Commentary Magazine


Leaves from the Garden of Eden by Howard Schwartz

Kosher Demons
Leaves from the Garden of Eden:
One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales

by Howard Schwartz
Oxford. 544 pp. $34.95

Collections of Jewish tales, of which Howard Schwartz, a professor of English literature at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has published several, have been around for a long time. Excluding classical rabbinic texts like the Talmud and the Midrash, in which many imaginative yarns can be found alongside stories of a more exegetical or historical nature, the earliest such anthology goes back to the 11th century. Compiled in Judeo-Arabic by Rabbi Nissim Gaon of Kairouan, it circulated widely in Hebrew translation under the title Hib-bur Yafeh me’ha-Yeshu’ah, “A Pleasant Treatise On Deliverance.” Its stories were mostly taken from earlier texts, were generally associated with famous rabbis, and had a clear homiletic or moral message. Since at least some were written down from Nissim’s memory, his own inventions sometimes crept into them.

Thus, for example, Nissim retells the talmudic story of Nahum of Gamzo, a saintly but horribly disfigured man—“blind in both eyes, stumped in both hands, and crippled in both legs,” according to the tractate of Ta’anit, which then explains how he came to be that way: he once cursed his own body for reacting too slowly to the plea of a hungry beggar who died of starvation, and his powers were such that his curses came true. So covered was Nahum with sores, according to Ta’anit, that “the legs of his bed stood in four basins of water to prevent ants from crawling over him.”

In Nissim Gaon’s version, by contrast, the purpose of the water is to keep Nahum chilled and uncomfortable even when asleep. A seemingly minor detail, this nevertheless makes a difference. Ta’anit’s Nahum has had enough suffering and wants to avoid more, thus suggesting that (despite the brave face he puts on for his disciples) he regrets having cursed himself so impetuously, while in Hibbur Yafeh he seeks to make his punishment greater.

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Stories change in being told and retold, and because Jewish tales have a longer written history than do their counterparts in other languages, they are an excellent illustration of this. Moreover, as old written stories were recycled, new, previously oral ones were put into writing. Generally, they made their literary debut not in anthologies but in books devoted to specific subjects or historical figures.

Thus, for instance, one of the most wonderful stories in Leaves from the Garden of Eden first appeared in writing in a 16th-century volume called Shivhei Ha-Ari or “The Praises of the Ari.” (Schwartz annotates the sources of each of his stories as part of the critical apparatus that he provides for the reader.) This is a volume of hagiographic tales about the legendary kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Ashkenazi Luria (1534-1572), the Ari or “lion” of Safed in Palestine. In the story, a young man is out walking with two friends when they spy a finger sticking out of the ground. One of them jokingly dares the others to put a ring on it and proclaim “Thou art sanctified to me” as at a Jewish wedding, and the young man takes up the challenge, only to see, to his horror, the finger vanish into the earth with his ring on it.

The young man goes home, gets over his shock, and eventually betroths a bride. Yet as the two are standing beneath the wedding canopy, a woman appears and demands the cancellation of the ceremony because the groom is already married to her; she is the female demon whose finger he put a ring on and she has now come to claim him for herself. The case is brought before the Ari, who cannot deny that the demon has justice on her side, since she has been legally wed before the necessary two witnesses. The only solution is for him to compel her to accept a divorce from the young man so that he can take a human being for his wife.

Like traditional tales everywhere, Jewish tales often deal with the supernatural; what is unique about them is that the supernatural in them is Jewish, too. Although their demons are the enemies of human beings, they are no less religiously observant and are often sympathetically portrayed. In another well-known story in Leaves from the Garden of Eden, “The Demon Princess,” a young man is again wed to a demon, the beautiful daughter of Ashmodai, king of the devils; this time, however, the wedding takes place in the demons’ own land, in which the commandments of the Law are kept as scrupulously as in any Orthodox community on earth.

Indeed, this young man, who already had a human wife and fell into Ashmodai’s kingdom from the wings of a giant bird on which he escaped the desert island where he had been stranded by a shipwreck, is awarded the king’s daughter on account of his talmudic erudition. Yet when “The Demon Princess” ends unhappily—after following her husband back to the human world, which she has given him permission to visit, the princess kills him with a farewell kiss when he refuses to return with her to the land of the demons—we feel more for her than we do for him.

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“Supernatural Tales” are one of four categories into which Schwartz has divided Leaves from the Garden of Eden, the other three being “Fairy Tales,” “Folktales,” and “Mystical Tales.” The boundaries between them, however, are not always sharp.

