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The Deepest Resource

THE FOLKTALE IS the most unpretentious and democratic form of literature—a story that everyone is free to tell and embellish because it belongs to no one in particular. In the early nineteenth century, the apparent authorlessness of folktales is what made them so appealing to cultural nationalists. If no single person invented a folktale, it must have arisen in some primal, almost mystical way from the mind of the people, the folk. It is no coincidence that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the brothers who first published such fairytales as Snow White and Rumpelstilskin, were also the authors of a pioneering German dictionary and works on German legal history. All these activities were designed to prove that Germans, while they lacked a national state, had a national culture.

But reading Folktales of the Jews, Volume 3: Tales from Arab Lands, the remarkable new collection issued by the Jewish Publication Society, shows how dubious this way of thinking about folktales really is. This anthology of sixty stories is drawn from the Israel Folk Archives at the University of Haifa, where, starting in the 1950s, immigrants to Israel from around the world recorded the folktales of their native lands. (The volume opens with a foreword by Ellen Frankel, the series’ editor, paying affectionate tribute to Dov Noy, one of the twentieth century’s leading scholars of folklore, the founder of the IFA, and “an unsung Jewish hero.”) Earlier volumes in the series covered tales from Eastern Europe and the Sephardic Diaspora. This one includes stories from Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, and other Arab lands that were, until 1948, home to ancient Jewish communities.

Originally, these stories were told orally, in the humblest circumstances: “watching over a delivering woman, during condolence visits, on holidays and on the Sabbath. … On the trips men took to and from markets.” The generations of Jews who recounted them would doubtless be surprised to see them as they appear in this book, so formidably armored by scholarship. It is not uncommon for a one-page story to be followed by eight pages of footnotes and commentary, and each tale is cross-referenced against The Types of the Folktale, the standard register of folklore motifs.

The lay reader will not be able to make much use of these motif codes (“D2188.2: Person Vanishes”, or “N825.2: Old Man Helper”). But seeing them after each tale helps to drive home an important point about the universality of folktales. It is natural to read Tales from Arab Lands for insight into Jewish and Arab cultures or for a sense of connection with this part of the Jewish past; and the stories do yield some historical insights. Yet these Jewish stories—about the Baal Shem Tov (whose legends spread from Hasidic communities in the Land of Israel into Arabic folk traditions), or King Solomon, or some venerated Moroccan rabbi—are usually close cousins of folktales told in other parts of the world, from Scandinavia to Japan. Just as humanity’s language instinct allows us to invent thousands of different languages from the same basic elements, so our story-telling instinct leads us to adapt the same narratives to every climate and culture.

Take, for instance, the brief story of “Rabbi Shelomoh the Lion,” about a Moroccan tzaddik known for his exceptional piety. Once it happened that a fight broke out between local Arabs and Jews, and Shlomo was chased by some Arabs into a dark cave. When he entered, he saw a lion with its foot raised in the air; fearlessly, he approached and pulled a thorn out of the lion’s foot. In gratitude, the lion protected Shlomo and even let him ride on his back.

This story may shed some light on the historical animosity between Morocco’s Jewish and Arab populations. But it is also, unmistakably, a retelling of Androcles and the Lion, a famous legend from ancient Greece. The notes show that a similar story was told about Saint Jerome, the early church father, and also about the twelfth-century rabbi Samuel ben Kalonymus of Speyer, who was said to have befriended a leopard. It says something about the strange epistemology of folktales that the man who recorded “Rabbi Shlomo the Lion,” one David Buhbut, claimed that it was a story about his own grandfather and took place just fifty years in the past. Surely, we think, he could not have literally believed this? But then, ancient Roman writers also recorded the Androcles story as true history.

