Monday, June 15, 2020

A treasure trove of stories (Following folktales around the world 160. - Israel)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

The ​Power of a Tale
Stories from the Israel Folktale Archives
Haya Bar-Itzhak & Idit Pintel-Ginsberg 
Wayne State University Press, 2019.

A very special collection with a great backstory. The 53 tales in this book were selected from the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) to celebrate its 50th anniversary - the book was published in Hebrew in 2009, and finally in English last year. The archives were founded in 1955 to gather folk narratives from people immigrating into Israel, as well as from religious and ethnic groups living in the country (actively contradicting the idea that Israel would have to be culturally homogeneous). Today the archives contain more than 24,000 texts! All the stories in this book are tales that have not been published before. They represent 26 ethnic groups; nineteen of the tellers were women, and thirty-three were men.
This book really has everything a reader-researcher can wish for: a detailed Introduction about the history of IFA and the collection projects; bibliographies, folktale types, photos of the storytellers, an index, statistics of IFA, etc. Each story comes with a full background essay, with sources and notes and bibliographies, written by folklorists in Israel and abroad. Each takes a different approach to its story: a feminist point of view, comparative folklore, story psychology, cultural anthropology, etc. They were often as fascinating to read as the stories themselves. The whole book is a rare resource and a fun read, and definitely worth the time.


My favorite story in the book was about The king who trusted the kingdom to his daughters (I blogged about it here). I love it because the heroine saves a kingdom with her kindness and empathy, turning her tears into diamonds to help people. Another story I loved a lot was titled A mother's gift is better than father's gift, in which a stepmother made her stepdaughter do chores around the house, and the girl hated her for it. When she grew up and fell on bad times, she suddenly realized she'd learned to work from her stepmother to survive. Good stepmother tales are a rare find!
Professor Dov Noy,
 founder of the IFA
The tale of The rich miser from Iraq was quite funny. He had his shoes mended so many times that they became heavy as rocks, and every time he tried to get rid of them they caused more and more trouble, until he had to admit it would have been easier to buy a new pair. The tale of Men's wisdom and women's slyness started out equally funny, but turned kind of cruel. A woman tricked a conceited man just to prove women could be sly and wise - but she did so at the expense of a crippled girl. The accompanying essay unpacked all the possible implications of the tale quite well.
Since the book focused on stories that are culturally relevant, it contained several narratives from times of pogroms and discrimination, telling of heroic sacrifices and miraculous survival. In the legend of Serah Bat Asher from Georgia, a king made fun of the Jews and made discriminatory laws against them, until one day he encountered a warrior woman, daughter of one of Joseph's brothers, who gained eternal life from God, and she convinced him to believe and revoke his laws. In a Persian story the Jews were saved when they used a magical bottomless bucket to fish the cruel king out of his palace through a well, and made him sign a document that gave them protection. In a story from Poland a boy was taken from his family and raised in Russia to be a soldier, and he found his parents later on by accident; in a story from Romania a boy was rescued from a persecuted Jewish family, and his wandering father found him years later, living as a rich man.


Recording stories (Image from here)
Of course there were also stories in the book that rang quite familiar, or belonged to international types. There was a Godfather Death tale, but with a female Death (!), and a kinder ending. Here, when the man asked for his life candle to be extended, Death kindly reminded him that he'd chosen her as godparent because she treats everyone equally. The tale of The princess in the wooden body was an All-kinds-of-fur type story, and the accompanying essay outlined the symbolism of abuse and childhood trauma quite beautifully. The six girls in the mountains was a Bluebeard tale, but here the heroine only ended up saving herself, not her sisters. The story aptly titled The measure of a woman is two, the measure of a man is one was a Basil Girl variant, complete with the part where the clever wife seduces her own husband in disguise three times in a row. The girl born from an egg was a Rapunzel story.
The tale of the cat demon was a fairy midwife tale; here the midwife did not only help with the birth, but also saved a changeling from being taken by demons. The life legend of the Polish hero Dobush started out with him being lost in the woods as a baby and being suckled by a female dog, much like Romulus and Remus. Between Sun and Moon was a Bedouin tale of a boy with a secret dream who won not one but two wives with his cleverness. I really like this type.
The queen and a fish reminded me of a story from Iraq; the queen's infidelity here was also revealed by a fish after multiple warnings by cautionary tales. From an Ethiopian source there was the tale of the Lion's whiskers, of a patient woman who learned how to approach her husband. In Muslim Arab stories I encountered the motif of a clever girl giving a drink of water to a man slowly, so that he is not harmed by it; I knew this one from Queen Anait from Georgia.

Where to next?

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