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Treasures of the Heart: Stories for the Jewish Holidays

Treasures of the Heart: Stories for the Jewish Holidays

by Diane Wolkstein
Treasures of the Heart is a unique rendition of stories in the Hebrew Bible that are part of the foundation of Judaism and western literature. Renowned storyteller and mythologist Diane Wolkstein seamlessly weaves oral legends into the fabric of the ancient texts, creating new stories that remain true to the spirit of their original sources. Drawing on a lifetime of


Treasures of the Heart is a unique rendition of stories in the Hebrew Bible that are part of the foundation of Judaism and western literature. Renowned storyteller and mythologist Diane Wolkstein seamlessly weaves oral legends into the fabric of the ancient texts, creating new stories that remain true to the spirit of their original sources. Drawing on a lifetime of study of world myths and tribal cultures, the author chooses the legends that best illuminate the text and reveal its hidden wisdom. Biblical characters such as Moses, Ruth, and Solomon -- their passions, ethical dilemmas, and changing relationships with God -- are rendered with astonishing immediacy, achieved through careful research and a storyteller's grace. Structured according to the Jewish calendar, Treasures of the Heart retells the stories that are traditionally read on each holiday. In recounting the holiday stories, Wolkstein discovers a new narrative. As the Hebrew people journey from spring to winter, from Passover to Purim, they follow a path from youth to maturity. This holiday cycle also moves from Moses, a male messenger of God, to Esther and Mordecai, a woman and a man who work together to rescue their community. Wolkstein offers a modern perspective by highlighting the role of female characters in the stories and by introducing the concept of the Shechinah, God's feminine presence on earth. The commentaries, often based on Kabbalistic thought, place each story in a historical and religious context. Treasures of the Heart presents a wealth of scholarship in a form that makes compelling reading for all students of spiritual life. In our rapidly changing world, this innovative book invites us to pause and consider the eternal questions of spiritual freedom and service to God, discipline and forgiveness, violence and compassion. Its beautifully crafted stories will provide a resource and inspiration to return to year after year.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Eight years in the making, this story collection by Wolkstein, a professional storyteller, invites readers to participate in the "soul" of nine Jewish holidays. A story, she says, is both "history and mystery," and her retellings of the classic biblical and traditional stories associated with each holiday aim to capture both elements. Wolkstein also adds (or recovers) feminist themes to the stories, restoring a male-female balance that she believes has been suppressed: her Passover Exodus gives place to Shechinah, "God's feminine presence," and her Rosh Hashanah stories make Sarah a truly central character and a priestess. Wolkstein's imaginative scenarios and intimate style help readers to become listeners, as the oral rhythms of Haggadah are passed from teacher to student. (Sept. 16) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Author of 21 award-winning books of folklore, cofounder of the New York City Storytelling Center, and follower of the late charismatic Hasidic Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Wolkstein (The Magic Orange Tree) here retells the Bible stories that underlie the Jewish holidays. She structures the text according to the Jewish calendar, beginning in the spring with Passover and ending with winter Purim. She sees the progress of the Jewish year as symbolic of the transformative development of the human soul, representing our life's journey from youth to maturity. A description of the background and meaning of each holiday prefaces each story (or group of stories), and each concludes with Wolkstein's own commentary. Her retellings are based on biblical texts as well as on midrash (rabbinical commentary), oral legend, and her own musings. She is a master storyteller-winner of the National Storytelling Award for Excellence-and she infuses these stories with heart, soul, and new life. Highly recommended for public libraries.-Marcia Welsh, Dartmouth Coll., Hanover, NH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.51(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.23(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


About Passover

Passover (in Hebrew Pesach) is celebrated in the spring on the full moon of the first month of the Jewish calendar (March or April). The first of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, it commemorates God's redemption of the Hebrew people from slavery and their birth as a nation.

