- I am proud when my own insights and interpretations are later discovered in the rishonim [early authorities] or the early aharonim [later authorities].
My great-grandfather, Reb Yosef Baer of Brisk [1820-1892], always said that when you travel on a main highway you meet other travelers. When you go on a side road you meet nobody. In other words, when your original ideas are correct, you will encounter others who think your way. However, if you do not uncover support for your thesis, it may very well be incorrect.
~The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2, Page 196
My idea is simply this: one cannot possibly understand the Torah or Midrash without being well-versed in fairy tales and folklore. The two are inextricably intertwined. Learning fairytales and folklore only supplements and aids you in comprehending the Torah. Not learning them means that you will not understand the way in which these midrashim have been structured, or how they compare and/or differ from the stories they are based on.
I was disappointed, therefore, to find that someone else had already come up with my idea. I had hoped it was original. I then remembered the above quote by Rabbi Soloveitchik and felt a little better. It's a rather odd understanding of originality, what he posits. After all, if you're original, isn't the whole point that no one else has arrived at your idea before? But he interprets originality subjectively. You came up with this by yourself, on your own. No one helped you. It was your insight. And yes, your insight was correct and is corroborated, but it is still yours and you can still feel proud of yourself.
I can't say I completely agree on that definition of originality, but I am always happy when I figure something out for myself.
That having been said, here is the excellent book that lends support to my idea.
This is a little-known book entitled Elijah's Violin and Other Jewish Fairy Tales. Its copyright date is 1945. The only reason I have it is because it was my mother's. Upon reading this book for the first time, a while ago, I realized that this is not a collection of fairy tales so much as a collection of midrashim. These midrashim have been retold in beautiful language and presented as fairy tales but they are actually taken from the aggadata in the Talmud and other sources. The sources are not actually given in the book; instead the compiler simply notes the country of origin.
I had read this book once and remembered it vaguely. Upon doing some research for a different project of mine, I remembered that a particular midrash was referenced in this book. (I am probably the only person to look through fairy tales in order to find tales from the Gemara.) I happened to glance at the introduction to the book and read it through (I had not done so the first time I read the book.) To my delight, I found that Howard Schwartz corroborates everything I have always thought.
- Tales of magic and wonder can be found in every phase of Jewish literature, both sacred and secular. Among the post-biblical aggadot (legends) and the maaysiot (tales) of Jewish folklore are to be found a number of stories which can readily be identified as traditional fairy tales. Some of these are the universal type of fairy tale set in an enchanted land and populated with a variety of human and supernatural beings, both good and evil, and are Jewish solely by virtue of their source. But many others, perhaps half of the existing body of Jewish fairy tales, have fused some specific aspects of Jewish life and tradition with the archetypal fairy-tale framework. For the fairy-tale version of the world as a stage on which good and evil struggle is fully compatible with the Jewish view of the essential condition of this world, where faith in God can defeat the evil impulse, known as the Yetzer Hara.
- The pioneering work of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson in this field, especially in The Types of the Folk-Tale, has demonstrated convincingly the parallel themes and patterns of fairy tales and other kinds of folktales found throughout the world. The fairy tales collected in the following pages from a wide range of Jewish sources and periods substantiate the thesis of Aarne and Thompson. There are even Jewish variants of such well-known fairy tales as "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," and "The Golden Bird," but at the same time they contain many unique qualities as a result of their origin. Especially those fairy tales which concern Jewish legendary figures have brought with them the customs and settings of the milieu from which they have emerged, and are valuable bearers of the Jewish tradition.
The entire introduction is fantastic. Schwartz traces the history of fairy tales and Jewish ones in particular, beginning with the Torah and continuing through the modern day. Many of his points are extremely insightful. He explains that Rabbi Nachman's tales, for example, are in fact"complex allegories frequently linked to myths concerning the Shekhinah and the Messiah" (Schwartz 12). This is absolutely correct. He further explains, however, that these tales need not be "read allegorically to be appreciated. The tales have great power in themselves, for Nachman's figures, events, and images are, at once, so primary and so subtle that they evoke the numinous quality of the inner world" (Schwartz 13). Schwartz also mentions the ways in which these Jewish fairy tales allude to the Torah (something I am fond of doing.) In one example, there is the notion of "the kiss of death" whch is echoed in a talmudic legend which "describes the death of Moses as having come from the Kiss of the Shekhinah" (Schwartz 10). As he writes, "for those familiar with the talmudic legend" the fairy tale's echo is "readily apparent, and enriches the resonance of the tale" (Schwartz 10).
Upon reading through the stories, I was pleased to find that I could go further than Schwartz. He had mentioned the stories that bear a resemblance to Cinderella, Rapunzel and the Golden Bird, but he had not noted that the very story his collection is named after, "Elijah's Violin," is actually a Jewish retelling of "Finist the Falcon!" This amused me. (Those links take you to the full version of each story; they're well-worth reading.)