Jewish folklore does not have fairies, and several of Schwartz’s “fairy tales” have the same kinds of demons in them as do the “supernatural tales.” Such, for instance, is a “fairy tale” entitled “The Boy Israel and the Witch,” taken from the 19th-century Shivhei ha-Besht or “Praises of the Baal Shem Tov,” which was modeled on the Shivhei ha-Ari. One of Schwartz’s “folktales,” an oral narrative recorded in Israel from a Turkish Jew, ends with the magically born daughter of a poor woman marrying a prince and living happily ever after, just as in a fairy tale. And a “mystical tale” from an oral source in America, which tells how the Lubavitcher rebbe convinces a Jew not to divorce his wife by showing him in a vision what his future would be like if he did, could just as well be labeled a folktale.

A more salient distinction might be between written tales and transcribed oral tales, which comprise about a fifth of the stories in Leaves from the Garden of Eden and are usually simpler and more naive. Yet here too the lines are not clear-cut, because an oral tale partially ceases to be an oral tale the moment it is put into writing. At the very least, it undergoes stylistic editing, since no storyteller consistently speaks in grammatical or complete sentences. Often, it will have been reworked more extensively and turned into a literary text. This is what happened at some point in their history with most of the stories in Leaves from the Garden of Eden.

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What Schwartz’s own policy has been with the oral tales selected by him from the compilations of folklorists, I do not know. Judging by how he has handled the written tales, however, I suspect that he has taken considerable liberties, for his treatment of such texts is very free. This can be seen at a glance by comparing the opening lines of his version of “The Finger” with that in Shivhei ha-Ari.
First, Shivhei ha-Ari:

Once, in the holy city of Safed, may it quickly be settled and built [by Jews], some young men went for a walk in a field. And as they walked, they sat down to rest, and when they did, they saw a finger poking up and down through the ground.

Now, Leaves from the Garden of Eden:

One night long ago, in the city of Safed, three young men went out for a walk. Reuven, the eldest, was to be married the next day to a beautiful and wealthy maiden, and his companions laughed and joked and teased their friend. The moon was full that night, and the young men decided to leave the beaten path and walk in the thick forest that surrounded the city.

The moonlight illumined even the darkest parts of the forest, and they passed through it fearlessly. At last they reached the riverbank and rested on large rocks near the shore, while they watched the river below. Here they continued to make merry, for they felt as if they were intoxicated.

It was during this time that one of them noticed something strange nearby. It was an object the size of a finger that stuck out of the earth. They got up to examine it, assuming it was a root. But when they came closer, they saw to their amazement that it was indeed a finger that emerged there.

Quite apart from the fact that Safed has no river, Schwartz has generously embellished the text as he has seen fit, just as he has done with other stories.

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On the face of it, there is nothing intrinsically illegitimate about this. The prose of Shivhei ha-Ari, as of most of the medieval and post-medieval texts from which Jewish tales can be culled, is undistinguished: simple but not artful, direct but not forceful. There is no aesthetic sacrilege in trying to improve on it.

And yet though tales like “The Finger” and “The Demon Princess” have none of the literary brilliance of many of the stories in the Talmud and Midrash, let alone in the Bible, they do share something in common with them. Their terseness, paucity of detail, avoidance of adjectives and adverbs, and bareness of syntax are equally characteristic of older Jewish narratives. When we are told that “Once in the city of Safed some young men went for a walk in a field, and as they walked they sat down to rest, and when they did, they saw a finger,” we are in a linguistic environment not far removed from that of “And Cain talked with Abel his brother, and it came to pass when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.” What did Cain say to Abel? What happened when they were in the field? We do not know. If we want more information, we have to supply it ourselves. The Bible creates the need for midrash, and midrash creates the need for more midrash.

Like the biblical and talmudic story, the later Jewish tale, at its best, is minimalistic, foregrounding its characters and their actions against a barely existent background. Its moon is a spotlight falling on an otherwise dark stage; its “thick forest” remains in shadow. The stark contrast between the seen and the unseen provides its true suspense. If there is an age-old tradition of Jewish storytelling, it is this.

Embellishments like Howard Schwartz’s are not in the spirit of this tradition. In his introduction and critical notes to Leaves from the Garden of Eden, Schwartz has some cogent things to say about the content of Jewish tales and “the Jewish mythical imagination.” There is indeed such an imagination and its defining mark, as in “The Demon Princess,” is that while its Jews may live in a gentile world, this world is part of a Jewish universe. But of the form of Jewish tales, Schwartz says nothing. One wishes he had reproduced it more faithfully.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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