Road map to Jewish fiction

By Assaf Inbari

"Intziklopedia shel hasippur hayehudi" ("Encyclopedia of the Jewish Story") Vol. 1, edited by Yoav Elstein, Avidov Lipsker and Rella Kushelevsky, Bar-Ilan University Press, 373 pages.

In his "Introductory Essay: On Our Literature" (1950) and "Concluding Essay: On Our Literature" (1977), Dov Sadan presents a multi-system, multi-genre, multilingual approach. Our literature is not just Hebrew literature and is certainly not just secular Israeli Hebrew literature, writes Sadan. Our literature has been written by Jews about Jewish topics for Jewish readers, irrespective of whether the particular work is in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Ladino or Yiddish. Inspired by Sadan's concept, Bar-Ilan University has created the "Department of Literature of the Jewish People" (please note: "literature of the Jewish people," rather than "Hebrew literature"), after a lengthy pregnancy, this department has given birth to the first volume of the "Encyclopedia of the Jewish Story."

It is hard to think of any other research enterprise that has so comprehensively applied Sadan's program. This encyclopedia encompasses all the literary and folklore frameworks that over the generations produced Jewish fiction in written or oral form, in all the literary and nonliterary genres through which Jews told their stories (from midrashim to accounts of journeys, memoirs, questions and answers on issues of Jewish law, and ballads), and in all the Jewish languages in which the stories were told.

The encyclopedia's editors have not only realized Sadan's vision, they have created a clever solution to its chief drawback: the danger that one will be unable to see the forest for the trees. This was the obstacle that Sadan failed to overcome. His research studies are almost unreadable treasure troves - archives that invite you to get lost in their labyrinths. He compiled texts without ordering them. He followed no system. How could such an immense volume of material, embracing millennia and hundreds of thousands of texts in five languages, be organized into a coherent body of knowledge? This was an apparently hopeless problem, and it took an entire generation following Sadan's declaration of the need for a multifaceted system for mapping Jewish literature, before the students of his own students, the editors of the volume in question, found the tools with which the map could be drawn.

For the best

The editors call their system "thematology" - namely, the study of the various versions of fundamental plot-lines in stories Jews have told for centuries. Or, to explain this according to other literary theory terminology: Each entry is devoted to a stubborn, consistent "argument" (nuclear proto-story) that has been used repeatedly, dozens and dozens of times, via a series of sujets (texts).

Take, for example, the story about the tanna (one of the rabbis cited in the Mishna), who came to be known as "Nahum Ish Gam-Zo" because he would always say about any disaster that befell him "gam zo letova" ("This also is for the best"). A Talmudic aggadah (legend), appearing in two versions (Tractate Sanhedrin, page 108b, and Tractate Taanit, page 21a), relates that the Jews sent Nahum Ish Gam-Zo to Rome with a casket bearing an expensive gift for the emperor. On the way, he was robbed. The thieves took the gift as he slept, filling the casket with earth. When Gam-Zo awakened and discovered what had happened, he said, "This also is for the best," and continued his journey. He appeared before the emperor with the casket.

Upon discovering the casket's contents, the emperor was enraged and ordered Gam-Zo's execution. "This also is for the best" was Gam-Zo's response. He had not lost his trust in God and, at that moment, in true deus ex machina fashion, the Prophet Elijah appeared and informed the emperor that the earth in the casket was magical, and that it would turn into swords and arrows when flung at the enemy. The emperor tested the earth in battle, winning an important victory. To reward Gam-Zo, he filled the casket with gifts and sent him off with great pomp and circumstance. On the way home, he was again robbed and the thieves again filled the casket with earth. However, this time, Gam-Zo deceived the robbers, telling them what happened previously with the emperor. Hoping to repeat his success story, they traveled to Rome and presented the emperor with their "magic earth," which proved, unfortunately for them, to be ordinary soil. The emperor punished them; everything works out for the best.

The religious message here is clear and appears in another Talmudic aggadah (Tractate Brahot, page 60b) about Rabbi Akiva, a student of Nahum Ish Gam-Zo, who said, after being robbed, "Everything God does is for the best." Previously, in the Bible, Joseph uttered those same words when telling his brothers, with whom he had reconciled: "But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good" (Genesis 50:20).

Significant event

Whereas the story of Joseph and his brothers has many other messages, the Talmudic tale about Nahum Ish Gam-Zo focuses didactically on the single idea that everything works out for the best. That is why it is a "basic story" - a fundamental tale, whose argument illustrates a basic principle of Jewish faith that subsequently has been expressed in dozens of other versions.

In this case, the encyclopedia's editors discovered 39 versions, including Ashkenazi and North African ones from the Middle Ages and others that found their way into the "Ma'iseh Buch" - a collection of short stories in old Yiddish, published in Basel in 1602 (is the title of S.Y. Agnon's "The Book of Deeds" a Hebrew translation of the title "Ma'iseh Buch"?) - into 17th- and 18th-century collections of stories of Persian and Yemenite Jews, and 19th-century collections of Hasidic tales (only then did the story receive a Hasidic meaning), into Haim Nahman Bialik and Y.H. Rawnitsky's "Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash," into Micha Josef Berdyczewski's "Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales," and even into Agnon's short story, "The Kerchief."

