Its no myth: Jews, storytelling and the oral tradition

Jewish tradition teaches that God dictated the written Torah to Moses during the day, and at night explained it to him.

Those explanations were later recorded in the Talmud, but for centuries the laws and legends were maintained as an oral tradition passed down through the generations, says Howard Schwartz, an author, storyteller and expert on Jewish mythology.

It’s the oral Torah, Schwartz contends, that opened the door for a rich lineage of Jewish folktales, fairy tales and mythology that he has devoted his career to collecting, preserving and retelling.

Howard Schwartz

“When I was in fourth grade, we had the Larousse book of mythology with Zeus throwing lightning bolts and things like that. I looked through the contents and it had Greek and Roman and Norse and Chinese and Native American and African,” said Schwartz, who recently retired after 40 years as a professor of literature at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “I raised my hand and said ‘Where is the Jewish mythology?’ The teacher said, ‘There is no Jewish mythology!’ ”

His teacher was wrong, Schwartz would realize many years later when he began researching and collecting traditional Jewish stories during his academic career.

Schwartz will soon bring his deep expertise in Jewish myths and storytelling to the Bay Area for a speaking tour with four appearances at Jewish institutions between March 5 and March 8.

“There are some people who believe that other people have myths, but we [Jews] have truth,” said Schwartz, who prefers the definition of mythology offered by American mythologist Joseph Campbell. “He says myth is the collective dream of a people. What people would want to lose their collective dream? Are the Jewish people the only people that don’t have it?”

Schwartz grew up  in a Conservative Jewish home in St. Louis. He entered the field of Jewish mythology accidentally, when he met Dov Noy, Jewish folklorist and founder of the Israel Folktale Archives, on a trip to Israel in 1977. Though Schwartz was already a scholar of Jewish literature, the rich world of myths from Talmud, Midrash, medieval Jewish literature and ethnic oral stories was new to him. Noy and Schwartz began meeting regularly, and Noy eventually gave Schwartz the “key to the kingdom” — access to the folktale archives, from which Schwartz collected a wide variety of Jewish stories.

Schwartz has now authored more than 40 books for children and adults, including “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism,” which won the 2005 National Jewish Book Award.

Some Jewish myths take the form of traditional fairy tales, with perhaps a Jewish setting or holiday woven in to set them apart, Schwartz said. Others, particularly legends recorded by the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash, were created to explain potential problems in the Torah, he said. For instance, in Genesis, God creates light on the first day, but the sun, moon and stars don’t come into existence until the fourth day. The rabbis explained that this first light was a sacred light, and hundreds of legends sprang up to account for where the sacred light came from and how it went away.

“Those that insist you have to understand these Jewish stories literally are fundamentalists. It’s not an approach that I like,” Schwartz said. “With mythology, you don’t ask if it’s true or not. Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi [one of the founders of the Renewal movement] said to me, ‘The Jewish people are starved for mythology.’ ”

In order to sate that appetite, Schwartz trained himself to become a storyteller. He will give a short talk on Shabbat morning, March 5 at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. He will also give a talk titled “Is There a Jewish Mythology” at 1:30 p.m. on March 6 at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Library and 12:45 p.m. March 8 at the Graduate Theological Union at U.C. Berkeley. At 7:30 p.m. on March 7, he will give a lecture on “The Storytelling of the Rabbis” at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley. Then it’s on to Modesto for a March 11 talk at Congregation Beth Shalom.

Schwartz said his role is to preserve stories, but there is an art to the retelling.

“I think of myself as a tailor. If it just needs a little bit of fixing up, you fix it. If it’s a shmata, you may need to do a little work on it,” he said. “It just depends on the condition.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.