Howard Schwartz's latest book showcases storytelling talent
BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS
Howard Schwartz showcased his talent in the spoken as well as the
written word, when he spoke on and read selections from his latest
book, Leaves From the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales
at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library last week.
Schwartz, Professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis,
and winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, is now regarded as one
of the world's most respected collectors and tellers of Jewish stories.
At the Brodsky Library, he told four stories from each of the major
categories in his book.
The enthusiasm Schwartz has for his work is not only evident by his
prolific amount of writing, editing and collecting over 30 books over
the past three decades, but in his compelling and highly expressive
manner of telling out loud the stories he has collected. On the cold,
blustery evening when he spoke at the Brodsky Library, Schwartz
literally warmed his audience who had braved the rough weather to be
treated to his unique style of sharing stories he has collected,
written or re-written.
Schwartz's most recent previous book was Tree of Souls: The Mythology
of Judaism, which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2005. He is
also the author of Reimagining the Bible: The Storytelling of the
Rabbis. Schwartz's focus in his talk at the Brodsky Library was his
current book, which is a collection of 100 of his favorite stories from
over 350 he had previously collected in four prior books: Elijah's
Violin & Other Jewish Fairy Tales; Miriam's Tambourine: Jewish
Folktales from Around the World; Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales of the
Supernatural and Gabriel's Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales.
"Leaves From the Garden of Eden is a kind of summary of much of my work
in the area of Jewish stories over the past 30 years," Schwartz said.
"In the four published collections of 350 stories, from 1993 to 2004, I
selected 100 classic Jewish tales; it was very hard to decide what to
include and what to leave out. The book is divided into four sections,
one for each variety of story: fairy tales; folk tales, tales of the
supernatural and mystical tales."
Schwartz explained the derivation of the title of his latest book,
Leaves from the Garden of Eden with a Jewish story. "According to
Jewish folk tradition, Abraham and Sarah never died. Ever since they
took leave of this world, the patriarch and his wife are said to make
their home in the Garden of Eden. During the week Abraham wanders
through the Garden and gathers leaves that have fallen there. And on
the eve of the Sabbath, Sarah crushes those leaves and takes the powder
made from them and casts it into the wind. The winds, guided by angels,
carry it to the four corners of the earth, so that all those who
breathe in even the smallest speck have a taste of Paradise, and their
Sabbath is filled with joy, for that is the spice of the Sabbath."
Schwartz said that he had asked his longtime mentor and fellow expert
in Jewish stories, Professor Dov Noy of Israel, "What makes a folktale
a Jewish folk tale? At first, he joked, 'Well, if a Jew tells it, it's
Jewish,' but more seriously he says there are four primary factors that
make a folktale Jewish: is it set in a Jewish time, like Shabbat,
Sukkot or Purim?; does it happen in a Jewish place, such as a
synagogue, a sukkah or in the Holy Land (anything that happens in
Israel makes the story Jewish by definition)?; are there Jewish
characters? Instead of a generic king, do we have King Solomon, for
example?; and does the story have a Jewish meaning? It is possible for
a story to lack the first three factors and still be a Jewish tale if
it has Jewish meaning."
Schwartz added that Professor Noy "has collected about 23,000 stories,
of which about half fit the definition of universal and half are
Jewish. Universal stories are generally not included in rabbinic
literature. The four stories I will tell tonight, from my book, areall
openly Jewish stories."
The first story Schwartz told at the Brodsky program, in the category
of fairy tales, was "The Bird of Happiness," from Elijah's Violin,
which the author describes as his most successful collection of Jewish
stories. "This story, 'The Bird of Happiness,' Schwartz said, was
collected in Israel from a Jew from Iraq."
The story begins: "There once was a young boy named Aaron, who had
spent his entire life wandering in the desert. His parents had been
slaves, but they had run away to find a place where they could be free.
Every day they searched for food and water, while the sun beat down on
their backs and sand blew in their faces. Still, Aaron never lost hope,
for his mother would say, 'One day the Bird of Happiness will guide us
to Jerusalem.' For that was their dream — to reach the city of
Jerusalem. But how could they ever find their way there?"
The family wandered for "many years, and still the desert streched
endlessly before them," Schwartz continued. The story continues with
Aaron having a "vivid dream" in which a speck appears in the sky which
"soon he saw was a beautiful white bird." The bird drops something from
his beak, a glowing stone, which Aaron keeps. His mother says the dream
is a sign "that the Bird of Happiness is coming much closer." Not only
does the glowing stone lead Aaron and his family through the desert,
but also to their hoped-for destination of Jerusalem. Once in the city,
the throng of people let out a "great shout," and the crowd brought
Aaron to the king's palace, where he was crowned the new king. The
stone would be Aaron's guide to be a wise king; if it glowed, he would
say "yes" to a decision, and if not he would say "no."
"Aaron became one of the great kings in Jerusalem, as great as King
David, as great as King Solomon. And every day Aaron and his parents
thanked God for all their blessings — and especialy for the Bird of
Happiness," Schwartz concluded.
He pointed out that the story, like many others evokes a quest, not
unlike the Exodus, with Jews wandering through the desert to get to the
Promised Land. "Of course we know there was no such King Aaron of
Jerusalem, but the story still has much Jewish meaning and lessons that
are as valid today as in the past."
Next, Schwartz shared the story, "The Souls of Trees," as an example of
a Jewish folk tale. The story involved Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, the
great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. "Reb
Nachman was himself a master storyteller, and his scribe, Reb Nussim
was his loyal and devoted scribe, and so we have his stories intact."
The story involves Reb Nachman and his entourage who stay at an inn
owned by a Jew who had been childless despite many years with his wife
trying to start a family. When Reb Nachman cannot sleep in his room
because he hears the "souls" of the trees cut down before their time to
build the room, he tells the innkeeper that using saplings before their
time was the reason his wife could not conceive.
"There is an angel named Lailah, who is the angel of conception," Reb
Nachman says. "It is Lailah who delivers the soul of the unborn child.
But each time Lailah approaches your inn to bring you the blessing of a
child, she is driven back by the sighs and moans and cries of the souls
of the trees that were cut down too soon." Reb Nachman tells the
innkeeper he must plant twice as many trees as he cut down. "Take care
of them and see that none are cut down. If you do this for three years,
you will be blessed with a child."
Schwartz adds that the innkeeper followed Reb Nachman's advice, and
"all the trees that the couple planted grew tall and strong. Then the
lullaby of the living trees soothed the cries of the trees that had
been cut down, so that Lailah was able to reach the couple's house, tap
on their window three times, and bless them with a child. And every
year after that the innkeeper's wife gave birth to another child, until
they had seven children, and all of them were as tall and straight and
strong as a fine tree."
Schwartz also told two additional tales: "The Cellar," from Lilith's
Cave, an example of a supernatural tale, about a goldsmith from Posen,
who had a secret relationship with the female demon Lilith, and "The
Cottage of Candles," from Gabriel's Palace, a story collected orally in
Israel from a Jew from Afghanistan. Both of these stories, like the two
others, were haunting and compelling, and told with gusto and
expressiveness by Howard Schwartz.
With the publication of Leaves From the Garden of Eden, Howard Schwartz
has once again confirmed his secure place among the real treasures not
only of the Jewish community of St. Louis, but to the entire tradition
of preserving, collecting and re-telling Jewish stories in every
category, with insight and infectious enthusiasm.