Spinning Tales

Reviewed by Ido Hevroni

Encyclopedia of the Jewish Story
by Yoav Elstein, Avidov Lipsker, Rella Kushelevsky (editors)
Bar-Ilan University Press, 2004, 373 pages, Hebrew.

nce there was a winter coat, sewn by a tailor for his firstborn son, Gedaliahu. When the boy outgrew it, the coat was given to the next in line—Shmaryahu-Leizer—and he, in turn, passed it on to Beyla. The coat passed from child to child, with each owner leaving his mark: This boy ripped its sleeves and that girl tore the lining, this girl shredded the pockets and that boy made a hole at the knee. The fate of the tattered garment—the focal point of Yiddish writer Kadya Molodowsky’s poem Reincarnations of a Coat—is reported by the youngest boy, Peretz: “The right side I gave/To the cat I remembered/The left side I sent/To the cat I forgot/And the rest—hole for hole—/You will each get in turn.”
The poem is intended as a bleak allegory about the dilution of Jewish tradition in each passing generation. It has often been lamented that our tradition, passed ceremoniously from father to son, so often has been abandoned the moment its recipient felt its constraints: As a new generation becomes caught up in a dynamic new culture, essential parts of Jewish heritage are abandoned until Jewish tradition as a whole ends up largely cast aside, leaving behind a void, a “hole for hole” in its entirety.
Until recently, that lamentation was a standard feature of Jewish cultural discourse. But today, some scholars are making a valiant attempt at inspiring interest in Jewish traditions by revitalizing the rich history of Jewish storytelling. One product of such scholarship is the excellent first volume of the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Story, edited by Yoav Elstein, Avidov Lipsker, and Rella Kushelevsky of Bar-Ilan University. The editors argue that Jewish culture—or more precisely, Jewish storytelling—has not lost a bit of its vitality over the generations, and has in fact become richer and more profound, like a snowball rolling down a slope, gathering new material as it goes. One gets the impression from the volume that the poet Molodowsky’s seemingly surprising claim—“Another year/ the coat is slightly/ even more slightly beautiful”—is also an apt description of the progress of Jewish storytelling.
The Encyclopedia is a product of the Jewish Themes Research Project at Bar-Ilan, which collects Jewish stories from all periods and genres and treats them according to a unique method developed by Elstein and Lipsker. Comparing different versions of one story is already a feature of storytelling research both internationally and with regard to Hebrew literature, but the project at Bar-Ilan is the first time the technique has been applied to Hebrew literature in a rigorous and systematic way.
From the outset, the Israeli researchers were amazed to discover how vast were the treasures buried in the trove of Jewish stories. If in non-Jewish literature up to forty multi-lingual versions of one story have been found, in the Jewish tradition they found many stories that had some eighty variants in Hebrew alone, spread throughout Jewish history.
The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, for example, first appears in the Bible, then returns in various forms in the Apocrypha, in medieval literature, in essays of the Haskala or Jewish Enlightenment, and in contemporary literature. The variety of renderings and their sweeping historical range posed a special problem to scholars: On the one hand, within the story’s variants there is clearly a set of timeless archetypes—a kind of cultural genome. On the other, there were often profound differences in the tone, details, and intention of the various versions of the story.
That problem necessitated new research methods that could address questions such as how to distinguish between a chain of different versions of the same story and an entirely different story altogether, and how to preserve the uniqueness of each of a story’s multiple versions.
Elstein and Lipsker developed an approach that examines stories not as autonomous works of literature, but as occupying a place along two axes—diachronic and synchronic. Along the diachronic axis, a story is viewed as one part of a long tradition of Jewish literature through the ages. Along the synchronic axis, a story is viewed more locally, within the sociohistorical context in which it was created. This method examines four key elements of a work of literature: Its basic motifs; the fundamental segments that together advance the plot; its format, or structure; and the idea or moral it conveys (its telos). A story’s format determines to which thematic series it belongs, though this still allows differences between versions (sometimes essential) in other respects to become apparent. Differences in motif often indicate the concrete historical context in which a story was created, whereas differences in idea reflect the conceptual world surrounding the formulation of a particular version.
The volume is divided into two parts. The first opens with an introductory article by the creators of the method offering a historical overview of its forebears, beginning with an anthology of nineteenth-century stories, continuing with The Book of Legends by Bialik and Ravnitsky and Berdichevski’s Mimekor Yisrael, and ending with contemporary research.
Following the introduction, there are treatments of specific themes: Yoav Elstein analyzes the theme of the “princess in the tower”; Avidov Lipsker discusses the various incarnations of the aura of the tzadik, or righteous man; Rella Kushelevsky deals with the midrashic interpretations of the death of Moses; Yaffa Berlovitz reviews the anthology of stories by Ze’ev Yavetz, and so on. These articles demonstrate the variety of possibilities elicited by the new method.
The second part of the volume presents the Encyclopedia’s first nine entries, including “The Honey Pots,” “The Tale of the Book of Genesis,” and the story of “The Jewish Pope.” Each of the entries follows the same pattern: Each traces a particular story’s development and adaptations, discusses its motifs, and lists all the versions of a given story.
For example, consider how the Encyclopedia handles the legend of King Solomon, who locked his daughter in a tower after he foresaw that she was destined to marry a poor man. Although the tower had no door and was surrounded by guards, the suitor (wrapped in the skin of a dead animal and carried in the claws of a giant vulture) miraculously managed to reach her, win her favor, and marry her. The tale first appears in the Midrash Tanhuma, recurs in the Zohar and in Rabbi Moses Haim Luzzatto’s Migdal Oz, and its most modern iteration can be found in Bialik’s adaptations.
There are important discrepancies in the story’s motifs among the different iterations. In one version, rich in references to the medieval culture of knights, the hero is a squire, and he gains entry to the tower by tearing open its roof (made of leather, as was the norm in medieval Europe). A banquet in the king’s palace is also described in great detail, including all of the period’s court etiquette. On the conceptual level, there are marked differences between the first version and Bialik’s two versions, known as “The Legend of the Three and Four,” and even between Bialik’s versions themselves. Whereas in the Tanhuma the story is intended to express the inability of man to defy what has been predetermined by heaven, in Bialik’s first version of 1917, the story, in keeping with the spirit of the times, takes a more anthropocentric approach. In the second, published twelve years later, eros features prominently as the story’s driving force.
Instead of synchronic research that is restricted to a writer, a time period, or a specific genre, the reader is thus offered a diachronic examination grounded in the premise that literature is an ever-evolving cultural object, the parts of which cannot be understood without examining their relationship to the whole. John Hollander expressed this sentiment in Melodious Guile: Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language:
A poem refers to a previous poem as if a question had been raised in it and it provides the answer, explains it, adds clarifications to it, changes it the way poetry says “in other words…” In these terms it can be said that the entire history of poetry is made up of a series of responses to primary texts—Homer and Genesis—themselves questions directed at a chain of generations of responders.
The Bar-Ilan project’s application of this kind of literary interpretation thus repositions contemporary Hebrew literature as another link in the chain of Jewish creativity, instead of something that suddenly washed ashore on the waves of the Mediterranean. “Contemporary Hebrew literature cannot be properly understood or interpreted,” the editors conclude, “without making a systematic study of its development.”

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