Jimmy Neil Smith Founder and Executive Director of the National Storytelling Association A Superb contribution to Jewish folklore. From stories that re-create the lost world of the Easter European Jewish shtetl to a selection of Ladino-inflected pieces from Sephardic Jews, Because God Loves Stories brings to vivid life the role of storytelling both as entertainment and as a way of re-invigorating a precious tradition.
Because God Loves Stories: An Anthology of Jewish Storytellingby Steve Zeitlin
"Why were human beings created?" goes a traditional Jewish saying. "Because God loves stories." Storytelling has been part of Jewish religion and custom from earliest times and it remains a defining/b>
An exciting new treasury of Jewish stories and storytellers, from ancient tales and classics re-imagined to contemporary family stories, parables, and humor
"Why were human beings created?" goes a traditional Jewish saying. "Because God loves stories." Storytelling has been part of Jewish religion and custom from earliest times and it remains a defining aspect of Jewish life. In Because God Loves Stories, folklorist Steve Zeitlin assembles the work of thirty-six Jewish storytellers, each of whom spins tales that express his or her own distinctive visions of Jewish culture. Contemporary storytellers re-interpret stories from the Talmud for modern sensibilities, the Grand Rabbi of Bluzhov tells tales of the Holocaust, beloved comedian Sam Levenson regales readers with hilarious vignettes of Jewish life in America, and much more.
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Read an Excerpt
From Section One: Ancient Times in Contemporary Tales
The Jewish Talmud is divided in two sections, the Halacha and the Aggadah; the Halacha lays down and interprets religious law, the Aggadah employs storytelling and folkways to interpret the scripture. The sages of long ago described the relationship between the two: "Bread that is Halacha; wine that is Aggadah. By bread alone we cannot live."
Each generation of Jews has poured old wine in new bottles and told stories. The Torah (the five original books of the Bible given to Moses on Mount Sinai), the Talmud, and the midrash still represent the core stories for the Jewish faith. A portion of the Torah is read on the Sabbath each week of the year; Jews gather to retell the story of Moses and the Exodus each Passover and to read the Megillah, the Book of Esther, on Purim. These early Jewish stories continue to provide inspiration not only to rabbis and their congregations, but also to the new generation of professional storytellers.
When these stories are recast by contemporary storytellers, what emerges is, at least partially, a reconstruction. The storytellers are careful to cite their sources; that, too, is mandated by tradition. But the tales are continually re-membered from the echo of an echo, ricocheting off the centuries, and retold according to the storyteller's talent and whim.
When Peninnah Schram first began telling stories, she recalled a line from her childhood. "It was the phrase 'And Elijah gave a whistle.' And I could hear my father's voice in Yiddish saying that phrase, and you know, a voice of somebody, especially if you don't have a tape, is the first thing that evaporates of all the senses. But I heard this voice very clearly, and I realized there was a story there, and I began to search for that story and I couldn't find it, so I reconstructed the story based on the structure. Elijah, always in disguise, is walking down the street and he comes to a little cottage. And the cottage is broken down, needs paint, the roof has holes in it. He approaches the cottage as a beggar and receives warm hospitality. In return he grants three wishes to the hospitable couple, and each time 'Elijah gives a whistle...'"
Nina Jaffe's connection to storytelling goes all the way back to Genesis, to a time when, according to the Torah, all people spoke the same language. A decision is made to build a tower "with its top in heaven." As His builders got closer and closer, God confounded their tongues, so they could no longer understand one another. The Tower of Babel never reached heaven. But it inspired Nina to become a storyteller.
In the early 1970s she studied in Israel and New York City with Katya Delakova, a choreographer who pioneered new forms of Jewish dance in Israel and the United States. Katya used ancient stories, particularly Bible stories, to teach the art of improvised movement. During one of her residencies, she asked each dancer to pick a role in the Tower of Babel story builder, architect, king. "It was that moment," Nina told me, "that I realized I would be the storyteller the word 'storyteller' came to me. I opened the piece by telling the story through the eyes of Nimrod, the king, who in a midrashic legend is the one who orders his people to build the tower. And I always had the dream of telling stories in many languages, because stories are a language everyone can understand."
"The Most Precious Thing" is a Talmudic tale dating back to the second century and was first chronicled in the Midrash Rabbah, a collection of midrashim about the Song of Songs. For this story, Nina, an accomplished storyteller, musician, and children's book author, takes a brief passage from the Talmud and spins a lyrical tale about love, marriage, and divorce that resonates for our times. In the Talmud, the historical figure Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai is a character in the tale.
