Monday, June 27, 2011

Jewish tales from Arab lands are universal

Victor Mature stars in the film Androcles and the Lion (1952) - a universal tale

Heard the tale about the lion with a thorn in its paw? Or the pound of flesh? Jewish tales from Arab lands are universal, writes Adam Kirsch in this book review in The Tablet :

Originally, these stories were told orally, in the humblest circumstances: “watching over a delivering woman, during condolence visits, on holidays and on the Sabbath. … On the trips men took to and from markets.” The generations of Jews who recounted them would doubtless be surprised to see them as they appear in this book, so formidably armored by scholarship. It’s not uncommon for a one-page story to be followed by eight pages of footnotes and commentary, and each tale is cross-referenced against the standard register of folklore motifs, The Types of the Folktale.

The lay reader will not be able to make much use of these motif codes (e.g., “D2188.2: Person Vanishes”; “N825.2: Old Man Helper”). But simply seeing them after each tale helps to drive home an important point about the universality of folktales. It is natural to read Tales From Arab Lands for insight into Jewish and Arab cultures or for a sense of connection with this part of the Jewish past; and the stories do yield some historical insights. Yet these Jewish stories—whether they are about the Baal Shem Tov, or King Solomon, or some venerated Moroccan rabbi—are usually close cousins of folktales told in other parts of the world, from Scandinavia to Japan. Just as humanity’s language instinct allows us to invent thousands of different languages from the same basic elements, so our story-telling instinct leads us to adapt the same narratives to every climate and culture.

Take, for instance, the brief story of “Rabbi Shelomoh the Lion,” about a Moroccan tzaddik known for his exceptional piety. Once it happened that a fight broke out between local Arabs and Jews, and Shelomoh was chased by some Arabs into a dark cave. When he entered, he saw a lion with its foot raised in the air; fearlessly, he approached and pulled a thorn out of the lion’s foot. In gratitude, the lion protected Shelomoh and even let him ride on his back.

This story may shed some light on the historical animosity between Morocco’s Jewish and Arab populations. But it is also, unmistakably, a retelling of a very famous legend from ancient Greece, “Androcles and the Lion.” The notes show that a similar story was told about Saint Jerome, the early church father, and also about the 12th-century rabbi Samuel ben Kalonymus of Speyer, who was said to have befriended a leopard. It says something about the strange epistemology of folktales that the man who recorded “Rabbi Shelomoh the Lion,” one David Buhbut, claimed that it was a story about his own grandfather and took place just 50 years in the past. Surely, we think, he could not have literally believed this? But then, ancient Roman writers also recorded the Androcles story as true history.

A number of the shorter tales in this volume are so plainly moral fables that the question of fact hardly arises. Take the second tale in the book, “Reciting Psalms,” which was recorded by Bajah Cohen, a woman from Tunisia. (Each narrator is named and given a brief biographical note, a gesture that seems designed at once to honor the teller, vouch for the tale’s authenticity, and prevent the reader from taking it as a timeless, placeless folk product.) “Once upon a time,” the story begins in classic style, there was a Jewish storekeeper so poor that he couldn’t afford to buy food for his family. Instead, he spent all day in his shop reciting psalms, and when his wife nagged him, he would merely reply, “One must trust in God!”

The night before Passover, as he sat reciting psalms, a customer came into his shop. Before leaving, he touched one of the rafters in the ceiling: “The poor man looked at the rafter, and behold, it was entirely gold.” Naturally, the customer had been Elijah the Prophet, there to reward the Jew’s piety and make it possible for him to celebrate Pesach. The moral of the tale could not be more straightforward: Trust in God will be rewarded. In particular, it drives home the potency of the psalms, which as the notes point out was a democratic gesture. “Because of the familiarity of the psalms through the synagogue service, Jews who were not learned in any other aspect of the Jewish tradition knew them.”

Other tales cross the border from pious homily to superstition and folk magic. “The Holy Book” is a suite of stories of about the Zghair, a particularly sacred Torah scroll cherished by the Jews of Derna, in Libya. A boy dies, but his body is placed next to the scroll, and he miraculously gets up and starts to walk. When a child is born, at any time of the day or night, the Zghair knows and immediately tells the shammash what name to enter in the community register. Rather charmingly, “sometimes the Zghair felt like being read,” so it would switch places with the other scrolls in the ark, “push to the front of the line, and the shammash had to use it that Sabbath.”

Such stories, one feels, could be a hundred or a thousand years old—indeed, the Jews of Derna believed that the Zghair was written in Jerusalem at the time of Ezra, in the 6th century BCE. Yet the folk tradition could also evolve with the times. One pointed story, set “before World War I,” describes how some rich American Jews came to Derna and tried to buy the Zghair. They put it on a ship for New York and kept close watch over it, but when the scroll’s case “was brought with pomp and circumstance to the magnificent synagogue in New York,” it turned out to be empty: The Zghair had magically returned to Libya, where it belonged. Alas, the time came when the Jews of Derna themselves had to leave, but at least they took the Zghair with them: It is now in a synagogue in Netanyah, Israel.

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