'The Angel and the Cholent,' By Idit Pintel-Ginsberg
'The Angel and the Cholent,' By Idit Pintel-Ginsberg.

The Angel and the Cholent: Food Representations in the Israel Folktale Archives presents stories about food told by 29 storytellers representing 17 different locales or communities around the world.

People who like food (and we all do eat!), people who like folktales (don’t we all like a good story?) and people who like scholarship (a smaller group) will enjoy The Angel and the Cholent, the latest collection of folktales from the Israel Folktale Archives published by Wayne State University Press.

The Angel and the Cholent: Food Representations in the Israel Folktale Archives presents stories about food told by 29 storytellers representing 17 different locales or communities around the world. With each story, author Idit Pintel-Ginsberg provides information about where and how the story was collected, and from whom. She also provides a scholarly discussion of the significance of each story in relation to Jewish traditions and in the context of the Aarne-Thompson index of motifs of world folktales. 

The Israel Folktale Archives collection in Haifa now holds more than 24,000 narratives gathered from Jewish communities around the world, and from Israeli non-Jews, Muslim and Christian Arabs, Bedouins, Druze and Circassians. 

Pintel-Ginsburg groups the stories according to five themes (though she admits that many stories could belong to more than one classification): 

• Worldly Pleasures

• Food and Gender

• Food and Class

• Food and Kashrut

• Food and Sacred Time

If you think of folktales as simple, entertaining advocacy for the expected old-fashioned values, each ending with a neat moral, this anthology will surprise you. Some of these stories seem simple and sweet, some come across as light humor, but other stories come across as subversive, and some seem as complex as any work of famous authors. 

A few examples: A story that might seem sweet:

A king asks his guests at a banquet, “What is the best kind of music?” He finds their answers dissatisfying. When the waiters bring out the food, the serving vessels clang, and the guest begin to rejoice. The king observes, “This is the best music!” 

A story that might seem like a mere joke: “The Angel in Charge of the Shofar Blasts”:

God assigns an angel the task of overseeing the sounding of the shofar. The angel, though, has nothing to do during the rest of the year, which seems a waste of angelic talent, so the angel also makes sure that the cholent comes out good every Shabbat. Though other foods need human attention, cholent has been cooking away on the stove or in the oven, ignored since right before Shabbat, and still comes out delicious, because of the angel assigned to cholent. On Rosh Hashanah, the same angel makes sure that the shofar sounds correctly. But when Rosh Hashanah comes out on Shabbat, the poor angel has a conflict. He cannot do both. That explains why we do not blow the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. 

A subversive and complex story, “The Way to Become Rich”:

Discouraged by his years of poverty, a man finally listens to his wife and demands that the rebbe teach him to become rich. The rebbe tells him to go home, to earn a little money, to spend what he has on a sumptuous Shabbat meal, and then eat it all by himself, without sharing it with anyone.

He follows the advice. When his wife and sons beg for a bit of the food, he refuses, though it hurts him to do so. When his littlest child, his daughter, begs for food, he relents. He yells, “God, just give me clothes to wear and bread to eat. I don’t want to be rich. Do you hear me, Rebbe? I don’t want to be rich!” He then shares the meal with his family. 

What does this story, “The Way to Become Rich,” want us to think about the rebbe? How does it evaluate wealth? The story seems enigmatic, paradoxical, reminiscent of the celebrated stories of I.L. Peretz, Franz Kafka and S.Y. Agnon. 

The collection includes “If Only You Knew the Taste,” a version of a familiar tale in which a priest at a banquet offers the rabbi delicious, but not kosher, food, When the rabbi refuses, the priest says, “If only you knew the taste.” Later, the rabbi thanks the priest for inviting him to the beautiful meal, though he did not eat, and he asks the priest to convey the rabbi’s thanks to the priest’s wife. The priest replies that “his Torah forbids him to marry.” The rabbi replies, “If only you knew the taste.” 

In the scholarly notes on this story, oddly enough, Pintel-Ginsberg attributes the rabbi’s attempt to thank the priest’s wife to the rabbi’s “ignorance and naivete.” The rabbi, in her analysis, simply does not know that priests must remain celibate. Possibly she believes that the priest does not know that rabbis refrain from eating non-kosher food. The scholar, Pintel-Ginsberg, overlooks the possibility that the priest intends to mock the rabbi, and the rabbi returns the mockery. 

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