Wayne State University publishes a book in honor of 50th anniversary of the Israel Folktales Archives.

In the earliest days of the modern state of Israel, Dov Noy and his students went into the field and recorded folktales recounted by local storytellers. Noy founded the Israel Folktale Archives in 1955 in Haifa; the collection now contains more than 24,000 narratives in various languages, as told by storytellers of Jewish communities around the world, and of Israeli non-Jews, Muslim and Christian Arabs, Bedouins, Druze and Circassians.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Israel Folktales Archives, scholars Haya Bar-Itzhak and Idit Pintel-Ginsberg constructed a charming book by asking leading scholars to pick one favorite story and provide a short essay analyzing the story. Wayne State University has just published this volume in English translation.

The book contains 53 stories representing 26 different ethnic communities, as told by 19 women and 33 men. The analytic essays provide sometimes surprising insights into those stories, reflecting the various academic perspectives of the scholarly writers.

Here’s an example. Professor Esther Schely-Newman of Hebrew University did her fieldwork in Lod, Israel, where she heard Haya (Hadjadi) Mazouz, a Jewish woman originally from Tunisia, tell “The Mother’s Gift is Better than the Father’s Gift”:

The story is about a king who does not want to marry after his wife dies because he fears a stepmother would mistreat his beloved daughter. The people beg him to marry, and he eventually does, but he makes his new wife promise to let his daughter live idly in luxury. The stepmother promises, but when the king’s not there, she makes the daughter dust the furniture, wash the floor, learn to sew and to embroider. They keep her work secret from the king. Eventually, the daughter marries, and moves away with her husband. The husband loses his job. Though the king sends presents every few months, the young couple need more, so the king’s daughter supports her family as a tailor.

She thanks her father for his gifts but sends messages: “Mother’s gift is better than father’s gift” and “ancestor’s fortune will end; hands’ profession remains.”

In 2005, 20 years after first hearing this story, Schely-Newman again visits Mazouz, and again hears the story, told with only “very small differences.” The story has not changed, but the scholar has. She now appreciates this as a women’s story of patriarchal society.

“While at first the tales seem to conform to the patriarchal order, a subsequent reading permits a different interpretation,” she says. “In traditional patriarchal societies, men and women live in separate domains. Heroines in these stories get rescued by female initiative. In these societies, women protect and afford security for each other.”

Popular Western folk tales, by contrast, reward “passive heroines, pretty, good-natured and submissive,” she says. “More daring female characters suffer dangers, until, usually through male intervention, they can get on the proper path towards marriage.”

The scholarly essays also connect these stories to classical Jewish texts and to the Aarne-Thompson index of motifs of world folktales.

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