The Power of Song: And Other Sephardic Tales

The Power of Song: And Other Sephardic Tales

by Rita Roth


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780827613539
Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society
Publication date: 07/01/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 132
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 8 Years

About the Author

Rita Roth (1929–2015) was for twenty years an associate professor in the education department at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. Alexa Ginsburg is a graphic designer and fiber artist. She is the illustrator of Wise and Not So Wise: Ten Tales from the Rabbis (JPS, 2004).

Read an Excerpt


The Enduring Power of Folktales

Since antiquity folktales have captured our hearts with tales of the benevolent and the boorish, the courageous and the corrupt. What attracts us to a genre typically set in far-off lands and distant times with characters portrayed in the simplest of terms? Where did these tales originate? What makes them universal? For whatever reasons, the appeal of folktales persists. They reflect deeply felt cultural beliefs shaped and reshaped to fit local contexts. Something within us welcomes the richness of the folktale, a genre that for all its simplicity is filled with human significance.

Remarkably similar tales appear in vastly differing cultures throughout the world. They maintain common story lines even as each retelling adapts to a particular culture. Over 700 cultural variants of the Cinderella tale, for example, have been documented with at least one Ashkenazic version and one from the Sephardim. Every telling puts its cultural stamp on stories based on the same motifs. There are numerous explanations for finding similar tales in locations separated by land and sea. Some recognize Europe as the source of all tales, explaining that European explorers carried their tales to far-off shores. Others feel that folktales express a shared, deeply human instinct.

We are indebted to the oral tradition for the preservation of folktales. The informality and immediacy of the spoken word forms indelible connections. Once shared, the tales generally remain a part of both listener and teller. The power of story sustains us with reminders of basic truths and informs a network of threads that binds generations of one cultural group together.

Jewish Folktales

Narrative holds an honored place in the Jewish tradition. Stories have played a crucial role in preserving the Jewish faith by serving as a major learning tool. Since ancient times, the Jewish people have cherished a tradition of learning. Before the availability of written texts, oral stories served as the vehicle for teaching. In addition to the system of teaching behavior, history, and religion emanating from the synagogue, a secular strain of tales flowed from the home, the street, and the marketplace. In time, written texts would come to dominate, but never replace, the telling of tales. From the biblical allegories (mashal), to the legends of the Talmud, to the Midrash, which included a written record of oral narrations (aggadah), to the Hasidic tales of the Baal Shem Tov, and continuing to this day, Jews have maintained a continuous flow of both oral and written narrative.

While granting that forms of oral and written discourse differ greatly, together they complement each other in providing strong reinforcement for ideas (Ong, 1991). This combination of both written and oral transmission sustained a faith and a culture fraught with extreme challenges to its survival — a remarkable accomplishment for a people repeatedly forced to disperse.

But how does one distinguish Jewish folktales from other folktales? The exchange of story motifs with non-Jews became a common occurrence as a result of living for generations in close proximity to other cultures. What, then, really makes a folktale "Jewish"? Dov Noy describes Jewish tales as containing at least one of the following: a Jewish life cycle (e.g., weddings); a Jewish setting (e.g., synagogue); a Jewish character (e.g., rabbi), or a Jewish message (e.g., hospitality). These characteristics, combined with the source of the tale, help to identify the folktale as "Jewish."

Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews

A distinctive folk literature developed over the centuries in the Iberian Peninsula and during the interval of the dispersal of the Sephardim that followed. Faced with two choices — death or conversion to Christianity — Jews converted, fled, or became martyrs to their faith. Of those who converted, many continued to practice Judaism in secret. Those who fled went in many directions, taking their faith and a unique Hispanic perspective with them. While maintaining their medieval Hispanic heritage in varying degrees, various traits of Mediterranean, Near Eastern, and European cultures influenced their lives and created a richly distinctive culture in its own right.

Many Sephardim settled in the Ottoman Empire, in North Africa, France, the Balkans, Greece, and the Middle East. In time, they influenced and were influenced by the secular cultures of Christians and Muslims. Tales of the Sephardim often incorporate motifs borrowed from non-Jews. In turn, Christian and Muslim tales borrowed motifs from the Sephardim.

Generations spent living among people of diverse cultures impacted Jewish secular life to the extent that it changed the way Jews spoke. The Iberian Jews developed Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), a language written in Hebrew until the 20 when it began to appear in Latin letters.

Some Jews managed to maintain a Castilian Spanish and retained some ancient Spanish vocabulary, while others abandoned these roots and adopted a mixture of Hebrew with strong Arabic, Greek, and African influences. For example, the Jews in Morocco established a dialect called Haketia tied to Arabic and French. Sounds of African languages appeared among Jews in other parts of North Africa. Dialects grew from exposure to Greek and Turkish in the Balkans, from Arabic throughout the Middle East.