Birth is a terrifying and joyous event. The Hebrews were slaves, yet they were afraid to leave Egypt-which is called in Hebrew Mitzraim meaning "narrow place"-to follow their leader Moses into the wilderness. God had to create plagues-great, horrific signs and wonders-to convince them to leave slavery. It was the last and tenth plague that gave Passover its name, for God "passed over" the Hebrews and struck down the firstborn throughout Egypt. God commanded: "You shall tell this story to your children," and since then, as we tell the story, we continue to give birth to ourselves and to freedom, both physical and spiritual. The act of reliving the desert experience continues throughout the eight days of the holiday (seven days in Israel).

During Passover, tradition requires that Jews refrain from eating chametz (leavened foods), which means that all grain products that can rise-bread, cake, even pasta-are replaced by matzah (unleavened bread). In a wish to eat the same food that our ancestors took with them in their rush from Egypt, we make matzah from grain that is prepared and baked too quickly to rise. Matzah, the simplest and humblest of food, is known as the bread of poverty and also as the bread of freedom.

Wanting to live in a new way, as the Hebrews did in the desert, many Jews use Passover preparations as a time for a thorough spring-cleaning. In a traditional household, as the holiday approaches, a sense of urgency builds. All chametz food is eaten, given away, or sold to Gentile neighbors. New food is bought for Passover. Pots and dishes used throughout the year are put away or purified with boiling water to take away all traces of the old. The night before the eve of Passover, a search for the smallest breadcrumbs is conducted throughout the house by candlelight and all crumbs that are found are swept away by a feather. This intensive and thorough search is the culmination of an interior spring-cleaning. We look for and expel those inflated, puffed-up parts of ourselves that enslave us and take up space that might be made available for experiencing a new freedom.

On the eve of the first day of Passover, family and friends gather in their homes to retell the Passover story with a ritual meal called the Seder. On the table is a large Seder plate on which are arranged examples of ritual food as well as other symbolic objects to be used during the evening. The exact choices vary according to the family tradition. They include a lamb shank or a beet to symbolize the blood of the Passover sacrificial lamb that was placed before each door so that God would "pass over it," a green vegetable representing spring, bitter herbs for the bitterness of slavery, an egg for rebirth, matzah for the unleavened bread, haroset (walnuts, wine, apples, cinnamon, and honey) for the mortar used in making the bricks, and a cup to welcome the prophet Elijah. Two recent additions are a cup to represent the well of Miriam, Moses' sister, which supplied the people with water in the desert, and an orange as a response to the rabbi who declared that it was as unlikely for there to be a woman rabbi on the pulpit as an orange on a Seder plate. As the wine is sipped and the ritual food is eaten, each person at the table reads, in turn, a part of the story of the exodus from Egypt.

The story of Passover has roots that go back to God's warning to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land for four hundred years. It involves hundreds of stories, legends, and traditions. From as early as the second century c.e., the rabbis debated how to bring order to the story of the formation of the Jewish people. An anthology of stories and traditions was agreed upon and written down in the eighth century in a specific order in a book called the Haggadah, meaning "story." Each generation has revised the Passover Haggadah according to its own understanding of liberation.

The story and the ritual of the Seder invite the participation of all generations. In many ways, it is a children's holiday. Often, the holiday takes place in the home where the grandparents, rather than the rabbis, are in charge. There is a lot of singing and eating ritual food with the fingers. The children are allowed to stay up late and encouraged to ask questions. The youngest child's asking of "The Four Questions" starts off the Seder.

Passover is fun! I was taken to my first Seder before I could speak. My earliest memories are of a table that stretched into two rooms, candles, delicious smells, many languages, many children, laughter, and singing. The white tablecloths always got dirty. Drinks spilled and no one worried. My grandfather spoke in Yiddish and read in Hebrew. I didn't understand his words. But from watching my older cousins, I knew that one day when I was grown up (five or six years old), it would be my turn to ask "The Four Questions."