A number of the shorter tales in this volume are so plainly moral fables that the question of facticity hardly arises. Consider the second tale in the book, “Reciting Psalms,” which was recorded by Bajah Cohen, a woman from Tunisia. (Each narrator is named and given a brief biographical note, a gesture that seems designed at once to honor the teller, vouch for the tale’s authenticity, and prevent the reader from taking it as a timeless, placeless folk product.) “Once upon a time,” the story begins in classic style, there was a Jewish storekeeper so poor that he couldn’t afford to buy food for his family. Instead, he spent all day in his shop reciting psalms, and when his wife nagged him, he would merely reply, “One must trust in God!” The night before Passover, as he sat reciting psalms, a customer came into his shop. Before leaving, he touched one of the rafters in the ceiling: “The poor man looked at the rafter, and behold, it was entirely gold.” Naturally, the customer had been Elijah the Prophet, there to reward the Jew’s piety and make it possible for him to celebrate Passover.

The moral of the tale could not be more straightforward: trust in God will be rewarded. In particular, it drives home the potency of the psalms, which as the editors point out was a democratic gesture: “Because of the familiarity of the psalms through the synagogue service, Jews who were not learned in any other aspect of the Jewish tradition knew them.”

Other tales cross the border from pious homily to superstition and folk magic. “The Holy Book” is a suite of stories of about the Zghair, a particularly sacred Torah scroll cherished by the Jews of Derna, in Libya. A boy dies, but his body is placed next to the scroll, and he miraculously gets up and starts to walk. When a child is born, at any time of the day or night, the Zghair knows and immediately tells the shammash what name to enter in the community register. Rather charmingly, “sometimes the Zghair felt like being read,” so it would switch places with the other scrolls in the ark, “push to the front of the line, and the shammash had to use it that Sabbath.”

Such stories, one feels, could be a hundred years old or a thousand years old—indeed, the Jews of Derna believed that the Zghair was written in Jerusalem at the time of Ezra, in the sixth century BCE. Yet the folk tradition could also evolve with the times. One pointed story, set “before World War I,” describes how some rich American Jews came to Derna and tried to buy the Zghair. They put it on a ship for New York and kept close watch over it, but when the scroll’s case “was brought with pomp and circumstance to the magnificent synagogue in New York,” it turned out to be empty: the Zghair had magically returned to Libya, where it belonged. Alas, the time came when the Jews of Derna themselves had to leave, but at least they took the Zghair with them. It is now in a synagogue in Netanya, Israel.

The most interesting moments in Tales from Arab Lands, however, are when the stories induce an odd literary déjà vu. In “The Cruel Loaner and the Clever Princess,” a poor Jewish merchant in Casablanca borrows money from a rich Jew, who sets one condition: “At the year’s end, if you don’t return the money I loaned you, you agree to give me a kilogram of flesh from your own body.” When the year is up, the debtor is unable to pay. Luckily, however, he has won the love of a clever princess, who disguises herself as a male lawyer and defends him in court. “I demand that the rich man will cut from the body of the young man precisely one kilogram of flesh. … If he cuts too much, we’ll cut from his flesh that amount, to return it to the young man,” she warns. Whereupon the creditor, outwitted, agrees to “waive both the flesh and the money.”

When I first read this tale, I wondered how and when The Merchant of Venice could possibly have filtered into Moroccan Jewish folk culture. Reading the notes, however, I realized my mistake. It was Shakespeare who, in that play as in so many others, took over a pre-existing folk story for his plot. The “pound of flesh” motif is found in medieval Latin stories starting in the thirteenth century. In the earliest examples, the creditor is a serf and the debtor a young nobleman who had once injured him. It was not until later that it evolved into an anti-Jewish parable, with a vengeful Jew extracting the flesh of a Christian.

But “The Cruel Loaner” nicely turns the tables on the Shylock story. Here, both the debtor and the creditor are Jews, so the loaner cannot be motivated by Shylock’s resentment of Gentiles (“if you prick us, do we not bleed,” and so forth). And the loaner, while cruel, finally listens to reason and gives up his pound of flesh, so that there is no need for Portia’s lecture on Christian virtue (“the quality of mercy is not strained”). Here as throughout Tales from Arab Lands, the folktale demonstrates one of its greatest attractions: it gives every people the right to tell its own stories.

This piece originally appeared in Tablet.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Tablet.