Howard Schwartz’s latest book showcases storytelling talent

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Howard Schwartz showcased his talent in the spoken as well as the written word, when he spoke on and read selections from his latest book, Leaves From the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library last week.

Schwartz, Professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, is now regarded as one of the world’s most respected collectors and tellers of Jewish stories. At the Brodsky Library, he told four stories from each of the major categories in his book.

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The enthusiasm Schwartz has for his work is not only evident by his prolific amount of writing, editing and collecting over 30 books over the past three decades, but in his compelling and highly expressive manner of telling out loud the stories he has collected. On the cold, blustery evening when he spoke at the Brodsky Library, Schwartz literally warmed his audience who had braved the rough weather to be treated to his unique style of sharing stories he has collected, written or re-written.

Schwartz’s most recent previous book was Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2005. He is also the author of Reimagining the Bible: The Storytelling of the Rabbis. Schwartz’s focus in his talk at the Brodsky Library was his current book, which is a collection of 100 of his favorite stories from over 350 he had previously collected in four prior books: Elijah’s Violin & Other Jewish Fairy Tales; Miriam’s Tambourine: Jewish Folktales from Around the World; Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural and Gabriel’s Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales.

“Leaves From the Garden of Eden is a kind of summary of much of my work in the area of Jewish stories over the past 30 years,” Schwartz said. “In the four published collections of 350 stories, from 1993 to 2004, I selected 100 classic Jewish tales; it was very hard to decide what to include and what to leave out. The book is divided into four sections, one for each variety of story: fairy tales; folk tales, tales of the supernatural and mystical tales.”

Schwartz explained the derivation of the title of his latest book, Leaves from the Garden of Eden with a Jewish story. “According to Jewish folk tradition, Abraham and Sarah never died. Ever since they took leave of this world, the patriarch and his wife are said to make their home in the Garden of Eden. During the week Abraham wanders through the Garden and gathers leaves that have fallen there. And on the eve of the Sabbath, Sarah crushes those leaves and takes the powder made from them and casts it into the wind. The winds, guided by angels, carry it to the four corners of the earth, so that all those who breathe in even the smallest speck have a taste of Paradise, and their Sabbath is filled with joy, for that is the spice of the Sabbath.”

Schwartz said that he had asked his longtime mentor and fellow expert in Jewish stories, Professor Dov Noy of Israel, “What makes a folktale a Jewish folk tale? At first, he joked, ‘Well, if a Jew tells it, it’s Jewish,’ but more seriously he says there are four primary factors that make a folktale Jewish: is it set in a Jewish time, like Shabbat, Sukkot or Purim?; does it happen in a Jewish place, such as a synagogue, a sukkah or in the Holy Land (anything that happens in Israel makes the story Jewish by definition)?; are there Jewish characters? Instead of a generic king, do we have King Solomon, for example?; and does the story have a Jewish meaning? It is possible for a story to lack the first three factors and still be a Jewish tale if it has Jewish meaning.”

Schwartz added that Professor Noy “has collected about 23,000 stories, of which about half fit the definition of universal and half are Jewish. Universal stories are generally not included in rabbinic literature. The four stories I will tell tonight, from my book, areall openly Jewish stories.”

The first story Schwartz told at the Brodsky program, in the category of fairy tales, was “The Bird of Happiness,” from Elijah’s Violin, which the author describes as his most successful collection of Jewish stories. “This story, ‘The Bird of Happiness,’ Schwartz said, was collected in Israel from a Jew from Iraq.”

The story begins: “There once was a young boy named Aaron, who had spent his entire life wandering in the desert. His parents had been slaves, but they had run away to find a place where they could be free. Every day they searched for food and water, while the sun beat down on their backs and sand blew in their faces. Still, Aaron never lost hope, for his mother would say, ‘One day the Bird of Happiness will guide us to Jerusalem.’ For that was their dream — to reach the city of Jerusalem. But how could they ever find their way there?”

The family wandered for “many years, and still the desert streched endlessly before them,” Schwartz continued. The story continues with Aaron having a “vivid dream” in which a speck appears in the sky which “soon he saw was a beautiful white bird.” The bird drops something from his beak, a glowing stone, which Aaron keeps. His mother says the dream is a sign “that the Bird of Happiness is coming much closer.” Not only does the glowing stone lead Aaron and his family through the desert, but also to their hoped-for destination of Jerusalem. Once in the city, the throng of people let out a “great shout,” and the crowd brought Aaron to the king’s palace, where he was crowned the new king. The stone would be Aaron’s guide to be a wise king; if it glowed, he would say “yes” to a decision, and if not he would say “no.”

“Aaron became one of the great kings in Jerusalem, as great as King David, as great as King Solomon. And every day Aaron and his parents thanked God for all their blessings — and especialy for the Bird of Happiness,” Schwartz concluded.

He pointed out that the story, like many others evokes a quest, not unlike the Exodus, with Jews wandering through the desert to get to the Promised Land. “Of course we know there was no such King Aaron of Jerusalem, but the story still has much Jewish meaning and lessons that are as valid today as in the past.”

Next, Schwartz shared the story, “The Souls of Trees,” as an example of a Jewish folk tale. The story involved Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. “Reb Nachman was himself a master storyteller, and his scribe, Reb Nussim was his loyal and devoted scribe, and so we have his stories intact.” The story involves Reb Nachman and his entourage who stay at an inn owned by a Jew who had been childless despite many years with his wife trying to start a family. When Reb Nachman cannot sleep in his room because he hears the “souls” of the trees cut down before their time to build the room, he tells the innkeeper that using saplings before their time was the reason his wife could not conceive.

“There is an angel named Lailah, who is the angel of conception,” Reb Nachman says. “It is Lailah who delivers the soul of the unborn child. But each time Lailah approaches your inn to bring you the blessing of a child, she is driven back by the sighs and moans and cries of the souls of the trees that were cut down too soon.” Reb Nachman tells the innkeeper he must plant twice as many trees as he cut down. “Take care of them and see that none are cut down. If you do this for three years, you will be blessed with a child.”

Schwartz adds that the innkeeper followed Reb Nachman’s advice, and “all the trees that the couple planted grew tall and strong. Then the lullaby of the living trees soothed the cries of the trees that had been cut down, so that Lailah was able to reach the couple’s house, tap on their window three times, and bless them with a child. And every year after that the innkeeper’s wife gave birth to another child, until they had seven children, and all of them were as tall and straight and strong as a fine tree.”

Schwartz also told two additional tales: “The Cellar,” from Lilith’s Cave, an example of a supernatural tale, about a goldsmith from Posen, who had a secret relationship with the female demon Lilith, and “The Cottage of Candles,” from Gabriel’s Palace, a story collected orally in Israel from a Jew from Afghanistan. Both of these stories, like the two others, were haunting and compelling, and told with gusto and expressiveness by Howard Schwartz.

With the publication of Leaves From the Garden of Eden, Howard Schwartz has once again confirmed his secure place among the real treasures not only of the Jewish community of St. Louis, but to the entire tradition of preserving, collecting and re-telling Jewish stories in every category, with insight and infectious enthusiasm.