Dig in to (more than) 1,001 nights of Sephardic Jewish stories

One of the great wonders of Judaism is its storytelling. From the Torah to the Talmud to Philip Roth, Jews have been telling stories since the beginning of time.

So it was with tremendous pleasure that I read about the Israel Folklore Archives. Founded in 1955 by Dov Noy at the University of Haifa, the IFA has set about collecting stories of the Jewish people through our great oral tradition.

Through these stories we find the “ethical teachings, role models, cautionary tales and collective memory” of the Jews, as well as wonderful rabbi stories and puzzlers. In all, some 23,000 stories have been collected by the IFA; for this series, 355 tales have been selected for publication in five volumes. The first volume, the subject of this review, is “Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion.”

That will be followed by four more volumes: “Tales from Eastern Europe” (which has just been released), “Folktales of Arabia,” “Folktales of the Orient” and “Folktales from Other Lands.”

Beginning with stories from the Sephardic experience was a good choice because the tales are exotic and alluring. We read of our brothers and sisters in Istanbul, Ethiopia and throughout the Middle East. Bringing in the Arabic experience adds richness and depth and helps expand one’s Jewish horizons.

Each story is followed by commentary intended to provide the cultural, historical and literary background for the tale. In addition, there are extensive references to other stories in the Israel Folklore Archives (but not in the book, as well as lists of folktales, types of folktales and folklore motifs.

But there is good and bad news with this publication.

The not so good news is that the editors don’t have a clearly identified audience in mind. The book appears to have been written for the general Jewish reading. But at times, I had to read a paragraph several times to gain its meaning. I kept feeling like I should really know what the editors were talking about, but I just couldn’t follow.

But if one doesn’t get bogged down in the details, the commentaries could provide a wealth of insights for the ardent students of Jewish folktales. I could easily see “Folktales” on the required reading list of University of Haifa students studying the modern interpretation of the “oral tradition.” For the layman, however, it is a challenge.

The biggest organizational stumbling block in the book is its lack of page numbers in the table of contents. Clearly this is intentional —the editors obviously wanted the stories listed by their Israel Folktale Archive (IFA) number, not where they can be found in the book. Still, since the stories are not in numerical order and there is no index, it’s hard to find stories again just by memory. I found this frustrating.

But enough about indexes and commentaries. The stories themselves are, of course, wonderful. They bring forth a different time, era and experience. It should be noted that the stories are reprinted exactly as they are told, so they are not polished and tend to be a bit rough around the edges.

Stories of Maimonides, the Ba’al Shem Tov, great rabbis and humble servants provide colorful personalities from which a variety of tales are drawn.

It is also interesting to see the portrayals of women and non-Jews. From a 21st century American perspective, let’s just say none of these stories would appear in Ms. or the Atlantic Monthly.

For example, there is the story of a bear that makes a poor musician rich. The poor musician plays for a bear that vomits coins in appreciation. The musician wants to thank the bear, so he invites him to his home. Telling his wife and daughters that they are welcoming the man who made them rich, they are rather dismayed and upset when a dirty old bear shows up.

The bear then tells the musician to leave his wife and children, move to Israel and become a holy man. The musician does indeed leave his wife and seven daughters and moves to Israel to study Torah. One can only hope that after learning Torah he returns home to take care of his family!

Then there is the story of the merchant and Rabbi Meir Ba’al Ha-Nes. In this story, a Jewish merchant in India refuses to purchase traditional insurance. Instead, he regularly sends funds to Rabbi Meir Ba’al Ha-Nes in Tiberias, known as the “Master of the Miracle.”

As luck would have it, there is a great storm and all of the local ships are lost at sea. The merchant’s wife chastises him for not purchasing insurance, and the merchant locks himself in his room and prays.

After several days, the captain of his ship arrives, alive and well. He explains that while all of the ships around them sank, theirs remained steady and afloat. He simply had to hold on until the storm passed. The Jewish merchant was vindicated and he continued to send funds to the “Master of the Miracle” all the days of his life.

It is to the editors’ credit that they have kept the stories as they were — politically correct or not — because it is through stories like these that we see our evolution. In the end, the stories do what all good stories do: entertain us while providing us with useful insight into our history.

“Folktales of the Jews: Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion.” Edited and with commentary by Dan Ben-Amos, Dov Noy et al. (600 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $75)