The Magic World of Jewish Stories
By Kathy Bloomfield
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
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
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.
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.