Bin Gorion’s wonderful selection of Jewish folktales

As I mentioned in my review of Miriam & Other Stories, Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, who changed his name to Micha Joseph bin Gorion, was bothered his entire life with ideas and practices in Judaism which turned him into a scoffer, an attitude that is reflected in his stories in Miriam and sometimes in this book which contains a selection of 113 classical Jewish folktales from the many that he collected.

Dan Ben-Amos wrote an introduction to this volume and the headnotes that precede each tale. He tells us that bin Gorion considered “Jewish society and thought not as a cohesive integrated social and philosophical system, but rather as an arena of conflicting forces and tendencies…[It is]  neither the religious synthesis that the rabbis constructed and sanctioned, nor the ideological system of Zionism…[Judaism abounded] in contrasts, incongruities, and contradictions…the normative values of Judaism in the Hebrew Bible, in the Talmud, and in medieval rabbinical literature reflected just one aspect of Jewish religion and ethics…Dissent was a basic Jewish quality.” Ben-Amos adds: “In spite of his careful scholarly approach, occasionally he could not restrain his literary impulse [and perhaps his ideological perspective] and slightly modified the text” by omitting a word or line, but “at other times they are more substantial.”

This book was first published in German as Der Born Judas in a six-volume set shortly after World War 1 and was acclaimed as a scholarly and literary classic. After this original publication, his son Emanuel bin Gorion prepared a Hebrew edition that appeared in 1939, 1952, and 1956. The Hebrew version of the collection Mimekor Yisrael, means “From the Fountain of Israel.” In 1976, Indiana University Press published a three-volume set in English. This 1990 volume is an abridgement by Indiana University Press of the 1976 collection. Mica Joseph bin Gorion wanted the tales to reflect the diversity and variability that he saw in Judaism generally and in its folk traditions. Although this is an abridged version of the hundreds of tales that bin Gorion collected and originally published, his son made sure that his selections from his father’s collection reflected this diversity.

The stories in this volume are usually only two or three pages in length. They are about biblical events and people, the lives of rabbis, saints, scholars and common people, deeds of righteous, holy and simple people, martyrs, the miracles of Elijah the prophet, conflicts between Jews and non-Jews and between Jews and Jews, demons, cultural values, and religious precepts. Each has a brief single paragraph explanation of the tale and other information about what follows, including the book where the tale appeared.

Bin Gorion divided his 113 tales into nine sections. In the section called In Bible Days, he includes among the 28 stories, are Noah’s Vineyard where Satan slew a sheep, lion, swine, and ape, and placed the blood under Noah’s vine so that before drinking wine, the drinker is as tame as sheep, but when he takes a good drink, he becomes as brave as a lion, then with future drinks, he messes himself up like a swine, then with mere drinks he acts like an ape uttering all kinds of filth in the presence of people. There are also some imaginative yarns about how Moses outwitted people, a Jewish version of the Oedipus legend where a boy unwittingly kills his father, a well-known tale of how King Solomon hid his daughter in isolation unsuccessfully so that she would not marry a poor man, and a version of the apocryphal story of Susanna.

Among the 8 narratives in In the Days of the Second Temple there is a version of the apocryphal book Judith where Judith saves the Judeans around 170 BCE during battles that led to the Hanukkah holiday.

Twenty-four anecdotes are in Talmudic Tales, including the legend about Onkelos the Proselyte who the rabbis said he translated the five Books of Moses from Hebrew to Aramaic the language the people spoke at the time of the translation, around 130 CE according to the rabbis. They encouraged Jews to read the weekly Torah portion every week, twice in the original Hebrew and once in the Aramaic of Onkelos.

There are 15 Rabbinical Tales among which are the fanciful idea that Moses’ Levite descendants were saved by God when fellow Judeans were exiled in 586 BCE; God set them in a fruitful land where they live in seclusion. The land is surrounded by a river called Sambatyon which is impassable because it is so wide and threatening sand and stones move about it on all days but the sabbath. On the sabbath the Levites are protected by a huge fire in front of the now calm river.

Six episodes are in In the Land of Israel including the story of two brothers who treated each other in such a magnificent manner that God chose the area where they lived for the site of the Temple.

Forebears and Descendants has 5 reports including the assumption why the rich poet Judah Halevi chose the poor scholar Abraham ibn Ezra as his son-in law.

Kabbalists and Hasidim’s eight items include three Dybbuk superstitions.

The 13 chronicles in Timeless Tales contains the account of Elijah the prophet telling a pious man that he will be rewarded with seven years of plenty and he must decide whether he wants the seven years to start now or at the last seven years of his life. He wisely responds that he needs to consult his wife before he answers.

The last of the 9 sections contains 7 Tales of Wisdom including the misogynistic “Do Not Tell Your Wife Any Secrets” because women are unable to keep secrets. A man receives this advice from his father, thinks his wife is an exception, tells her a secret that could harm him if it became known, and suffers dire consequences.

In short, these folktales are interesting because they are told well, filled with much cleverness, humor, history, superstitions, and prejudices, and they make us realize, that bin Gorion was correct, Judaism is filled with all kinds of ideas, people do not accept all that the rabbis teach, and people have their own ideas as to what is important.

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