Chicken Soup is good for everybody

No publishing franchise has grown more quickly or dramatically than the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, which first appeared about a decade ago. To date, some 80 million copies of 65 titles published in 37 languages have been sold, earning the series citation in the “Guiness Book of World Records” for the most books at one time on The New York Times best-seller list: seven “Chicken Soup” titles on May 24, 1998.

The metaphor of chicken soup as a source of nourishment and healing has been, as one writer put it, “a Jewish linguistic and dietary staple since time immemorial.” Chicken soup is a universal remedy for heart, mind, body and soul. It has been celebrated as “the Jewish penicillin,” in deference to its cure-all effects.

But it took motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen to draw the analogy between chicken soup and storytelling, with its power to inspire, create, transform and heal. Encouraged by their audiences to compile and publish motivating and uplifting stories, they collected 101 of their best for the first “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” which appeared in 1993.

But a far more ambitious vision of chicken soup books with stories targeting scores of different audiences took hold. Soon there were books for teenagers, parents, Christians, veterans, writers, sports fans, gardeners, nurses, even cat and dog lovers. To identify and vet the literally thousands of stories solicited from their audiences and motivational speaker colleagues, Canfied and Hansen established review panels and rating systems to select the most appealing stories as each edition took form. The “Chicken Soup” books are truly authorship by committee.

Today the “Chicken Soup” series is a cottage industry and seems unstoppable. The millions of its readers worldwide are invited on its Web site to submit ideas for titles and themes for additional volumes. One of the most recent of the books organized from such diverse input is “Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul,” which reinforces the metaphor twice over, as both chicken soup and storytelling are major components of the Jewish tradition.

So what’s in this 400-page book? Actually quite a bit for a $12.95 paperback. Some 90 stories are grouped under such headings as “On Love and Kindness,” “Family” and “The Holocaust.” The stories are often brief excerpts or condensations from longer texts, with the average literary item running three to four pages. Some of the entries are memorable, including Tom Veres’ recollection of meeting Raoul Wallenberg in 1944, or Rachel Remen’s “Outspoken Blessings” about visiting her grandfather.

The authors’ list features a smorgasbord of Jewish celebrities: Anne Frank, Golda Meir, Harold Kushner, Kirk Douglas, George Burns and Natan Sharansky are among the more familiar. But most contributors are literary unknowns, readers of previous Chicken Soup books who responded to the call for the “Jewish Soul.” Brief capsule bios indicate a broad range of contributors from many walks of life.

“Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul” is a critical slam-dunk. What could be wrong or wanting with a treasure trove of inspiring, heart-tugging, powerful stories about the joys, sorrows and challenges of being Jewish? The anthology runs an emotional gamut from stories that make one think to those that make one cry, laugh or want to tell another story.

There is simply no risk: Dip in anywhere and a story for every taste and sensibility will inevitably be found. Ninety stories. Not to mention, for budget-conscious readers, the fact that the book is a terrific economic as well as literary investment: about 14 cents a story.

Elie Wiesel once wrote that God created the human race because of his love for stories. As co-authors Canfield, Hansen and Dov Peretz Elkins write in their introduction, “Without creatures on the Earth, what stories could be wrought to bring God the joy, intrigue, curiosity, celebration and sanctification that are embedded in each and every Jewish story?”

“Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul: Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit,” by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Dov Peretz Elkins (400 pages, Health Communications, Inc., $12.95.)