At the Seder, "hide and seek" is played by the leader and the children. At the beginning of the meal, the leader holds up a piece of matzah called the afikoman (meaning "dessert"), and says, "I'm going to break the afikoman into two halves and hide one of the halves. Whoever finds it can claim a prize, but we cannot finish the meal until the missing half is found."

"Prize" is a magic word for the children. Its promise draws them to stay close to the table even though the Passover meal with its readings, songs, and discussions may go on for three, four, even five hours. At the end of the meal, when the long-awaited moment arrives, the leader fusses over the child who has found the afikoman, thus making it clear that the children are essential and that the ceremonial meal cannot be completed without them. The afikoman is then broken into small pieces and all the generations "eat" part of the story.

At one Passover Seder, my rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach, said, "Knowledge doesn't come from the head. It must be tasted. We need teeth to cut the infinite and make it finite."


I Will Become Who I Will Become

At the Passover festival the rabbis remind us that "in every generation each of us should see ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt." If we imagine that at the very moment that we are leaving Egypt (three thousand years ago) God is commanding us to tell the story of what is happening to us to our children when we arrive in the Promised Land, we realize that through stories and storytelling God is linking us to our ancestors and to our descendants. Let there be memory and awareness. God is telling us. Let there be stories! What follows is the full story of Passover, beginning with Jacob and his family going to Egypt because of the famine in Canaan (around 1450 b.c.e.) and ending with Moses leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt (around 1250 b.c.e.).

This is a story of birth and transformation. An entire people moves from slavery to freedom. The everyday world splits apart, and raw energy pours out in unexpected forms-visions, snakes, parting of the seas.

In the story, I refer to the Red Sea as the Reed Sea, which is the translation of its Hebrew name. And from the moment God appears as the burning bush, I follow the tradition of the rabbis of the first century by often using the name Shechinah for God's feminine presence on earth. As for the sources of the story, the elaborations on Moses' sister, Miriam, are mine; the other legends that I've woven into the biblical text are the rabbis'.

Before the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, their ancestor Joseph had been governor of Egypt. He had advised Pharaoh to store grain when it was in abundance so there would be food in times of famine. Pharaoh had followed Joseph's advice and when the famine came, and spread to Canaan, Joseph asked Pharaoh to allow his father, Jacob, to settle in Egypt. Pharaoh agreed.

Jacob and his seventy relatives went down from Canaan to Goshen. There, they tended their flocks, lived peacefully, and had children-and more children. But after Joseph's death, a new pharaoh ruled Egypt who was afraid of Joseph's relatives who were becoming numerous and powerful. He spoke to his advisor Balaam who offered the Hebrew men large wages to give up shepherding and build pyramids.

Within months, Balaam reduced their wages and then took away their land. Every morning the men mixed water, sand, and straw to make bricks. All day they carried, loaded, and set bricks. At night they were so tired they nearly fell asleep in the fields. Their wives brought their husbands dinner. And after the men ate, the women held mirrors in front of their husbands and whispered, "Look into the mirror. Oh, who is that beautiful woman next to you?" The men turned to their wives, and the Hebrews continued to have children.

When Pharaoh saw that the number of Hebrew children was increasing, he summoned the two most powerful Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and said to them, "When your women give birth, let the girls live. Throw the boys into the Nile." The midwives feared their God more than Pharaoh and let all the children live. Pharaoh summoned the midwives again and said, "Your people are continuing to multiply."

"What can we do?" they protested. "The women are so lively they give birth before we arrive." Pharaoh then ordered any Egyptian who found a newborn Hebrew boy to throw that child into the Nile.

During this time, a young Hebrew midwife named Miriam went to her father, Amram. After Pharaoh's decree, Amram, a righteous man and the great-grandson of Jacob, separated from his wife, for he did not want to cause the death of a newborn child.

Miriam challenged her father, saying, "In this dark time, our midwives have held on to their faith and courage, but you, by separating from our mother, are encouraging other families to separate and are preventing the births of sons and daughters.

