The Magic World of Jewish Stories

By Kathy Bloomfield

Howard Schwartz is a collector of Jewish stories. He gathers them from the past and from the present, from individuals and libraries and from every continent. Recently, two of his award-winning collections have been deservingly reissued.

The Day the Rabbi Disappeared
Jewish Holiday Tales of Magic
Retold by Howard Schwartz
Illustrated by Monique Passicot
80 pages. Jewish Publication Society. $9.95
All ages.

We owe a debt of gratitude to The Jewish Publication Society for reintroducing this incredible collection of magical and mystical stories from all over the world, which won the National Jewish Book Award when it was first published by Viking Children’s Books in 2000. Each tale is linked to a particular Jewish holiday either by the story’s setting or because the holiday is part of the plot. Of special note are the stories for Rosh Chodesh (The New Moon Celebration) and Lag ba-Omer (The Eighteenth Day of Iyar), because these holidays are so rarely celebrated in children’s books.

The Rosh Hodesh story, “A Flock of Angels,” tells the tale of Rabbi Asenath, a young woman who is the daughter of Rabbi Samuel Barzani.  When Rabbi Barzani dies, Asenath takes over his responsibilities. One night, her father speaks to her in a dream and tells her she must go to the Kurdish town of Amadiyah for Rosh Hodesh. Even though “All Jews have been warned to stay away from Amadiyah,” she leaves her village. Upon her arrival, she is “given great respect as a holy woman.” But when she tells the townspeople that they must celebrate Rosh Hodesh outdoors “so they could see the crescent of the new moon,” they get very upset. Still, “their faith in God and their trust in her were so great that they agreed to proceed.”  As they begin to celebrate, they hear shouting and see “flames shoot up into the sky.” Their synagogue is on fire! As the flames approach the Holy Ark where the Torahs are kept, Asenath whispers a secret name. Angels descend on the synagogue and “beat the flames with their wings, until every last spark had been put out.” When the Jews’ enemies heard what had happened, “they were so fearful that they dared not harm the hair of even a single Jew.” Illuminating God’s gifts of faith and magic, this delightful story transforms the monthly Rosh Hodesh holiday into a wondrous and awe inspiring event.

In “The Dream of the Rabbi’s Daughter,” a young girl learns the secrets of the Zohar (a central text in the Jewish mystical tradition) from its author, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. She is able to share her learning with her father and other renowned rabbis much to their delight and amazement. Bar Yohai spent thirteen years in a cave hiding from the Romans, and emerged on Lag ba’Omer. As a result, this holiday is celebrated all over Israel with campfires and festivities, especially in the Galilee near Bar Yohai’s tomb. “The Dream of the Rabbi’s Daughter” serves as a fun and unusual beginning of a conversation about this joyous festival. 

Of course, in addition to these two wonderful tales, all the standard holidays are represented. Every story is accompanied by an explanation of the festival, biographical details about the real life sages and rabbis who are the principal performers of the miracles and magic in the story, as well as background information about the time, place, or events described.

The illustrations by Monique Passicot lend a magic all their own to this delightful collection. I encourage you to have a copy at hand for storytelling during the holidays or at any time throughout the year.

Jerusalem of Gold
Jewish Stories of the Enchanted City
Retold by Howard Schwartz
Illustrated by Neil Waldman
58 pages. Jewish Lights Publishing. $18.95.
All ages.

Eleven stories set in or around Jerusalem, featuring King David, King Solomon, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and a cast of ordinary yet pious people, come to life in the pages of Jerusalem of Gold. King Solomon outwits the demon Ornais in “The Vampire Demon,” the oldest vampire story ever found—over 2000 years old! Read “How the Walls of the Temple Were Built” to learn why the Western Wall still stands.  Follow the tale of the disappearance of “The Princess of Light” and discover where she remains hidden to this day. These and many more fabulous stories await you in this volume.

Each story is accompanied by a few bits of information setting the stage or clarifying the legends of the story. In addition, the source of each story is accurately recorded in the back of the book along with a glossary of terms. Neil Waldman’s beautiful, soft pastel illustrations evoke the warmth and mystery of Jerusalem. I highly recommend this collection of stories for Shabbat, Yom Yerushalayim, or any time.

Originally entitled Next Year in Jerusalem and published by Viking in 1996, this award-winning collection has been out-of-print for years. Again, we are thankful that Jewish Lights publishing has rediscovered and reissued this fantastic collection of Schwartz’s tales.