark shadows. "Soon our children will cry for water, our animals will sicken, and all of us will die of thirst," he moans.

"A man of highest learning must go to the King, speak to him out of wisdom, and show him the folly of his plan," says his wife. Though of course we know that it is he, the old man, who will go to the King.

First, however, he goes to a scholar and a merchant and pleads with them to speak to the King. They both refuse for their own reasons. My favorite scene in the book was when he then decides he must find a man of strength and courage to confront the king. He finds a ripped, bulking metalsmith, whom Keats paints as a real beast of a man.
The metalsmith, eager to stand against the King, swore that once inside the palace he would smash every window, crack every wall, and break the King's throne into firewood.

"Alas," bemoans the poor man. "The strongest hand is useless without a wise head to guide it."

And so it becomes up to him to meet with the King and plead his case.

For Ezra Jack Keats, the theme of the book is summed up in the words of Hillel:
If I am not for myself,
    who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself,
    what am I?
And if not now,


On Purim (2000)

By Cathy Goldberg Fishman

Illustrated by Melanie W. Hall

Collagraph and mixed media

Text set in Novarese Medium

Atheneum Books for Young Readers

"Oh, today we'll merry, merry be," I sing as I work on my mask.

In On Purim, Goldberg gives us a story within a story, showing how the Biblical story of Esther translates into a modern-day celebration.

We begin as a contemporary Jewish family is preparing for Purim. The young narrator of the story is making masks, and wonders, "Why do we wear masks on Purim?"

Soon, the whole family is wearing masks, taking on the guise of specific characters. There is wise Mordecai, handlebar-mustache-weilding King Ahasuerus, and of course, Esther.

"Line up!" demands this incarnation of the King. "I will choose a new queen!"

It's all a giggle. So funny, how these violent Old Testament stories can become something so pleasantly diverting.

"Who knows the story of Purim?" asks the grandfather, and soon the family has gathered around for the telling. When the young narrator reads, "The king's chief advisor was an evil man named Haman..." the grandfather yells, "Boo! Boo!"

"Haman wanted everyone to bow down to him," she attempts to continue, but is again interrupted by the booing of her grandfather. Every time Haman's name is spoken aloud, he feels compelled to shout out his displeasure.

It's a simple retelling, but Hall's illustrations are quite lovely and emphasize the fairy-tale aspect of the story. It is plain to see how this is a story which would be especially appealing to children, and particular to girls who daydream of becoming princesses.

Following the story, the family continues their celebrating, noshing on some hamantashen. Hamantashen are triangle shaped cookies which are supposed to look like the hat Haman wore. "Gobbling them up is another way of blotting out his name," says the grandfather, who really does seem to have a personal vendetta.

Then comes the Purim carnival itself, with games and prizes, a costume parade and a Punch and Judy-esque puppet show, in which all the children - not just elderly grandfathers - chant, "Boo! Boo!" and shake their groggers when puppet Haman makes its appearance.

All in all, this is a light story, very deftly providing the origin behind the traditions, how a story becomes another story, becomes another story. At the end, the narrator asks a question that I too had been wondering for some time, as I've worked on this series on Purim and Esther.

"Where is God in the Purim story?"

I have now gone through several versions of the story, and it has not escaped my attention that - though Biblical - there is no obvious supernatural element. There are wicked people, yes, and there are good people, but never did I get the sense that there is any Devil-work at hand, or divine intervention.

"He is hidden in the faith of Mordecai and Esther and in their courage to do the right thing," says her father.

We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don't hear His name, God is a hidden part of the Purim story. We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don't see Him, God is a hidden part of our lives, too, and when Purim is over, He will still be there.
Click here for more versions of the story of Queen Esther!
Click here for more Biblical Stories from the Old Testament!
Click here for Jewish folktales!


The Golem (1976)

Golem by Beverly Brodsky McDermott Retold and Illustrated by Beverly Brodsky McDermott
Gouache, watercolor, dye and ink on watercolor paper

J.B. Lippincott Company

The Golem rises again in this splendid, beautifully chilling picture book. I say 'rises again' because of this enigmatic passage as the Golem slowly awakens:

The Rabbi stretched himself over the Golem and gave him the breath of life. The Golem's eyes opened wide. His memory awakened. There had been another time and another Rabbi long ago.