An excerpt from "The Demon Princess" that all of you will recognize:
- Soon afterward other demons began to arrive for the morning services, and before long one of them suddenly cried out: "I smell the smell of one born of woman!" and all of the others shouted in agreement and they soon discovered the man among them. But the shammash spoke up and said: "You must not harm this man, for he is under my protection." And because of the respect they had for that demon, they agreed not to harm him, but they wanted to know how he had reached their kingdom, so remote from all human habitation.
You are perhaps wondering why there is a shammash in the kingdom of demons. Schwartz answers this, explaining that "the description of the religious life in the kingdom of the demons, which seems parallel, in every respect, to that of a devout Jew of the Middle Ages [...] is not intended as a mockery, for the Yenne Velt, the world in which demons and other spirits live, was believed to be a mirror image, somewhat distorted, of the world in which we live" (10).
Fairy tales can be read on several different levels. There is the literal fairy tale, a child's guide to life. It is through reading fairy tales that children realize how the world works, that children are introduced to the concept of good and evil and of justice. This is partially the reason that there are many fairy tales with cruel or unhappy endings; it was to give over the understanding that the world is not a fair place, to teach the child this from the moment he enters the world. This is also the reason my father did not read me these fairy tales as a child; he chose instead to focus upon the ones where good is rewarded and evil punished. In "The Goose Girl," for instance, the scheming maidservant is found out and the humble princess rewarded. That tale is particularly fitting because the Queen chooses her own punishment (indeed, this happens in many fairy tales), an idea which is seen in everything from Haman's inadvertantly choosing Mordechai's reward to kings unknowingly pronouncing judgement upon themselves. The latter is the closer match, of course.
Then there is the reason for writing a fairy tale. Sometimes fairy tales are written with specific messages or purposes; they are allegorical presentations of important ideas. R' Nachman's "The Exiled Princess" is about the Shekhina. Other fairy tales, as Schwartz explains, cite R' Adam as an Illusionist who helps his people, the Jews, out of many unfortunate circumstances. "It is not difficult," writes Schwartz, "to recognize in these tales the deep frustrations, impotence and isolation experienced by Jews in the medieval period, and to see how the fantasy mechanisms of the fairy tale operate. For it is out of the people's longing to be independant and secure that such tales emerged..." (11)
From the time I was a child, I was raised on Jewish fairy-tales which were actually retold midrashim. I was not raised on Artscroll books, indeed, upon being finally exposed to them, I remember thinking of them as being very colorless and boring. My favorite Jewish book as a child was The Diamond Tree. I loved this book so much that every Shabbos, when I walked with my father to shul and passed a beautiful tree hung with glittering ornaments and wind chimes, I would exclaim, "The Diamond Tree! The Diamond Tree!" The other book, this one associated with my mother, is the absolutely beautiful work The Uninvited Guest. Both The Diamond Tree and The Uninvited Guest feature dazzling pictures as well; I was as fascinated by the pictures as the stories.
Unfortunately, very few people know about these books because they are not sold in typical bookstores. My mother, being the very literary person that she is, researched everything I read and made sure to read it herself before giving it to me. As a child, my imagination knew no bounds and I was enthralled by Judaism because it was Judaism that brought me the most delightful stories of Og upon the Ark or the witch who turned children into diamonds. All of these stories are actually midrashim or tie in to the Torah.
One of the ways to give over the true beauty of Judaism is through delving into its texts. Jewish midrashim, aggadata and folklore is beautiful and complex. For the imaginative child, this is best accomplished by introducing her to works like The Diamond Tree, The Uninvited Guest, The Little Midrash Says, Tales from the Gemara and upon her growing older, Elijah's Violin, The Midrash Says, Legends of the Jews and the like. There are also the beautiful tales of the Ba'al Shem Tov and other miracle-workers. (The most comprehensive version is the four-volume set Tales of the Baal Shem Tov compiled by Yisroel Ya'akov Klapholz, but it is only put out by Mishor Publishing in Bnei Brak and may be difficult to find.)
Judaism boasts a halakhic, analytical beauty for the rational mind; the halakha and Gemara are a pleasure for the mathematical person. It also boasts a moving, emotional form of beauty in its literature and folklore, and this is what touches the heart of the person who is more focused in humanities. I love that the one religion can encompass so many ways of seeing and learning, that we have room for our homo religiosus and our halakhic man, the man who lives and breathes stories and the other who chooses to refute them in favor of a science that can also be supported within our doctrines. And that both people have the freedom to meet and interact with one another, to sometimes step outside their lines and boundaries and simply wonder aloud, contemplating the world at large and finding it-and each other- to be good.