Leaves from the Garden of Eden
By Howard Schwartz
Oxford University Press
In the title story of this compendium, an orphaned stable boy named
Hayim dies and later appears to his former employer, Shepsel, in a
dream. Hayim promises to bring leaves from Eden that can cure any
illness. Shepsel awakens to find the fragrant leaves scattered on his
bed. He boils them with water and takes the tea to his ailing daughter,
who is miraculously healed. Soon she marries and bears a son she names
Like the other folktales gathered here by Howard Schwartz, Leaves has
universal Cinderella elements of magical miracles that confer
happily-ever-after status on those who deserve it and despair of it.
"Most Jewish folktales follow the recognizable models of world
folklore," Schwartz writes.
A National Jewish Book Award winner and editor of four previous
collections of Jewish lore, Schwartz divides this volume into fairy
tales, folktales, supernatural tales and mystical tales. He assigns
deep cultural significance to these often formulaic yarns about
princesses, kabbalists, dybbuks and wise peasants.
"The stories people tell not only serve as bearers of their tradition
but also reveal a great deal about them, especially their fantasies and
fears," he writes.
What sets them apart from the Brothers Grimm and makes them "Jewish"
are their setting in time and place (Shabbat or Pessah, for example, in
a synagogue or the mystical city of Safed), characters (patriarch,
prophet, Israelite king, noted rabbi or simple Jew) or instructional
message in keeping with Jewish teachings.
Some of the fairy-tale story lines are versions of popular legends,
Judaicized through the use of Jewish characters and infused with Jewish
family values. These stories often conclude not with the wedding of the
prince and princess but with the birth of their first child.
The rabbi's daughter Kohava, who falls into a coma when a jealous queen
steals her magic necklace and is saved by the handsome prince? Sleeping
Beauty. The long-haired daughter of King Solomon sent to live in a
tower to prove that nothing can thwart God's matchmaking efforts?
Rapunzel, of course. The Turkish tale of a tiny girl sent by the
prophet Elijah to brighten the life of a poor widow? Thumbelina, no
doubt. And the mountain full of gold treasure, accessible only to a
penniless yingele with a magic oud? Clearly Aladdin.
Yet many others are uniquely Jewish. "The Enchanted Journey" stars
Rabbi Adam, who causes a gentile king to have a vision that transforms
him into a great protector of his Jewish subjects. "The Sabbath Lion"
is a version of the well-known "Yosef Mokir Shabbat" about a pious
youngster whose refusal to desecrate Shabbat is rewarded with the
companionship of a kindly lion during an arduous journey. Supernatural
tales featuring the demon Lilith and mystical tales about Rabbi Shimon
Bar Yochai draw on Talmudic sources.
Some of the stories reveal subtleties of the eras in which they arose.
"The Homunculus of Maimonides," for example, casts the staunch
rationalist in an unlikely role reminiscent of the Maharal of Prague or
Dr. Frankenstein. Schwartz notes that although folktales "are not the
usual mode of expression for... religious conflict," this one "must be
considered to be a folk expression of the controversy that raged at
several periods... over the writings and teachings of Maimonides."
Beyond the obvious and hidden worth of each individual story, there is
much to be said for Schwartz's preservation and presentation of the
For one thing, the stories reflect the great breadth of the exilic
experience. They have origins as old as fifth-century Babylon and hail
from 22 lands, although the majority can be traced to 19th-century
Eastern Europe. Poignantly, too, they illustrate how a persecuted
people maintained hope for happy endings through millennia of darkness.
Jewish folklore was transmitted mainly orally until the last century,
when Jewish ethnologists such as S. Ansky and Dov Noy, head of the
Israel Folktale Archives, began methodically cataloguing the stories.
Schwartz has built admirably upon their efforts.
Regrettably, the work is marred by a number of typos and errors that
should have been caught in production. For instance, in "A Palace of
Bird Beaks," "hoopoe" is misspelled three times as "hoopee." And
although not technically a mistake, the use of the term "Palestine" as
a source for several early legends carries a faintly political
connotation and results in the absence of "Israel" - even "ancient
Israel" - as a category in the countries-of-origin appendix.
The book's greatest assets are its "Sources and Commentaries" section
and its appendices. The stories are explained and categorized by source
(for example, the midrash), by "cycle" (for instance, stories about
Abraham or the Kotzker Rebbe), by country of origin and by specialized
tale types (ghost stories, journey sagas). Looking for tales about
demon marriages or angel encounters, magic spells or epic quests?
They're all right here, and then some.