St. Louis author brings to life the stories of revered Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

Howard Schwartz

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Once again Howard Schwartz has retained the title of the Jewish Literary Zondek, or “Godfather” of St. Louis, bringing forth his latest book “A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav” (Oxford University Press, $34.95, cloth).

Schwartz, who taught and inspired generations of students as a professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and who served with Barbara Raznick as co-editor of the local Jewish literary journals, The Sagarin Review and its “Harvest” collections, is a three-time National Jewish Book Award winner and recipient of the Koret Jewish Book Award. He has previously written and edited dozens of works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, including “Voices of the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets” and “Tree of Souls: the Mythology of Judaism” among others.

Schwartz is admired around the world for his scholarship and tireless efforts to assure that giants of Jewish literature, folk tales and the wisdom of the great rabbis and sages will be accessible to present and future generations of readers. 

In “Palace of Pearls,” Schwartz takes on the task of compiling and interpreting hundreds of stories by the revered Rabbi Nachman of Bratislava (1772-1810), who is admired as one of the foremost visionary storytellers of the Hasidic movement. He was the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement.

Schwartz’s just published collection lives up to its title, “A Palace of Pearls.” Each of the stories selected, introduced and contextualized by Schwartz is a glittering gem of wisdom and insight. They tackle issues ranging from the most ancient to the most current faced by individuals as well as the worldwide Jewish community—and non-Jewish scholars and devotees of wisdom literature of all faiths. 

An example of such a tale, which explains Rabbi Nachman’s willingness to help others regardless of their faith, is that of “Divining from the Zohar.” In it, Rabbi Nachman comforted an Ishmaelite family whose son had disappeared. 

They turned to Rabbi Nachman, whose wisdom and mystical powers helped find the missing son, who was set free by his captors to be reunited with his family. Ishmaelites are descendants of Ishmael, the first son of Abraham by the servant Hagar, whose descendants are believed to be the Arab population of the Middle East. 

Maimonides as well as other sages like Reb Nachman, insisted that Ishmaelites must be respected.

Schwartz deploys his unique blend of serious, annotated scholarship with a flair for making complex images vivid, in this 456-page magnum opus. “A Palace of Pearls” is by far the most comprehensive collection of familiar and previously obscure stories of the Nachman canon. This handsome volume is beautifully illustrated by Zann Jacobrown.

In this era in which women are increasingly and justly demanding recognition of their contributions to religion, science and entertainment, Schwartz’s collection honors the role of the Shekhinah — envisioned as the “bride of God” who is believed to have gone into exile after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. He also unearths tales with strong female characters, such as ‘The Lost Princess” and “The Pirate Princess,” both of which are among the first 13 oral tales included in this treasure-trove of stories.

Schwartz for decades has been a devoted follower and admirer of the stories of Rabbi Nachman. He even takes on the task of completing nine of Nachman’s unfinished stories, a challenge many scholars would shy away from, but are beautifully and seamlessly completed in Schwartz’s hands.

Among the more than 300 stories in this impressive volume is “Tale of the Bread,” which was never intended to be written down and was only to be shared with those Bratslavers who could be trusted not to reveal it. The story was eventually recorded by Nachman’s scribe, which made it possible for Schwartz to assure that the long-hidden tale would find the light of day.