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Once Upon a Jewish Fairy Tale

Recently I joined my colleague, Nick, a visiting professor from Rhodes, to shop for suitable books to read to his children here in the States. He was appalled by the available choices.

“Incredible. You Americans still tell your children stories about princes and princesses? Didn’t you fight a revolution to get beyond that?” He decided to stick to his own fairy tales based on Greek mythology.

Nick has got this much right: Children’s tales not only entertain and instruct, but also transmit a culture’s values. Our stories set up a diorama of heroes and villains, posit who is dangerous and who sympathetic, who is rewarded and who punished. Reciting stories to even our youngest children — perhaps especially to our younger children — is ipso facto a venture in moral shaping.

Nick is right about something else, too. Not all fairy tales are healthy for children — and there are alternatives. Let’s be straightforward: So many of the fables on which we were nourished celebrate repellent values and are downright cruel. There are other, gentler folk traditions — Jewish folklore among them — that are not suffused with evil stepmothers, children abandoned by parents, heroines redeemed purely because of their beauty, royalty depicted as superior humans, and terrified children facing torture and cannibalism. Nonetheless, American Jews have largely distanced themselves from their own storytelling heritage. (The sanitized and insufferably didactic children’s books of the ultra-Orthodox community raise their own set of problems; Israeli children’s literature deserves a separate discussion, as well.)

But children’s book writers do more than repackage the dominant ethos; they help generate its standards and role models. To the extent a milieu is vague and unsure, the impact of the writer’s creation is that much more significant. This is why our current Jewish-American children’s book authors arguably shoulder a heavier burden than that of their predecessors in any other generation. To see this more clearly, we need to look at how folk traditions are bequeathed in text-driven cultures.

There’s a fairy tale about fairy tales, and it goes like this: Once upon a time, the common folk, mostly illiterate, told stories that were passed along from generation to generation. Then the folklorists arrived and fastidiously transcribed those tales for the rest of us. Moreover, according to this chronicle, the same stories developed independently around the world. The explanation for this supposed multigenesis, along with the reason for the tales’ disturbing content, is sometimes attributed to Jungian archetypes. More popular these days are psychoanalytic deconstructions, as introduced most famously by (the now discredited) Bruno Bettelheim, according to which fairy tales are coping mechanisms for dealing with childhood Oedipal struggles, the reality principle, jealousies, unconscious fears and other choice elements in the Freudian inventory.

Contemporary folklore scholars tell a different story altogether. Our fairy tales are cross-cultural because they trace to the same few printed sources. They are composed works — most notably, by the 16th-century Venetian Gian Francesco Straparola, whose collection “Le Piacevoli Notti” (“The Pleasant Nights”) focuses on princes and princess who regain their lost royal status, such as Sleeping Beauty; the early 17th-century Italian Giambattista Basile, who created the story of Rapunzel and the European version of “Cinderella”; and the 17th-century French folklorist Charles Perrault, who authored his own version of older tales and probably invented “Little Red Riding Hood.” Later folktale collectors from across Europe and Russia sought to develop national narratives to foster their respective nation-building campaigns. Foremost among them were the 18th-century Grimm Brothers, who attributed their tales to local peasant households and claimed that the stories promoted the Prussian values of discipline and authority (and, we might add, systemic antisemitism, as exemplified in their story “The Jew Among Thorns”). Our fairy tale heritage, therefore, belongs not to nights around the campfire, but to the printed book.

The text source has also been central to Jewish tales throughout the millennia and across the globe. These narratives derive primarily from Talmud and Midrash, which elaborate on scriptural meaning through legends, parables and allegories. Undoubtedly, the original tales and their later variations borrowed from popular yarns of their host countries; for example, the oft-depicted Ashmedai, the King of Demons, first mentioned in the Book of Tobit, stems from a Persian evil spirit. And certainly, subsequent stories explore themes of interest to all children — magical rescues, dybbuks and sorcerers, rags to riches, people succeeding because of their piety or wit, and towns replete with fools. But they were conveyed in a Jewish context, featuring familiar Jewish heroes, in a Jewish language, against the rhythm of a lived Jewish calendar, full of allusions to practices that were integral to a Jewish child’s life.

No longer. The contemporary Jewish author does not have it easy. When Sydney Taylor’s time-honored “All-of-a-Kind Family” was written more than half a century ago, immigration was a palpable experience for its readers. But now the majority of Jewish children in this country are fourth-generation Americans. “Number the Stars,” a classic Holocaust story, already referred to a receding history when it was published 15 years ago; the links are even more frayed today. So many of the well-plowed storylines of even the recent past no longer work: American Jewish children won’t exalt playing baseball as a mark of integration; they don’t see any humor in gefilte fish and bagels, dealing with bigots is not an everyday concern, and they know more about Abraham Lincoln than about Abraham the Forefather. The current stream of festival books is often the American Jewish child’s primary introduction to the holiday — and his or her parents can’t supply the needed background.

As we learn more about folklore and Jewish folklore in particular, we will reconfigure the history of our oral and written treasures. But the future of storytelling is even more unsettled. Much of our literary energy is migrating to other media, such as film and the Internet: The bubbling cauldrons of past witches are now sinister computer programs run by evil hackers. Disney has become the mother’s lap for all our planet’s children. These swift cultural and technological changes rattle Jewish children’s literature, as well. Indeed, it renders the very definition of this literature increasingly elusive.

And so… we tip our hats in appreciation to the persistent authors of Jewish children’s books. The stories you tell are often our children’s first — and sometimes lasting — introduction to our heritage. Now we count on you not only to entertain, but to be our teachers, as well. And that is no fairy tale.

Joshua Halberstam is a writer in New York City. His books include “Schmoozing: The Private Conversations of American Jews” (Berkley Publishing Group, 1997) and “Work: Making a Living and Making a Life” (Perigree, 2000). He teaches courses in philosophy at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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