The Stories (as PDFs):
Stories as signposts on life’s journey
All my life, I have taught predominantly Bible, Jewish history, and literature, but of late I have become caught up in the power of Jewish stories. Some of the greatest narratives ever related are in the Bible, in the Talmud, and in the Midrash. The Akedat Yitzchak, the story of Abraham bringing his son Isaac to Mt. Moriah to be sacrificed to God, is a great moment in Jewish history because it stands as a signpost to the challenges of faith that future generations of Jews will face. The book of Genesis is also replete with family and love stories, beginning with those of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel, and moving on to narratives of family relationships that resonate to this day, such as the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau and the tense relationships among Jacob’s sons. Later in Scripture, we encounter the riveting action story of Jonah, who gets thrown overboard from a ship, swallowed by a huge fish, and cast out onto dry land, all in service of the idea that you can’t run away from God. All Biblical narrative illustrates the same idea: that God is all around us at all times, instructing us, challenging us, bringing us together, always part of human endeavor.
When we proceed to the rabbinic literature of the early Common Era, the Gemara and the Midrash, we read dozens of fascinating stories among the legal commentaries. In Gittin 55b, for example, we see recounted the story of a social situation that led to tragedy for the Jewish people: a man, mistakenly invited to an enemy’s banquet, is thrown out of the hall, even after he offers to pay for the entire affair. None of the sages stand up for the humiliated man, and in response to their contempt, the man engineers an insult to the Roman emperor, which leads to the destruction of the Second Temple and the Jews’ exile from Jerusalem. The story teaches that sinat chinam, baseless hatred, is a pernicious force with effects far beyond the personal.
At the time the Sages were compiling and categorizing the Gemara into the body of legal discussion, parable, and ethical commentary known as the Talmud, they were also producing works of midrash. Midrashim are rabbinic interpretations that fill in the gaps in biblical narrative, helping readers of Bible understand references, laws, teachings, and events whose meanings are not apparent from reading biblical text alone. Many tales that we think of as “Bible stories,” such as Abraham smashing his father’s idols, come from these midrashim.
The Bible and the rabbinic texts are filled with narratives: love stories, war stories, tragic stories, fanciful stories, stories of redemption and of miracles. Especially in exile, stories told by Jews to Jews kept alive not only tradition and law but emotional attachment to a culture and people consistently beset by enmity and assimilation.
In the early modern period, the Chasidic masters fused halachah, instruction, mysticism, and the everyday life of Eastern European Jews in their tales, bringing the angels of the Bible and the Sages to the level of the ordinary person’s comprehension. They told stories of fanciful creatures and colorful personalities who taught us what it means to face danger, live righteously, and praise God with joy. Although the messages are universal, the people and places therein are specific to Jewish life and Jewish belief.
Beginning in the late 19th century, professional writers such as I.L. Peretz began to mold these stories into modern form for a wider readership, helping to cement a relationship among contemporary Jews and their forebears that is lovingly maintained today. It is from these authors that most of us have read of the rabbi who dresses as a peasant and does life-saving good deeds in the parable “If Not Higher,” and of the courageous Maharal, who animates a clay giant to protect the Prague ghetto, in “The Golem.”
Writers such as Peretz opened a golden age of Yiddish storytelling, widening the scope of the Yiddish tale to refract Jewish values and the Jewish past through the lens of modernity. As Sholem Aleichem began to relate his ironic tales of Jews in Kasrilevka and Boiberik that brought him fame as “the Yiddish Mark Twain,” Yiddish authors in the Diaspora produced gritty, realistic narratives that left behind the gentleness and magic of the Chasidic parables. They established the readership for later generations of Yiddish writers such as Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose stories, translated into English, found a huge and diverse readership. The modern Yiddish writers also became part of the literary DNA for legions of Jewish writers in Israel, North America, and throughout the Diaspora.
The stories I have posted here are a sample from several dozen I used as illustrations for lectures on Jewish history through stories. I culled these stories from a number of published books and have provided a full citation to each source at the end of each story.
- “The Golem of Prague” is a classic supernatural tale of a 17th-century rabbi who creates a sort of Jewish Frankenstein’s monster to protect his people from their enemies.
- “Bontsha the Silent” (“Bontshe Shvaig”), written by I.L. Peretz, celebrates the great qualities of the humble of the world, showing that God loves and cares for them.
- In “If Not Higher,” also by Peretz, a Jew who depends on books to tell him what Judaism means discovers the spiritual side of Judaism through the selfless actions of a Chasidic rabbi.
- Another Peretz story, “The Three Gifts,” encapsulates the Jewish values — love for the land of Israel, modesty, and respect for God — that have sustained Jews in the Diaspora.
- In “Elijah and the Poor Man’s Wish,” the prophet rewards an afflicted but uncomplaining couple who cleverly manage to change their lives with a single sentence.
- “Think for Yourself” features a boy who challenges tradition in order to save his family’s dinner.
- “The Miser’s Transformation” describes a fateful night in the life of a pious but tight-fisted man.
- In “The Treasure,” a man is rewarded after he places his observance of the Sabbath ahead of a quest for riches.
- Philosopher Martin Buber retells the Hasidic story “The Recipient,” in which a generous man learns a lesson concerning where he directs his philanthropy.
- “The Cave to the Holy Land” is a mystical story in which a Hasid follows his goats to a miraculous site.
- “The Tale of the Kiddush Cup,” a Syrian story, tells of a rabbi who is able to reverse a traveler’s misfortunes.
- A story of the Holocaust, “Even the Transgressors in Israel,” describes what happens when a nonobservant Jew in the camps stands up for his fellow Jews’ determination to fast on Yom Kippur.
Please note: I have received all necessary permissions to post these stories. “Elijah and the Poor Man's Wish” and “Think for Yourself,” come from the book Because God Loves Stories, edited by Steve Zeitlin. See the Amazon page here.
These documents are set up as PDFs. To read them, find a free PDF reader here.