Category: Narrative/Verbal Art — Folk/Fairy Tale

Folktales of the Jews, Volume 1: Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion

Edited by Dan Ben-Amos and Consulting Editor Dov Noy. 2006. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society. 600 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8276-0829-0 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Christine Goldberg, University of California, Los Angeles

[Review length: 767 words • Review posted on March 30, 2009]


These are the first volumes of a planned multi-volume set of folktales from the Israel Folklore Archives (IFA), founded by Dov Noy in 1955, which now contains more than 23,000 tales collected in Israel from over thirty cultural groups. This huge amount of archive material means that the tales chosen for publication can all be interesting and pleasant to read. It also means that each text can be discussed in relation to similar archived tales in addition to published analogs.

Following a foreword for the whole series, an introduction in each volume covers the history of that cultural group and its folklore as represented in manuscript and printed sources. In the texts, footnotes explain foreign words, literary references, and customs. There is a general subject index at the back, plus tale type and motif indexes. Each volume contains seventy-one tales. The Sephardic tales are grouped into Legends (often a miracle concerning a particular rabbi), Moral Tales, Folktales, and Humorous Tales. The Eastern European divisions are Tales of the Supernatural, Hasidic Tales, Holocaust Tales, Historical Tales, Tales between Jews and Non-Jews, and again, Moral Tales, Folktales, and Humorous Tales.

The commentaries are generous, sometimes even longer than their respective tales. The collector, the informant, and the place of collection are noted; further information about the first two is given in biographies at the end of the volume. Then comes a section on the cultural, historical, and literary background of the text. Analogous tales in the IFA are listed, as are international tale type and motif numbers. For many of the tales, the section on the cultural, historical, and literary background constitutes a compact study, with emphasis of course on Jewish variants, of the tale type, folktale cycle, or theme under consideration. Different aspects of the tale, such as important motifs or structural elements, are selected for special attention. These outstanding notes demonstrate how the folklorists’ concepts of motif and type are not only useful for sorting and indexing, but they also enable the analyst to identify the tale’s components and show how its parts fit together into an artistic construction.

Compared to the tales in most folktale anthologies, Jewish tales seem more explicitly didactic. They often demonstrate good and bad behavior, illustrate a proverb or other maxim, or explain why some aspect of the world is the way it is. These lessons of course are inconsistent: for example, many misogynistic tales co-exist with a few feminist ones, and non-Jews are sometimes esteemed and sometimes reviled.

Jewish culture values the study of religious texts and commentaries. This attitude seems to have been carried over into the study of secular and international literature as well, and Noy deserves credit for securing a place for folklore in this company. The Jewish Publication Society obviously expects that readers of this series will be interested not just in the folktales but also in the scholarly notes. In contrast, for example, the series format for the headnotes in Noy’s Folktales of Israel (University of Chicago Press, 1963) consisted of the name of the narrator and the archive number of the tale, its type or motif number, and published analogs. This establishes the tales’ authenticity and traditionality, but it falls far short of the notes in the present series, which refer to the extensive literary tradition of rabbinical writings and other historical sources that provide ancient, medieval, early modern, and recent examples of many of these traditional tales, whether they be Jewish only or shared with other religious groups. With so many historical examples, the interdependence of oral and written (or published) versions often becomes apparent. The ancestors of Jews now living in Israel lived in many parts of the world and adopted traditional tales from many different regional cultures. “Jewish folklore” has decided to embrace this diversity, and is also eager to expand its interest to non-Jewish analogs where applicable.

One of the many accomplishments of Noy’s career has been his ability to situate folklore texts in their international, multi-cultural context and, almost simultaneously, to interpret them as oikotypes (expressions of unique local folk beliefs). This dual approach is often found in Jewish folklore scholarship, and Ben-Amos utilizes it here most effectively. He draws on scholarship from many fields including folklore, ethnology, and Jewish religious and secular history and literature. This technique is informative for all readers and explains especially to outsiders why or how the tale is important to its narrator and community. We can expect that when the rest of the series becomes available, it will illustrate the recurrence of various themes and motifs among the different Jewish ethnic groups in Israel.

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