The encyclopedia is therefore structured in the following manner: First the presentation of the nuclear proto-story (the argument); then a chronological survey of the story's derivative versions; a comparative discussion (the link between the story, or between its motifs, and tales from Christian, Muslim and other cultures); a summary discussing the story's basic meaning that addresses the meaning's modifications in the different versions; and, finally, a bibliography of the versions and a table of motifs. All this is offered in a very concise fashion. After all, encyclopedia entries are not articles.

The publication of the encyclopedia's first volume is a literary-cultural event whose significance cannot be underestimated. In recent years, we have been deluged by fascinating research studies on Jewish topics. However, it is not every year, or every decade, that academia offers such an ambitious, fundamental, comprehensive project. Yoav Elstein, Avidov Lipsker and Rella Kushelevsky worked for 18 years on this first volume and every year they invested can be felt in the final product. It is hard to resist comparing it with the "Book of Legends" that Bialik and Rawnitsky published in installments between 1908 and 1930. Theirs was an impressive enterprise that, despite its unprecedented contribution to the dissemination of rabbinic legends, was the work of amateurs (in the best and worst sense of the term) - like the compilations of M. J. Berdyczewski ("Me'otzar ha'aggadah," "Tzefunot ve'aggadot" and "Mimekor Yisrael"), Agnon ("Days of Awe," "Book, Writer and Story," and "Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law"), Martin Buber ("Tales of the Hasidim") and Pinhas Sadeh ("Jewish Folktales").

Bialik and Rawnitsky admitted their "Book of Legends" was not always reliable to the original versions of the rabbinic legends. The compilers, as they confess in their introduction, permitted themselves the liberty of "joining several versions and blending them into a single one, or piecing together the scattered shards of a single legend and creating a unified version." Moreover, they translated all the Aramaic legends into Hebrew (every translation is, after all, an interpretation) and severed the legends from the discussions of Jewish law framing them in the Talmud. They also expropriated the legends from their original contexts and edited them according to what they perceived as their "topics" - a blatantly subjective interpretation, because these legends could be organized, topic-wise, according to 1,001 categories.

The above comments are not intended to diminish the obvious importance of the "Book of Legends." It was a daring, essential project and its place on the Jewish bookshelf is assured for generations to come. However, the popularization of classic Jewish fiction is not the only goal justifying a compilation. Of no less importance are scholarship and science, which were not Bialik and Rawnitsky's concern, but which were the concern of the editors of the "Encyclopedia of the Jewish Story."

Technical style

The encyclopedia's chief target group is scholars of the literature of the Jewish people (in all its languages), Bible, Talmud and Jewish philosophy. The average curious intellectual might be daunted when browsing through the first volume and encountering such a heavy apparatus of references and so on (like a "bouncer" who keeps one from entering the ivory tower). However, for scholars of Jewish studies, this book is a vital tool. But not just for them. Israeli writers, dramatists and screenwriters seeking Jewish roots for their work - not just experts or specialists in Jewish studies - may very possibly derive from the encyclopedia what they have not derived, or may have been unable to derive, from the "Book of Legends" or Buber's "Tales of the Hasidim." Thanks to the encyclopedia's unique organizational technique, they will find the basic narrative formulas - the strongest, most deeply rooted master plots - that Jewish storytellers have used for generations. In other words, Israeli writers concerned with Jewish topics might perhaps not need the learned, rigorous analysis of the Jewish story's sources, but if they require strong, authentically Jewish plots, the encyclopedia will inspire them, irrespective of the academic purpose that spawned it. The story of Nahum Ish Gam-Zo should suffice to arouse the creative glands of Israeli writers, dramatists and screenwriters who seek a here-and-now version of the tale of someone who suffers a bitter fate gratefully.

In any event, the encyclopedia's potential contribution to Israeli authors looking for a powerful Jewish synopsis will be found, for the most part, in future volumes, because the first volume, which is primarily theoretical, contains only nine entries (out of, say, one hundred). Although the theoretical, introductory articles contain a wealth of examples of motifs and fundamental plot lines, people who are not professors should spare themselves the headache of trying to decipher the technical style in which such professors address their colleagues. Lay readers might justifiably question why the editors have devoted some 250 pages (the length of a doctoral dissertation) to theoretical introductions, and cannot be blamed if they beat a frenzied retreat.

However, the editors have not erred here. Although they have consciously given up on a wide readership for their first volume, they had good reason to do so. They have an innovative, important methodological message for Jewish studies scholars, and that message requires a comprehensive perspective that can prove to the experts that an important message is, in fact, being conveyed.

From the nonacademic standpoint, the first volume whets our appetite without really satisfying it. It provides us with a miner's hardhat and headlamp, lowers us down for an initial tour of the goldmine of Jewish stories. Once the brief tour is over, we must await future volumes, with which we can embark on the real tour. Nevertheless, judging from the initial "tour" the first volume presents (nine stories and their subsequent versions, as noted above), it can be said that what we have here is an exciting promise. There is nothing like an organized tour.

Assaf Inbari 2005