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Although there were no professional storytellers and no occasions solely dedicated to the activity, storytelling was a pervasive feature of the everyday life of East European Jews. Exceptions include the monologists of the nascent Yiddish theater such as Velvl Zbarzher (Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz) and such twentieth-century comedians as Dzigan and Shumacher, who told stories in their own right. Stories were told in religious settings (besmedresh [Heb., bet ha-midrash], tsvishn minkhe un mayrev [between the afternoon and evening prayers], at formal and informal gatherings of Hasidim, and in kheyder [heder]); to pass the time at home during long winter evenings, during repetitive work, and while traveling; at life cycle events such as weddings and shives (mourning periods); on the Sabbath and holidays when work is prohibited; and in social settings such as inns, cafes, and cabarets.

Many tales from the Talmud and Midrash were retold and reentered the oral tradition. The name of the Passover Haggadah, which contains the text to be read at the Seder, translates as “narration” or “telling”; the Haggadah itself exists to fulfill the injunction found in Exodus 13:8: “Ve-higadeta, And you shall tell your son on that day [Passover].” Stories published in such works as the Hebrew Yalkut Shim‘oni (1521), and the Yiddish Simkhes hanefesh (1707) and most important the En Ya‘akov (1516, compiled in Hebrew but widely popular in Yiddish translation) were derived in large measure from the narrative parts of the Talmud. Among the most popular collections of stories was the Mayse-bukh, a sixteenth-century edifying alternative to worldly stories in vogue at the time.

Those who moved around—itinerant artisans, merchants, matchmakers, preachers, wandering students, and coachmen—brought stories heard in one place to another. Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1856), celebrated as Poland’s greatest Romantic poet, “told . . . of a certain Jewish balagole or coachman with whom he had traveled for two days, and who had proved to be an exquisite story-teller. The stories narrated by that balagole made a powerful impression upon Mickiewicz” (Haim Schwarzbaum, Studies in Jewish and World Folklore [Berlin, 1968], p. 2).

By the end of the nineteenth century, neoromantic writers such as Y. L. Peretz were offering literary reworkings of the traditional repertoire as folkstimlikhe geshikhtn (plain people’s stories).

Indulging in narrative for its own sake, however, was generally associated with low status and especially with women. As Binyamin Yankev Bialostotzky (1892–1962) recalls:

I never heard a single anecdote or fairy tale (maysele) from my grandfather. I also never heard a single Yiddish song from him, of course. He was totally immersed in halakhah, Shulḥan ‘arukh, restrained piety, praying, prayers, Torah. But my grandmother, she implanted the Yiddish folk tune, freely uttered proverbs and witticisms.

   Was my grandmother an exception then? Many grandmothers and mothers were like this.  (Binyamin Yankev Bialostotzky, Di mesholim fun Dubner Magid un andere eseyen [New York, 1962], p. 164; translated here by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett)

According to Bialostotzky, it was his grandmother who would tell him stories about tsadikim, saints, on Friday evenings as they sat together near the warm oven. A. Litwin remembers meeting Sonye Naymark, who was 80 years old at the time, in the province of Mohilev during the early twentieth century; as she became comfortable in his presence,

the proverbs and stories began to flow. She tells her stories like an artist. Her language is unusually rich and colorful, and her style is sharp and peppery. She makes use of a rhyme, a Biblical verse, even a Talmudic proverb. It was through her that I learned that there were once women badkhentes [wedding jesters]. Such a badkhente, she said, once paid her three rubles for a story that she taught her, and which the badkhente then used at a wedding. Sonye, however, is anything but a badkhente. She is a very proud woman and commands everyone’s respect.   (quoted in Weinreich, 1988, p. xxvi, with accompanying photograph of Naymark)

Telling stories that made a point was highly valued, a point captured by Yehuda Elzet, writing in the 1930s:

I remember how in a conversation Shmarye Levin narrated a folk witticism which was wonderfully fitted to the matter with which we were dealing. When everyone had finished laughing and wondering at his astuteness, one person remained cold and untouched. “I have already heard this story,” he exclaimed with disappointment. Only when the crowd had left did Shmarye Levin become furious in front of me. “What does he mean? Am I a storyteller (mayse-dertseyler), a joker (vitsn-makher), who entertains the audience? How can a person not understand that the most important thing is the “application” (aplikatsye)—the application (onvendung), the fitting [of the story] to the matter being discussed?”   (Elzet, 1937, pp. 11–12; translated here by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett )

Indeed the parable (moshl)—and its moral (muser haskl)—is one of the most highly valued types of storytelling. That said, stories were also told in their own right, but usually in the course of conversation or other speech event, which is captured in such phrases as durkhshmisn mayses, to have a chat consisting of stories during which people might take turns telling tales and jokes.

The main types of narrative are as follows.

Moralizing tales: While virtually any story can be told as a parable, certain stories have been specially adapted to the purpose, including animal fables and tales within tales, whether they begin or end with their moral explicitly stated. Frustrated with “It could be worse” as a response to one’s adversity, one might tell the following story. A visitor to a woman on her deathbed tries to comfort her with the words “It could be worse,” to which the dying woman asks, “What could be worse?” The visitor responds, “It could happen to me.” Such tales may feature wise and saintly characters such as a lamedvovnik, one of the 36 saints whose identity is concealed and without whom the world would collapse. It is told that Elijah, whose identity was concealed, was turned away from a wedding because of his tattered clothes. When he returned elegantly dressed, he was warmly received, but poured his food on his clothes. “Why are you doing that?” his host exclaimed. To which Elijah responded, “You are feeding the clothes.”

