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Folktales of Joha, Jewish Trickster

Edited by Matilda Koen-Sarano; Forward by Tamar Alexander; Illustrated by Ezra Masch

Publication Year: 2003

"Joha has Janus's double face: On the one hand, he is innocent and stupid; on the other, a trickster. He is a cheater and is cheated. He sets traps for others and falls into traps himself; he is simpleton and liar, victimizer and victim. But as a literary figure he never dies. The nearly 300 stories in this lovely volume are from Sephardic oral literature and ethnic culture. They were told to Matilda Kon-Sarano in their original language, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), and documented over 21 years. From 17 countries, including the United States, they come together in this first-ever collection of Joha stories to appear in English. Known in some places as Ladino, Judeo-Spanish is a living remnant of the Spanish spoken by the Spanish Jews at the end of the 15th century. Matilda Kon-Sarano, born to a Sephardic family, has devoted her life to the conservation and revitalization of this language, culture, and heritage. Joha, according to Ladino tradition, is a popular folklore character, one who is conniving yet also beguiling. He plays many roles: He makes us laugh; liberates us from taboos; makes it possible to tell the whole, sometimes painful, truth in a humorous way; and helps us triumph over our enemies through laughter. These stories have entertained generations of Sephardic children and adults and will delight readers of any age."

Published by: Jewish Publication Society

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pp. 1-4

Until recent times, folktales were told in the course of everyday life, from father to son, from mother to daughter, among neighbors and friends, around the fireside, during long winter evenings, and on a thousand other occasions. These stories, with all their delightful spontaneity and innocence, have nearly ...

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pp. 5-16

Joha is a well-known character in oriental folktales and especially in Sephardic folktales. Stories about him are told in Sephardic communities all over the world.

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The Myth of Laughter

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pp. 17-20

This great hoja had a sheep. Every day at exactly the same time the hoja would take the sheep, slaughter it, and cook it. All thirteen would sit down and eat. Afterward, the hoja would take the bones of the sheep and murmur a few words to re-create the lamb, because there was much hunger at that time and nothing ...

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1: Joha and his family

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pp. 21-34

At that time, before departing, the train would whistle one whistle . . . toot . . . toot . . . toot. . . . Joha’s mother, together with her little son, was running to catch the train before they blew the whistle. “Climb aboard, my soul! Climb aboard, my soul!” his mother said to him ...

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2: Joha at school

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pp. 35-44

When he was a child, Joha came home one day, took a button, and put it in his ear. His mother arrived and said: “Dear God! What are you doing?” Joha said to her: “Today the teacher told me: ‘You don’t understand what I am teaching. It goes in one ear and out the other!’ So I am trying to see ...

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3: Joha and work

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pp. 45-68

Joha’s mother said to him: “Look, do me a favor: go to the marketplace and bring me a kilo of meat, a kilo of fish, and a kilo of flour. But come back quickly!” Joha went off and very soon returned home and said: “Mama, I forgot what you asked me to ...

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4: Joha and the animals

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pp. 69-84

Once Joha’s mother sent him to buy fish. Joha went to the grocer with a little basket and said to the man working there: “Look, my mother sent me to buy her fish. But my mother doesn’t know how to cook it. She said that you would tell me.” The man put the fish into a newspaper and handed it to ...

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5: Joha and the bride

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pp. 85-100

Joha was left an orphan, without father or mother, and he grew up with a grandmother. One day his grandmother said: “Look, I am going to die. This is the way of the whole world. And this child . . . who will look after it? Who will protect it?” Then she said: “We will get him betrothed ...

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6: Joha and his wife

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pp. 101-128

The wedding was over. The bride and groom went to sleep, each in their own bed. The bride was waiting. A short time passed. Joha hadn’t come to her bed. “Oh!” said the bride. “I am getting cold! I am getting cold!” Joha came to her, the poor guy, and covered her well. She said: “I am freezing ...

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7: Joha, son, and grandson

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pp. 129-136

After a week of marriage, Joha’s wife gave birth to a little boy. They came to where Joha was working and said to him: “Joha, a son has been born to you!” He ran to the market right away, bought whatever he intended to buy, came home, opened the parcel, and began to put what he had bought next to the child’s bed. There were ...

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8: Joha and the king

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pp. 137-156

One day Joha came home very hungry: “Mama, I want to eat! Mama, I want to eat!” His mother said to him: “Go and wander around for a bit, and I’ll make you spaghetti in the meantime!” She put the water on to boil, and he went off. He went off . . . walked around a bit, and then sat down outside. He was ...

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9: Joha and his neighborhood

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pp. 157-172

Joha said to his wife: “Go to the neighbor and ask him to lend us his big washtub. Tell him that we have a lot of laundry.” His wife went to ask for it, and they gave her the tub. After two or three days, Joha said to his wife: “Return the tub to the neighbor and also give him this little tub ...

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10: Joha talks about himself

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pp. 173-190

It was nighttime. Joha was outside in the street. He was looking for something on the ground, under the lamplight. A neighbor passed and said to him: “Joha, what are you looking for? I will help you!” Joha said to him: “I am looking for a ring that fell off my ...

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11: Joha and the God

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pp. 191-206

One day Joha got up in the morning, came into the kitchen, and said: “Mama, I want to eat! I’m hungry!” His mother said: “First of all, go and pray.” Joha went to his bedroom and, after a few minutes, came out saying: “Mama, I have already finished. . . . Give me something ...

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12: Joha and the law

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pp. 207-232

You should know that this stupid Joha was always doing bad things, without knowing that they were bad. Joha’s mother was ill and was lying in bed. Joha wanted to go out for a walk. His mother said: “Look, Joha, when you go out, pull the door,” thinking that he was only going to give it a push to ...

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13: Joha the glutton

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pp. 233-256

Joha said to his mother: “Mama, I want salad! But I want it now, right away!” His mother said to him: “Take, cut, eat!” So he took the salad, cut it up, and put it into his mouth. “But you don’t eat it like that!” his mother said to him. “First you cut it up. After that, you put oil in it, and salt, and ...

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14: Joha in the hospital

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pp. 257-266

One day Joha went to the dentist. He said: “I have a very bad toothache.” The dentist said: “Which tooth is hurting you?” Joha thought to himself: He doesn’t understand! Isn’t he a dentist? And he didn’t answer. The dentist took his pliers and extracted a tooth. He asked ...

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15: Joha and death

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pp. 267-278

Once Joha saw a crowd of people following a coffin. “What’s going on?” he asked himself. He went with them, listened. They were all talking about a Señor Levi who was a civil servant, a man who loved people and always gave to charity, and how “. . . today he is leaving us forever . . . ” and all have come to pay him their last respects ...

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Narrators’ Circle: “The Ladies of Ladino"

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pp. 279-281

When my previous book was published, in 1986, I asked the late Yaakov Bonano, who was on the Ministry workers committee, to send a notice to all the employees saying that the book was available and that I wished to sell it to them at a reduced ...


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pp. 282-290

E-ISBN-13: 9780827610149
Print-ISBN-13: 9780827607224

Publication Year: 2003