The city of Sidon, on the coast of Lebanon, was said to be the jewel of the Mediterranean. Sea breezes blew gently through the city's fragrant gardens and cobbled streets. Sidon's ships sailed far and wide, and with their constant trading, the merchants of the city brought spices, cloth, and riches of all kinds back to their home port. The tall cedars of Lebanon gave cool shade to all who traveled there. Fine craftsmen and artists carved marvelous designs on the doorposts and gateways of its busy streets, which glistened in the light of the radiant sun.
In this fabled city, there once lived a couple who had been happily married for many years. They lived and worked side by side and cared for each other dearly. But as the years went by and no children were born to bless their home, a great sadness fell upon them. By law, they had a right to a divorce. Every year they thought about it. And every year they put off their decision. But finally the husband said to his wife, "We have waited many years, but since fate has not granted us children, I have decided that it is best for us to separate, for I truly want a child. You must go back to your father's house, as the law requires." And the wife, knowing she could not change her husband's mind, agreed to his decision.
The next day, under a cloudy morning sky, they set off to seek the advice of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai, who had come to live in Sidon from the holy city of Jerusalem. Simeon Bar Yochai had traveled to many places, sometimes to study with the great teachers of the region, sometimes to teach at the centers of learning and law. And sometimes he found himself in flight from the Romans, who resented his harsh criticisms of their emperor and imperial governors. In Sidon he enjoyed the warm air and sea breezes, and he was pleased to answer all who came to him for help and advice.
As the couple arrived at his door, Bar Yochai set out two chairs for them in the small inner courtyard of his home and waited to hear what they had to say.
"Rabbi," began the husband, "my wife and I have been happily married for more than ten years. But we have not been fortunate enough to have children. Now, as the law permits, I have decided that she should return to her father's house. Please grant us a divorce so that we can separate with honor and dignity."
Rabbi Bar Yochai looked at the couple for a long time. Then he said to them, "My children, I do not like to see you separate, but as the law requires, I give you my permission. I ask only one thing of you both. Before your wife takes her leave of you, have a feast and celebrate together. For just as you rejoiced at your marriage, so should you do the same at the hour of parting." The couple agreed to his terms and set off back to their home sadly, preparing to take their leave of one another.
As they walked through the cobbled streets, the husband turned to his wife and said, "My dear wife, you have been faithful and loyal to me always. Do not go empty-handed to your father's house. When you leave you must take a gift. Look over all that we own, and choose whatever in your eyes is the most precious thing in our household." With that final word, they opened the door of their house and stepped inside to do as Rabbi Bar Yochai had bidden them....
That afternoon the wife went to the marketplace and filled her basket with dates and almonds, pomegranates and spices, and the finest of delicacies. From their wine cellar she carried out many jugs of their best wine, made from the sweetest grapes in the vineyards of Sidon. As evening fell, she set the table as beautifully as if it were the Sabbath. Her husband ate and drank his fill. Whenever his glass grew empty, she filled it to the brim.
"This is the last meal we shall ever eat together," she said to him. "Let us enjoy it to the last crumb of bread and the last drop of wine." Her husband continued to eat and drink, but she herself tasted just a little of everything. By the time the sun had set and the moon had begun to rise, her husband, drunk with wine and sated with the food, fell snoring into a deep sleep.
As soon as she saw this, the wife called one of her servants, who helped put her husband into a wagon. As he lay there on the straw, she rode with him to her father's house, where once again the servant helped her place him on a wooden bed. As dawn broke, the husband woke up from his sleep and looked around him. Nothing looked familiar to him until he saw his wife standing by the bedside.
"Where am I?" he asked. "What am I doing here?"
"Don't you remember your promise to me?" she replied. "You told me before we parted that I could take with me the most precious thing I could find to my father's house. That is where you are now, under his roof. I looked over all that we owned, but I could find nothing as precious as you.
When he heard these words, the husband smiled and said, "You have done wisely, and I have been a fool. Let us return home and continue on as we have always done, happy and content with one another."
And so they did for many years, living and working together under the sunny skies of Sidon. The midrash says that when Simeon Bar Yochai heard the news, he went and prayed for them, and some time after, the child they had been hoping for was born....
Storyteller: Cherie Karo Schwartz
This lovely tale is one of my favorite Jewish stories and I frequently retell it during my performances. In my version, the couple doesn't miraculously give birth to a child. Instead they realize that they are happy in their love for one another. Larry and I don't have children of our own, and in that way, I think the story was meant for me.
Text copyright © 1999 by Rhonda Gowler Green
Meet the Author
Steve Zeitlin received his Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the director and co-founder of City Lore: The New York Center for Urban Folk Culture and a regular commentator for National Public Radio. Zeitlin is the co-author of several books, including A Celebration of American Family Folklore. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
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This book has something for everyone. There is a section on everything from the Holocaust to humorous stories. You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate this literature. Just sit back and enjoy!