Kinder-mayselekh (stories for children): “A teacher needs to know how to tell a lot of stories” to enliven the exegesis of texts and hold the interest of restless children (quoted in Yekhiel Shtern, Kheyder un besmedresh [New York, 1950], p. 85). Women might be enlisted for the purpose: “Sometimes during hours when children were at leisure, the rebetsn [rabbi’s wife] also told them stories of ghosts and goblins which she had heard from her mother, who had heard them from her grandmother, and so on” (Hayim Schauss, The Lifetime of a Jew thoughout the Ages of History [Cincinnati, 1950; rev. ed. 1962], p. 106). In addition, “Some of the children of the higher grades were proficient in telling wonderful stories which they had heard from their fathers and older brothers, stories of the prophet Elijah, of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, of Alexander the Great, of Napoleon, and others” (ibid.). While children generally listened to the same stories told to adults, children were a captive audience for adventure stories, fairy tales, stories intended to encourage good behavior or frighten children with the dire consequences of bad behavior, stories in which children are the protagonists, and nonsense tales.

Vunder-mayses (also known as märchen,magic tales, fairy tales, and wonder tales): These are among the longest and most complex stories in the Yiddish repertoire and typically begin and end with a formula: amol iz geven (once upon a time . . .) and “I was there and had a good little glass of brandy. From my beard it dripped but none I sipped” (Weinreich, 1988, p. 66). These stories often tell the adventures of a hero who faces a challenge, travels through a forest, overcomes obstacles and adversaries, and returns home. Characters in these stories may be royalty, sorcerers and demons, orphans, beggars, the master thief, Elijah, or rabbis.

Numbskull and trickster tales (vitsik-maysele, shpasik-maysele, khokhmele, shtuke, shpitsele): These humorous anecdotes may be associated with a legendary place such as Khelem (Chełm), the town of fools who were said to have covered their sundial with a roof to protect it from the rain; or with pranksters, some of whom were real people and told tales in which they were the protagonists. In a version of “Stone Soup,” Froyim Greydinger offered to make a soup from a stick and water; after bringing it to a boil, he asked those assembled to contribute carrot, an onion, a chicken. Upon tasting the delicious soup, a townswoman, amazed by the miracle, bought the “magical stick” from Greydinger for a ruble and a chicken (Weinreich, 1988, pp. 233–234). While Greydiger from Galicia, Hershele Ostropolyer from Volin, and Motke Khabad from Vilna are historical personages, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the historical from the apocryphal in the stories and anecdotes that concern them. While some worked at least occasionally as entertainers—Motke Khabad served as both waiter and badkhn, or wedding jester, at Vilna weddings, while Hershele was the official jester to the court of the melancholic Rebbe Borekhl of Mezhbizh—being a lets (clown) was not a recognized occupational category and most leytsim made their livings from something other than jokes.

Legends (mesoyres): Stories about famous sages and saints, their lives, piety, wisdom, and miracles are a prominent part of the repertoire, especially among Hasidim, who place a value on religious expression in narrative (khsidishe mayse), song, and dance. Each Hasidic group has its own stories dedicated to its religious leaders; the recounting of such tales is seen as a ritualized devotional act as well as a source of entertainment and edification. Some of these stories are about historical events, while others are purely legendary. Legends were also told about biblical and postbiblical heroes, as well as about such historical figures as heads of state (the tsar, Emperor Franz Josef, Napoleon) and wealthy men (Rothschild). Encounters with the supernatural prompted the telling of local legends, whether as first-person experiences (memorats) or legends proper.

Nayes, news stories, were a staple in times when newspapers were either rare or nonexistent. Residents of a town or village would be quick to report any tidings of the outside world that might have reached them through oral or written sources, particularly news of national significance (e.g., wars, assassinations, elections) or of Jewish interest (e.g., decrees, persecutions, conscription orders). Rekhiles, gossip, was nayes on a local level, involving people known to the interlocutors.

Stories organize experience in distinctively East European Jewish ways and make their message memorable. It is the pervasiveness of storytelling, rather than the presence of professional storytellers or events dedicated to storytelling alone, that marks the centrality of narrative in East European Jewish life.

Suggested Reading

Yehuda Elzet, “Vits un humor,” in Funem yidishn kval, ed. Salem (Shalom) Miller, pp. 3–14 (Winnipeg, 1937); Moses Gaster, ed. and trans., Ma‘aseh Book: Book of Jewish Tales and Legends (Philadelphia, 1981); Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “The Concept and Varieties of Narrative Performance in East European Jewish Culture,” in Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking, ed. Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, pp. 283–310 (New York, 1974); Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “A Parable in Context: A Social Interactional Analysis of Storytelling Performance,” in Folklore: Performance and Communication, ed. Dan Ben-Amos and Kenneth S. Goldstein, pp. 105–130 (The Hague, 1975); Reuben Margaliot, ed., Sefer ḥasidim, by Judah ben Samuel (Jerusalem, 1969/70); Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, ed., Yiddish folktales, trans. Leonard Wolf (New York, 1988).