Scholar to explore function of folklore in culture of Israel

Once upon a time Israelis told the legend with much emotion and seriousness. Today the tale is somewhat of a national joke, on the same level as George Washington and the cherry tree.

"Trumpeldor became a mythological hero. But the value of heroism isn't so important in Israeli society today. Values like individualism and self-fulfillment are taking over," said Haya Bar-Itzhak, an anthropology professor at the University of Haifa.

On sabbatical for a year and teaching at U.C. Berkeley, Bar-Itzhak contends that myths, legends and folklore illustrate the values of a culture or society. While those values may change, and the stories transform, the myths and legends are nonetheless necessary to "create and maintain a social order.

"They are a way of internalizing the values of our society," she said.

Bar-Itzhak will speak about Israeli folklore, and myths in transformation, at the 15th annual Israel Education Day, on Sunday, March 16 in Berkeley. Other speakers include Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, political consultant John Rothmann and Israeli DJ Ronen Doron.

Israeli pop musician Assaf Amdursky will close the day, which is sponsored by the Israel Center of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and a number of East Bay congregations and Jewish organizations.

According to Bar-Itzhak, Israeli folklore predates the formation of the Zionist state. It focuses on the legends of the settlers and of the kibbutz movement — traditional tales of immigration and absorption telling the story of the state's creation and its development from metaphoric David to Goliath.

But since the emergence of the state, other myths have sprung up, including some specific to Israel's cultural groups and regions.

One popular story is of the uprooting of trees at Kibbutz Ginnosar, near the Sea of Galilee. According to Bar-Itzhak, the trees are symbols of Jews, Arabs and nature, as well as values of heroism, sacrifice and culture.

Another myth that has transformed over time belongs to the Yemenite Jews.

They used to visit the tomb of poet and Rabbi Shalem Shabazi in Taez, Yemen, seeking cures for their ailments. Similarly, childless couples asked for fertility.

As Jews are no longer able to visit the tomb, a synagogue was built in Netanya and named after Shabazi. Now Yemenite Jews go there to ask for health.

"They created a sacred pilgrimage space by naming the synagogue with his name," Bar-Itzhak explained. "It is the same story — a sacred figure performing miracles. But now it takes place in a new place, Israel."

Bar-Itzhak said myths and stories undergo such transformations rather than dying out because "people need myths.

"Myths detach our feelings and become a part of us. They educate a new generation by social order," Bar-Itzhak said. "When you listen to these stories, you learn a lot about culture. They are our values.

"Folk narratives are really cultural interpretations. They are the infrastructure of a group, the first thing you know about a culture."

Often, in Israel as in other countries, historical figures become mythical heroes. The details of their lives may be missing, but "what is important is their heroism — the cultural value," Bar-Itzhak said.

But she is careful to refer to folklore as a cultural phenomenon, worthy of scholarly attention, rather than as superstition.

"We don't use the word superstition. We speak about beliefs," Bar-Itzhak said. "To someone who doesn't believe [in a story or legend], it's a superstition. To those who believe, it's a belief."