Stop Press

Folktales and the Shimmering Present

Listening at the side of those facing death, you hear all kinds of stories. Each story is supported by unique foundational values, revealed as the narrative grows.

One of the most memorable for me was sitting next to Professor Mercedes F. Duran, who had such charisma and knowledge that we were able to gather a small group of learners around her, as she told stories and taught lessons which opened our eyes to the hidden world of Jewish storytelling in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

Storytelling and myth were present all around her, as in her final days.  She animated tales of the ancient world for her family and students.  Her young grandchildren’s knowledge of Greek mythology surpassed my own. I was especially taken by how I could see legends encoding on our souls not only in their message, but also in their medium.  The memory of the telling is as powerful as the story told.

I recently finished the book, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, which interacts with a Lithuania which contains Baba Yaga, Chernobog and Jewish moneylenders.  Lithuania is the land of my ancestors, but these are not my stories.

I was not raised with these Jewish folktales, but rather an eclectic set of story books as accessed by a Jewish librarian living in America, my mother.  Jews were present as ideal immigrants (Molly’s Pilgrim) or as strange visiting relatives and vilde chaya (Where the Wild Things Are) or hidden inside of food choices (Chicken Soup with Rice).

The question of ‘which legends do we well’ has been around since the time of the Greek philosophers.  Though I don’t find personal nostalgia in this fantastical folktale, I am proud to see this work of fiction reflect a view of my own heritage I should learn more about.  I am even happier that it is a light yet complex read, playing on questions of gender and worth.  This playful recasting of stories feel current and worth the read.

I hope that the stories we choose to read and tell others continue to entertain, but also help us playfully navigate our complex existence.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jordan