"Father, listen to me. The other night I had a vision. I was standing by the sea and saw a white stone. I lifted it. Light entered the stone, causing a bright path to spread across the waters. On the other side of the water an angel beckoned to me. I leapt into the water with my brother, Aaron, and we started to swim. When we arrived at the other side, the angel said, 'You and your brother will lead your people out of slavery to a new way of life.' But when I turned to my brother, it was not Aaron, it was a brother who has not yet been born. Father, come home to our mother."

Amram listened to his daughter's prophecy. He returned to his wife, Yocheved, and they remarried. Miriam and her brother, Aaron, danced at their parents' wedding, while playing their tambourines and singing.

Six months later, Yocheved, who did not show signs of being pregnant, gave birth to a child whose light filled the house. Miriam, her brother, Aaron, and their father could not resist this little boy whose eyes were filled with love and curiosity. But before the child was nine months old, rather than risk the Egyptians discovering and killing him, Yocheved and Miriam took the boy to the Nile. There, Yocheved wove a cradle from the long reeds growing by the river. She sealed it with pitch and covered it with bulrushes. With great tenderness, she slipped her child into the ark and pushed it off into the water. She watched it drift with the current until it was out of sight. Then she went home. But Miriam did not leave the child. She followed the ark as it drifted in the currents of the Nile.

The day was hot. Pharaoh's daughter, the princess Bithiah went to bathe in the Nile. She noticed a little boat in the river and reached out and pulled it to her. Lifting the bulrushes, she saw a child whose face was shining with light. "What a beautiful child," she said. "It must be a Hebrew infant."

A moment later, when the baby started to cry, Miriam, who had been watching by the shore, quickly waded into the water and said to the princess, "I know a mother who is nursing. Shall I bring her?"

"Go," the princess answered.

Miriam ran home and returned with Yocheved, who brought the crying baby to her breast. Immediately, he nursed and was quiet. "Take the child," the princess said. "Nurse him and bring him back to me when he is weaned."

Yocheved brought the boy home. Everyone loved him. Each one called him by a favorite name. His mother called him Jekuthiel, meaning "God returned him," his sister called him Jered, meaning "I descended into the river," and his father called him Heber, meaning "unite," for the child had reunited the family. Two years later, when they brought him to the princess, she took him in her arms and called him Moses, explaining, "I drew him out of the water." And of all the names that had been given to him, the name the princess gave him became his name, for though she was not his blood mother, she cared for him and loved him like a mother.

When Moses was three years old, he was sitting on his mother Bithiah's lap at the royal table next to Pharaoh. Suddenly, he reached out, grabbed his grandfather's crown, and put it on his own head. Surprised, Pharaoh asked, "What is the boy doing?" His advisor Balaam answered, "Your majesty, the boy intends to steal your power. He must be killed at once-"

"Nonsense!" interrupted Jethro, another advisor at the table. "He's just a child. He likes what is bright and glittering. Let's make a test. Put an onyx and a red-hot coal in front of him. If he takes the bright coal, he is clearly innocent. If he reaches for the precious onyx, we will know his intentions are evil and we will kill him."

A burning bright coal and a black onyx were set before the child. As Moses stretched out his hand toward the precious stone, the angel Gabriel, the guardian angel of children, guided his hand to the fiery coal. Moses brought the coal to his mouth and burned his lips and part of his tongue. From that moment on he stuttered, but he lived.

The princess wanted Moses to be the next pharaoh, so she hired the best teachers from foreign lands to instruct her son in philosophy, arts, sciences, and magic. Remembering only what was true, Moses learned quickly. As the adopted son of the princess Bithiah, he was called the young king, and people expected he would be the next pharaoh.

Meet the Author

Diane Wolkstein travels throughout the world performing myths and folktales and giving workshops on storytelling. She is the author of twenty-one award-winning books of folklore, including the Sumerian epic Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth (with S. N. Kramer) and The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales. Wolkstein is the co-founder of the New York City Storytelling Center and the winner of the National Storytelling Award for Excellence.

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