Scholars collected and nourished a body of secular folk literature from Eastern European Jews (the Ashkenazim), some working independently and some through the Yiddish Scientific Institution (Yivo) in Vilna, Poland, and New York. No such movement was at work to preserve tales of the Sephardim. It wasn't until after the establishment of the State of Israel that secular tales of the Sephardim became well-known.

Contemporary Israel has nourished a cultural resurgence of the Sephardim. Groups, such as the National Authority for Ladino and its Culture and The Foundation for Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, work to assure the survival of its history and language. The contribution of dedicated individuals cannot be overstated. Among them is Dov Noy, founder and director of the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) where tales narrated by the Sephardim (as well as other immigrants to Israel) have been collected and preserved since 1955. Another is Matilda Koén-Sarano, who has worked to perpetuate the culture through her teaching, writing, a Ladino-language radio show, and informal monthly gatherings where tales are shared. And so the folk literature of the Sephardim, which evolved into a luscious stew brewed of varied cultural components while maintaining the taste of its Jewish identity, continues to grow and enrich our heritage.

Stories in This Collection

The process of selecting tales for this collection was fraught with questions, not the least of which was how to represent the wit and wisdom found in tales growing out of a shared origin tempered by generations of life in vastly differing cultures.

The work of contemporary researchers has preserved a wealth of tales gleaned directly from Sephardic narrators. The collective memory of these narrators represents a living treasure of their heritage. However, the process of transcribing oral renditions into print often diminishes their vitality. As a result, on the page many tales become brief snippets of their former selves. In most cases, I combined several stories, retelling them as one tale. In so doing, I made every effort to conserve a continuity of character and oicotype (a local tale of a specific region). For example, "The Contrarian" grew out of four tales. One, from the IFA, contains the idea that "ups in life are followed by downs, and downs by ups." This tale also has ties to the Talmud where Rabbi Akiva illustrates the temporary notion of good and bad luck by smiling at the devastation of Mount Zion and the foxes playing in the ruins of the Temple. The IFA also lists a number of ascension tales — tales of a calling to return to Jerusalem. Another, from The Oriental Tales of Wisdom, describes someone who can't make up his mind — he blows on his hands to cool them and blows on his hands to warm them. Still another comes from one of Y. A. Yoná's Judeo-Spanish Ballad Chapbooks where the lyrics are reversed to "May Song," a traditional ballad that welcomes springtime.

It is my hope that this collection preserves the tales' original integrity as it reaches out to a broad audience.


The Power of Song

People throughout the kingdom rejoiced when they heard that a boy child, the prince, was born! The boy grew to be strong, handsome, and sweet-tempered. Because everyone loved him, he was the center of joy throughout the land. Each time the king looked at his son, he thought, Truly, I am blessed.

But, by the prince's seventh birthday, everyone sensed that something was not right. Rumors could be heard here and there. The prince cannot learn the Alef Bet!

The king's sages could not explain why the prince was not learning the alphabet, but each had a plan. The first sage said, "He doesn't learn because he is distracted. Move him to a room with no windows, no pictures on the walls. Then, I guarantee you, oh, king, he will learn the Alef Bet."

Such a room was prepared for the prince. Not a window, a picture, a flower, a toy — nothing was in this room, only two pillows. One was for the prince and the other for the first sage to sit upon.

After many weeks the king called the first sage before him. "So?" asked the king. "How is my son progressing? With no distractions, he must be ready to read Torah. Bring him to me and let me hear him read."

What could the first sage say? After all this time, the boy did not even know the Alef Bet. How could he read Torah?

"Your royal highness," began the first sage "the prince is strong. He is handsome. He is sweet-tempered. Perhaps that is enough for a prince? With all due respect, honored one, I fear your son cannot learn."

"You ignoramus!" shouted the king. "A prince must be prepared to be king. I know my son can learn! Away with you!" And he banished the first sage from the kingdom.

The king's second sage came forward. "Your royal highness, sir," he said, "the young prince does not learn because he is lonely for other children to learn with. Let me bring children to the palace. We will make a school for the young prince."

That makes sense, thought the king. He has no playmates. Playmates will inspire him to learn.

And so the empty room was transformed into a colorful classroom with toys, flowers, and windows that looked out on the garden. There were many laughing children to learn and play with the prince.

The other children learned their letters fast enough, but not the prince. After a time, the king called his second sage before him.

"Tell me," said the king, "how well is my son learning, now that he has other children learning with him? Surely by now he is reading Torah?"

The second sage bowed his head. What could he say? The prince still did not know his letters. So the king banished the second sage from the kingdom.

* * *

"Where is my third sage?" demanded the king. "Bring him to me at once!"

The third sage came before the king nervously. "Your Royal Highness," he began, "what the boy needs is to be outdoors. The beauty of nature will inspire him to learn his letters. He will study in the open air and he will learn. Let me have him for a time and I guarantee that he will be reading Torah when you see him next."

