Commentary Magazine

A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, edited by Nathan Ausubel

A Treasury of Jewish Folklore.
Edited by Nathan Ausubel.
New York, Crown. 741 pp. $4.00.


Mr. Ausubel’s anthology contains some excellent items of folklore, but much of it-with the unquestionable exception of some sixty-five songs, music included, and stories such as the one I shall paraphrase first—is not folklore at all, which by his own definition is “a vivid record of a people, palpitating with life itself. . . . ” The fault is solely the anthologist’s, whose sense of life seems to run toward being the “life of the party.” This turns his treasury, in large part, into a joke book and causes his notion of folklore to trail off into popular culture, where the elements are not necessarily “folk” in character.



The distinction can best be shown by direct example. “Joseph della Reyna Storms Heaven,” taken from a Yiddish groschen chapbook, is authentic folklore. Rabbi della Reyna, “seeing that there were in Jerusalem so many pious men who sought God and loved truth,” decided to try to force the Messiah to come down to earth.

He called to himself five learned disciples and together they retired to the wilderness to fast, pray, and purify their bodies. There, in a dream, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, the teacher of all the Cabalists and author of the Zohar, and his son Eleazer appeared before Joseph della Reyna to warn him against rashness; but they were convinced of his pure intention and gave him their blessing. Rabbi Joseph, through further devotions, summoned before him Elijah the Prophet, who also tried to dissuade him from his enterprise, but he, too, was overcome by the Rabbi’s piety. Then, after weeks of prayer, fasting, purification, and Cabalistic rites, Joseph brought down from Heaven the Angel Sandalfon who guards the way along which the prayers of the righteous mount to God. Sandalfon referred him to the Angel Metatron who resides in the Seventh Heaven, next the Throne, and has been assigned by God to keep the power of Satan in check.

Both Angels appeared among fire and whirlwind, together with all their hosts. At last the Angel Metatron, whose face is more dazzling than the sun, unable to weaken Joseph’s determination, revealed to him, while the earth shook and lightning struck, the Ineffable Name of God, formed of seventy-two characters, by means of which he could obtain power over Satan and Lilith, drive all the evil from the world, and bring about the coming of the Messiah. But the Angel warned him to show no pity for evil and to give Satan and his wife neither food nor a smell of the strong spices with which Joseph and his disciples, no longer taking food, were sustaining themselves. There was great rejoicing in Heaven. Elijah the Prophet began to practice mighty blasts on the shofar to announce the coming of the Messiah, and the Messiah himself led his white horse out of the Heavenly Stable, to prepare for the descent. On top of Mount Sheir, Joseph and his disciples encountered Satan and Lilith and their legions, disguised as wild dogs. The holy men overpowered them with the Ineffable Name and mystic formulae and bound the dogs, whereupon they assumed human form, though with wings arid fiery eyes. Satan and Lilith begged for food, but Rabbi Joseph remembered the warning against showing pity for evil.

“‘Help us! Give us something to eat! We’re dying of hunger!’ Still Rabbi Joseph della Reyna hardened his heart against them. . . . ‘At least give us a smell of your spices or we perish!’

“Now Rabbi Joseph was a compassionate man. He could not endure the sight of suffering in man or beast. Having triumphed over Satan and Lilith he thought he could now safely show a small measure of magnanimity towards them. He therefore gave them some of the strong spices to smell. Immediately tongues of searing flame shot from their nostrils. All their former strength returned to them. They tore away their bonds and summoned to their aid hosts of shrieking demons and devils. Two of the disciples immediately died of terror. Two of them went out of their minds and wandered away. Only Rabbi Joseph and one disciple remained.

“The angels in Heaven went into mourning, the Prophet Elijah put away the great shofar of the Redemption, and the Messiah sadly led his white horse back into the stable. Then God declared, ‘Pay heed, O Joseph della Reyna! No human has the power to end the Exile! I alone, God, will hasten the Redemption of the Jewish People when the right times comes!’”



And this is “Kreplach”;:

A Jewish mother was much distressed over the problem of her young son who was afraid to eat the popular dish known as kreplach. She took him to a psychiatrist for consultation. After hearing the case, the doctor said, ‘Now, madam, this is very simple. Take the boy home, take him out into the kitchen, and show him the ingredients that go into the dish. And then show him how kreplach are made. This should probably eliminate the condition.’

Hopefully the mother followed his advice. On the kitchen table she put out a small square of dough beside which was a small mound prepared of chopped meat. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘there’s nothing here you should mind.’ The lad beamed and nodded encouragingly. The mother then put the meat into the center of the dough and folded over one corner. The boy smiled and all seemed to be going well. She folded over the second comer and the third. The boy was nodding and the experiment seemed to be progressing most favorably. Then she folded over the fourth and final comer; whereupon the boy groaned and muttered, ‘Oi, kreplach!’



Now this is a good story (it’s better if you have the boy scream), but the truth about it is, it’s a Jewish Joke, one of hundreds of thousands (and of about one thousand that Mr. Ausubel includes in his anthology), and it marks the turning point of folklore into something else. Not because it deals with a psychiatrist—and such a poor one; the man’s obviously a fraud—instead of a rabbi, but because it lacks particular relevance to the Jews as a folk. It’s anyone’s story, though, no doubt, of Jewish invention. But the fact of invention is not enough to establish the position of an item in folklore. A characteristic theme of basic concern to the folk must be present, which I can’t see here, nor in most of the other jokes that Mr. Ausubel uses. This seems to me, rather, an example of the Jewish popular culture which circulates through society at large; and once you get into popular culture, it’s hard to stay clear of commercial culture, of Broadway and Hollywood and radio gags, to which this anthology frequently comes close.



But in fairness to Mr. Ausubel, I must say that “Kreplach” is curiously related to “Joseph della Reyna Storms Heaven.” To begin with, it is pure Cabala. Then, both stories have to do with rabbis—if you please—and with food. Food, in both, has magical significance—which is scarcely odd in Jewish culture, where food is surrounded with rituals and taboos. And the Devil is a common element, because kreplach is devil’s food. This follows from the symbolism of kreplach, which is anal. First, the word itself. The kr and ch sounds in Yiddish are deeply guttural, produced with a sound of phlegm, and the whole word, even without its component Anglo-Saxon pun, is plainly faecal in character. So also is the chopped meat, particularly when the kreplach are done. Now faeces, as any child knows, is devil’s food (and adults have given the name of devil’s food to a heavy, moist cake made of darkest chocolate). Now our child in the joke, when he beholds the food from which the devil draws his strength (kreplach), has good reason to show fright. The connection with what happened on top of Mount Sheir is obvious, for didn’t two of the disciples die of terror and two go out of their minds?

The lad is not so crazy, after all.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.