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UMSL English professor discusses his 12-year project on Jewish mythology

Spock came through town a couple of years ago with his arty, sexy picture book of the Shekhinah, the bride of God.

For some, it was confusing that actor Leonard Nimoy would attempt to photograph an aspect of God, perhaps breaking the Second Commandment about graven images. But his slide show at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival drew a large crowd, many probably curious about this assertion - in a monotheistic religion - that God had a "bride," or feminine aspect.

Howard Schwartz to the rescue.

For 12 years, he has worked on a comprehensive book to explain the mythology of Judaism, gathering hundreds of written and oral myths, including at least two dozen about the Shekhinah.

This month, Schwartz offers a vast study called "Tree of Souls," heralded by Oxford University Press as "the first anthology of Jewish mythology in English." He will discuss it at this year's Jewish Book Festival. (A compete listing of this year's St. Louis Jewish Book Festival is on and will appear in Wednesday's Everyday section. "Tree of Souls" is reviewed on XX.)

Views, by Schwartz

At a local coffeehouse, Schwartz makes two things clear when discussing his 30th - and most complex - book:

He believes Jews can claim a mythology as readily as the ancient Greeks, Romans, American Indians, Africans or Chinese.

People need to understand that "myth" does not mean "falsehood."

The Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is a concise text, Schwartz says. Rabbis and other Jews have tried to explain the writings, and out of their explanations grew myths. In the Jewish tradition, God dictated the Written Torah to Moses, who wrote it down. But there is also the tradition of an Oral Torah, which explained the Written Torah and was finally recorded as laws and lore in the Talmud.

Mythology says that "you recognize that this is part of your tradition, you recognize that it

may have been divinely inspired, you recognize that it has profound meaning, you accept Joseph Campbell's proposal that myth is a collective dream, and it's very important. It's just not literally true," Schwartz says. "The idea of myth is that it's true, but it's a different kind of truth."

Schwartz became interested in mythology as a child and wondered then: "If everybody in the world has a mythology, shouldn't the Jews?"

"So I asked my teachers in regular school and in Hebrew school - in fact, I was annoying about it. They always gave me the same answer: 'There is no Jewish mythology.'"

In college, he eagerly learned about the writings of psychoanalyst Carl Jung and author Joseph Campbell, whose "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" was later popularized on a PBS series, "The Power of Myth."

But even those two wrote little about the mythic nature of the Bible, Schwartz says.

Jewish folklore

Schwartz's first publications were of his own fiction and poetry. He's been a professor of English at the University of Missouri at St. Louis for 34 years and occasionally reviews books for the Post-Dispatch.

But his writings took a new direction after he met Israel's leading folklorist, Dov Noy. Noy founded the Israel Folktale Archives, which have collected more than 20,000 oral Jewish stories.

"The way I see it, he seduced me into Jewish folklore."

In 1983, Schwartz published his first book of Jewish fairy tales, "Elijah's Violin & Other Jewish Fairy Tales."

His method follows that of Italo Calvino in "Italian Folktales." Calvino researched Italian folk tales by trying to find at least three versions of a tale and then thoughtfully and elegantly retelling it.

Reading the Kabbalah, Talmud, midrash (rabbinical teachings or commentary) and other sources convinced Schwartz that the stories of Lilith and the Shekhinah were not just folklore but myths. In his view, folklore is an invented, anonymous story of a people with perhaps a kernel of historical fact. Myths, again, are more primordial, a "collective dream" that often tries to explain a people's origins, ancestors and heroes.

In "Tree of Souls," Schwartz separates the hundreds of myths he retells into 10 primary categories: 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.

Orthodox Jews, who say the Torah is the literal word of God, do not accept the idea of a mythology of Judaism.

Schwartz expects some others may also argue with his premise.

At a recent lecture, Schwartz was stopped by a woman before he'd even started speaking. She saw the words "myths of God" and told him: "I already disagree with you."

"Tree of Souls" invites responses at

Schwartz expects some arguments. "I assume I'll get some nasty messages and some supporters. It is a trailblazing book in its way."

Howard Schwartz
What: Appearance at St. Louis Jewish Book Festival
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 7
Where: Marilyn Fox Building, JCC Chesterfield, 16801 Baxter Road
How much: $8 or included in series ticket
More info: 314-442-3299

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 11
Where: Left Bank Books, 399 North Euclid Avenue
How much: Free
More info: 314-367-6731

Reporter Jane Henderson
Phone: 314-340-8107

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