"Yes," said the king, "perhaps that is what he needs. Fresh air and sun should do it."

Every morning the boy and the third sage left the castle and returned only after dark. After a time, they both had a healthy glow from their many hours out of doors. But, alas, despite his healthy glow, the prince remained unable to read the Alef Bet.

When the third sage stood before the king, what could he say? "Your son, the prince: he is strong, he is handsome, and he is sweet-tempered, but he has not yet learned his letters. I fear, O honored one, that your son cannot learn."

"What?" shouted the king. "After all this time in the great outdoors, he still cannot read? Away with you!" And the king banished the third sage from the kingdom.

The king felt sadder than he had ever felt before. He began to think the unthinkable — that perhaps his son could never be king. What if his sages were right? Without knowing how to read, it would be easy to trick a king. There were those who would read documents one way when the documents said something else. What was worse, the prince would never know the joy of reading Torah.

The king thought and thought. I will not believe that my son cannot learn. I know in my heart that he can. He will be a great king. I only have to find the right way to lead him to wisdom. Perhaps he just isn't ready. Perhaps he just needs more time. So the king decided to wait. What else could he do?

But seeing his son each day without the light of learning was too much for the king to bear. So he sent messengers throughout other lands to seek a teacher who would kindle the light of learning in his son. Many came from far-off lands, but none was able to teach the young prince to read.

Just as his subjects shared the king's joy when the prince was born, so now they shared his sorrow. The land became sad and sullen. Rarely did people smile, and laughter was a thing of the past.

The king began to ride into the countryside away from his court. He would often stop his carriage, get out, and walk. On one of these walks he met an old beggar with a shining face. The beggar asked the king why he was sad.

"Everyone says my son cannot learn. We have tried everything. Nothing works." Then the king thought to himself: Why am I talking to this beggar? How can he help me? But, there was something peaceful about this beggar's face that made the king feel that he was speaking to a kindred spirit.

So the king talked to the beggar for a long time. He told the beggar about all his attempts to help the boy learn. "I want to believe that my son can learn, but now I am a bit doubtful myself."

The beggar listened and then said, "You are king. You are powerful. And, you are a righteous man. Your hopes for the boy will be fulfilled — in song."

The king laughed at such a silly idea and walked away. After a few days, he forgot all about the old beggar.

News of the prince who could not learn spread far and wide. It reached a young man, a songster, who heard of the boy's plight. I will go to the land of the prince who cannot learn, thought the songster. Perhaps I can be of some help.

When the songster stood before the king and began to sing, he sang with a voice that sweetened the air and made all who heard it feel at peace. The words were strange. It was a language new to the king.

"What is this song you sing so sweetly? What tongue do you speak?" asked the king.

The young man sang his reply:

A songster am I and music's my skill.
The musician sang songs for the king all through the day and into the night. And he explained their meaning in the king's language. This cheered the king beyond memory.

"How can I repay you for this lovely entertainment? Name a gift of your choice."

"It is enough that you found favor in my song, oh, great king. Still, there is someone in this kingdom I want very much to meet."

"Of course. Who could that be?" asked the king.

"I want to meet your son who they say cannot learn. Let me try to help him." The king's face became sad once more. "No one can help my son. My three brightest sages could not help him. How can you?" The songster replied with another song in his language. The king asked him to explain its meaning.

"The song asks, 'Can I try? I think I know how to help your son learn.'"

The king could see no harm in it, so he agreed.

When the songster met the boy, he first bowed, looked hard into the boy's eyes, and smiled. When the prince smiled back, the songster tapped his foot three times and sang three simple tones. Inviting the boy to join with him, he tapped his foot and sang three times again. The prince tapped his foot three times as he sang the same tune.

Then the poet began a simple song. Soon the boy joined in. They continued in this manner until they both started to laugh. It was clear that the poet and the boy enjoyed each other. They began to spend their days together — sometimes outside under the sun, sometimes inside with the village children, and sometimes alone. Their meetings were full of song and laughter.

The songster only spoke to the prince in song. Soon they were singing the Alef Bet. They sang the letters into words, sentences, and even jokes.

"Who am I? I am first," sang the songster.

"You are alef," sang the prince.

"And who am I? I am last," sang the poet.

The prince sang, "Tav, tav is my name."

"Yes," sang the poet, "and while I am last, I am the first letter of the name of the holy Torah."

It wasn't long before the young prince was reading in song. He would sing Torah as he read. Often he sang questions to the poet who sang back answers. Soon he would sing his thoughts about what he read.


Excerpted from "The Power of Song"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Rita Roth.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Enduring Power of Folktales
The Tales
The Power of Song
What Djoha Needed
A Friend for a King
Zipporah and the Seven Walnuts
The Contrarian
The Color Red
The Grateful Dead
The Vengeful Queen
Nahum Bibas
The Body Parts
The Ivory Flute

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