I started this blog with my own adapted version of a story from one of the most important and influential books in my life. I first read Ausubel's A Treasury of Jewish Folklore when I was eight, and I still dip into it now. Over the last few days, my daughter and I have been talking a lot about our past, and she wanted me to find her various things I'd written before and since she was born. I have an extremely chaotic loft-- still waiting to be tidied-- and I didn't find what she wanted to see. But I did find this piece which I wrote for a three year old Jewish girl I knew circa 1982. At that point, her knowledge about things Jewish was fairly limited. And I bought her this book. I still think it is as good an introduction as you could find to what Judaism is really all about. It is certainly at the core of my own version of it. And this is what I wrote for her:
I want to tell you something about how I came to know the book which I've given you, "A Treasury of Jewish Folklore", by Nathan Ausubel. It's been one of the most important books I grew up with. When I was very young my parents used to make me laugh with the funny nicknames they gave the neighbours and the stories they told me about the fools of the village of Chelm. And by the time I was seven or eight I knew a lot of traditional Jewish stories from the Bible, like the stories of Esther and David and how the Children of Israel were brought out of Egypt.When I was eight and a half, my brother was thirteen and had his Barmitzvah. My parents didn't want me to feel left out because it was his celebration. In fact they always brought me an extra present on his birthday so I wouldn't feel jealous. On his Barmitzvah, they gave me a golden Magen David, not the small one I wear now, but one which I must have lost when I was about seventeen. I've still got a picture of myself wearing it with my best red velvet dress when I was eleven. My brother got lots of presents (I wasn't jealous. Most of them weren't very interesting to me.) One of his presents was the book. I don't even know who gave it to him. As far as I know, he was never very interested in it. I can't remember him ever reading it, or talking about any of the stories in it.
I, on the other hand, could never get enough to read. I read very fast, any books I could get. My mother's library books, the prayer books in the Shul, all the different books that I used to get from the local library, and the one or two children's books that we had in our home. There was a nice Rupert book that I liked very much, and a book of Aladdin and another book of Grimm's Fairy Tales (also my brother's) that I loved to read over and over again. I used to read the Ausubel book a lot, and it became like a very dear old friend that you like to go and visit. It still is like that for me, especially as I lost my friend the book for about fifteen years when I grew up and I only found my friend again when some people I know gave me their own copy of it about a year ago. I don't know if you think it's funny to think of a book as a friend. All the books you like most can be your friends, and it's also a special idea about books which Jewish people have, because the Rabbis used to say, "Get thee a friend and the Torah", meaning that you should find a book which helps you understand our Torah, which is full of our stories and our hopes and our ways of looking at the world and our ideas about how to be loving and faithful to each other.[Around the age I got the book. Unusually, I had managed to keep the ribbon on, which my mother sent me off to school with each day. Usually I didn't. Maybe my teacher tied it back on for the school photo. But my wonky collar is more typical of my style.]
And here is one story about some of the stories which I liked the most in the book, and which I always liked to read. I'll tell you some more another time.
I think I liked and I still like the jokes and the funny stories best. And I specially loved the stories about the Sages of CheIm. I knew before I knew the book that Chelm was a town in Poland where all the men did silly things. The very old lady who lived next door to us came from Chelm. Being a woman, she didn't do silly things, but she used to keep chickens in her backyard, and curse everyone and everything. "A cholera!" she used to growl in Yiddish, meaning that she wanted whatever she was cursing (usually one of the chickens) to be carried off by cholera, which is a very nasty illness. I expect she had a very hard life. But I was a bit frightened of her, and my parents used to make me laugh with Chelm stories. They didn't know lots of the ones in the book though, and so my friend the book taught me many more, and I remembered them for years and used to tell them to people I loved. When I was eighteen, I met my lovely cousin Dafna who lives in Israel, and one of the things that we really liked about each other was that we both knew and loved Chelm stories and could say a few words of Yiddish to each other. When I started to teach the students at my College how to become teachers of children, I often used to tell them Chelm stories to show that there are lots of stories which show that grown up men can be much more silly and foolish than very small children.