Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism

By Howard Schwartz

Illustrated by Caren Lobbel-Fried

Oxford University Press, 2004

704 pp.  $50.00  hc


Reviewed by Peninnah Schram


            Dov Noy, professor of folklore at Hebrew University and founder of the Israel Folktale Archives, put Jewish folktales on the world folklore map by linking them to Stith Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature in his dissertation on Talmudic-Midrashic literature. Now, Howard Schwartz, the major Jewish anthologist and professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has put Jewish mythology on the world mythology map with his amazing book, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. Here the Jewish mythical tradition, often controversial or even denied, is truly acknowledged in an anthology to celebrate.

            Schwartz defines the term myth as “a people’s sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors, and heroes.” This is an singularly significant gathering of nearly 700 key Jewish myths drawn from the Bible, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud and Midrash, the kabbalistic literature, medieval folklore, Hasidic texts, and oral lore collected in the modern era.

            The anthology is divided into ten books, which represent the ten categories of Jewish mythology: Myths of God, Myths of Creation, Myths of Heaven, Myths of Hell, Myths of the Holy Word, Myths of the Holy Time, Myths of the Holy People, Myths of the Holy Land, Myths of Exile, and Myths of the Messiah. To delve into these myths is a journey of epic proportions. It is a wandering and a search for meaning amidst myriad facets of interpretation, all of which are explored brilliantly in this book.

            Our guide, Howard Schwartz, a talented and skilled folklorist, scholar and storyteller, has selected the mythic texts from hundreds of sources, sacred and secular, and accompanied them with fascinating and informative commentaries, as well as an extensive introduction. All are written in an exceptionally clear and accessible style. For those who are interested in the scholarship of the myths, there are sources and comprehensive notes. But for those interested primarily in Jewish myths - and what myths there are in our tradition – this book will serve as a mother-lode!

            Howard Schwartz writes with a riveting, imaginative literary sensibility and a storyteller’s gift of narrative. Because the myths are in a different type-face, the reader can choose to read only the myths. However, the scholarly commentaries add many dimensions.

            When Noah was asked by God to build the ark, one of the instructions was to Put the Tzohar in the ark (Gen. 6:16). Rabbinic texts interpret this to be a jewel containing the light of the first day of creation. The mythic narrative of this precious stone covers many generations as the Tzohar is transmitted from Adam to Noah and from Abraham to Moses, as related in one of these myths. With Tree of Souls, Howard Schwartz has deservedly inherited this precious jewel. Through it he opens the seven heavens and all of the other levels of the mythic world to us to reveal and illuminate a rich and varied hidden treasure, the mythology of Judaism.



BIO: Peninnah Schram, internationally known storyteller, teacher, author, and recording artist, is Associate Professor of Speech and Drama at Stern College of Yeshiva University. She travels across the US and other countries presenting storytelling programs and workshops for all ages, and scholar/storyteller-in residence weekends. Peninnah is the author of seven books of Jewish folktales, including Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another, Stories Within Stories: From the Jewish Oral Tradition and The Purim Costume. She has also recorded a CD, The Minstrel and the Storyteller with singer/guitarist Gerard Edery. Peninnah is a recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for Outstanding Educator (1995) awarded by The Covenant Foundation. Peninnah has been awarded the National Storytellers Network 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award "For sustained and exemplary contributions to storytelling in America.”