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“The Classic Tales, 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore”

The Classic Tales, 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore

by Ellen Frankel

Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1989

659 pp., $60

In her selection and retelling of 300 “classic” tales, Ellen Frankel has achieved some desirable diversity. Like folktales in many non-Jewish traditions, these stories blend realism with the fantastic, conjuring magical remedies for ill fortune, poverty, marriage gone awry, and the pious gone astray. Sections include “In the Beginning !’ “In the Lands of the Diaspora!’ “The Hasidic Period!’ and “Tales of Elijah the Prophet!’ Quite an undertaking!

Running one-third of a page to six pages in length, these tales reveal the tellers’ preoccupations with destiny, wisdom, sin, atonement, the desirability of riches, and the inability of riches to substitute for enduring values. A number of stories dramatize the tribulations of being poor or childless, facing one’s own or a beloved’s death, or disobeying a sage.

Frankel says that she was impelled to give Jewish children a wider range of Jewish tradition through “voices that haven’t been heard” — that is, female voices. She also has deliberately omitted misogynist tales.

In the tale “Lilith’,’ where Lilith prowls through the night seeking to harm newborn babies, Frankel tinkers with the classic version by giving Lilith, “compassion for her sister creatures… the mothers of these innocent babies!’ It would have been useful, however, to know precisely what changes Frankel has made. Some readers may prefer to learn how, originally, Jewish tradition construed women’s roles, rather than to revel in a revisionist version, despite its attraction.

The images in these tales, though rare, are splendid. “… he saw something flowing red, fluttering like a great wing. It was the beast’s heart, and when he drew closer, Israel saw that it was filled with immeasurable sadness and pain” [from “The Werewolf’]. Or, “And sure enough, there in the red soup floated the shimmering moon, like a thick slice of onion” [from “Chelm Captures the Moon”]. Humor is in short supply, yet welcome, as in “The Unpaid Pledge” and “The Gentile’s Impatience!’ both of which teach correct behavior.

Too often the title gives away the story, depriving the reader of the pleasure of discovering what happens even before she has begun the tale. For example, the title “The Bride Who Saved Her Husband from the Angel of Death” gives us the denouement at the outset.

Six indexes (including “Holidays!’ “Symbols” and “Character Types”) and a list of sources and glossary are excellent. The collection Frankel has amassed, evidently with much labor and care, is impressive. “The basic impulse of the Jewish tale;’ she writes, is “to make sense out of the things that happen to us, as individuals and as a people!’
Who’s to argue?

Carole L. Glickfeld is writer-in-residence at Interlochen Arts Academy.