There is never mention of this again, but I like that it casts the tale in a continuum of tales. This has happened before, this will happen again.

McDermott's interpretation of the tale is very simple, yet filled with symbology. The Hebrew alphabet appears on nearly every page in different forms... on an ancient book clutched by an aging rabbi, on the forehead of the great beast itself, above the synagogues and in the angry mobs. Letters are not just letters in this cabalistic tale, of course. Each character of the Hebrew alphabet is imbued with deep, resonant mysticism.

She begins with a quote from Martin Buber:

The origin of the world is dust, and man has been placed in it that he may raise the dust to spirit. But his end is dust and time and again it is the end where he fails, and everything crumbles into dust.

That, of course, is the basic story of the Golem, but gives it such a large context its almost staggering.

The Golem itself is large and nearly shapeless. She gives it only the very minutest of form. Once it is given life, it spends it days in relative peace.

As the days passed, the Golem became a familiar presence everywhere. He often went to the synagogue and heard the songs of the people.

Every Sabbath he visited each house in the ghetto and lit the hearth fires.

He watched over the preparations for the Seder, the Passover feast that celebrates the time long ago when God helped Moses free the Jews who were slaves in Egypt.

Whence wakes the golem?
This peace does not last, and soon the Golem is called upon to pursue his true purpose. In a sudden rage, the Gentiles turn on their Jewish neighbors, accusing them of killing their children and using the blood to make their matzos. (This is a concept which I've seen come up time and time again, most recently in Will Eisner's The Plot). "The Jews are a plague on our lives!" shout the angry mob. "Kill the Jews! Kill the Jews!"

McDermott now completely alters the look of the Golem. He grows larger, resembles a towering pillar of sand, his face distorts in rage. He is surrounded by burning buildings and tiny humans... whom he crushes with powerful blows. Then he levels their houses, he rips trees from the earth. He is seen as a fierce maelstrom moving through the city, larger than any Godzilla, leaving nothing but death and destruction in its wake. It is only when he begins lifting powerful boulders and throwing them at the fleeing survivors that the Rabbi Lev runs after him and commands him to return to dust. "His mouth opened wide and the Name of God tumbled forth."

That is all it takes for the Golem to be destroyed, to return to the dirt of the earth.

"As I explored the mysteries of the Golem an evolution took place," McDermott writes in the introduction. "At first, he resembled something human. Then he was transformed. His textured body became a powerful presence lurking in dark corners, spilling out of my paintings. In the end he shatters into pieces of clay-color and returns to the earth. All that remains is the symbol of silence."

From the 1915 film, Der Golem:


Golem (1996)

Golem by David WisniewskiRetold and Illustrated by David Wisniewski

Cut paper

Clarion Books

This is an extraordinarily beautiful book which tells the story of the Golem, a giant made from the earth and given life by the Cabalist Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the year 1580. This story has been around for many centuries, and is considered to be the forerunner of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

There are no scientists here, however, only Cabalists and practitioners of the occult. Once the giant is raised and given its marching orders - to destroy the enemy - it does not then go quietly into the night.

"Your purpose is at an end," says Rabbi Loew, standing on the balcony and considering the many hundreds of graves strewn below.

The towering Golem asks if he will remember this day.

"No. You will be clay."

Golem by David Wisniewski

"Then I shall not obey you," responds the creature, his forehead still marked with the Hebrew letters which gave him life.

Golem by David Wisniewski
Add caption

The book is illustrated with incredibly detailed cut-paper, and the scope it offers is thrilling. Wisniewski is equal to the task of creating extreme close-ups in which we see both the sorrow and the bloodlust present within the Golem, and also city scenes with seemingly several hundred tiny figures rushing through the streets, brandishing torches.

More picture books about the golem!

More picture books based on Jewish Folklore!

Golem by David Wisniewski

Here's a book trailer I found online, pretty cool!

David Wisniewski
David Wisniewski (1953 - 2002)
Read his obituary.
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