Introduction to Folktales of the Jews
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Introduction to Folktales of the Jews In 1955, Dov Noy founded the IFA as a section of the Israel Ethnological Museum of Haifa. In 1983, the IFA and the Ethnological Museum were moved to the University of Haifa. Today, the IFA is the largest depository of Jewish folktales in the world. With more than 20,000 texts, narrated by storytellers who immigrated to Israel from 56 countries, the IFA holds a collection that represents the oral traditions of the Jewish Diaspora in the twentieth century.1 The tales in these volumes are all stored at the Israel Folktale Archives Named in Honor of Dov Noy (IFA). Most of the tales are available in multiple versions told by narrators from diverse Jewish communities . Oral tradition has been an important feature of Jewish culture since antiquity . The Hebrew Bible, of course, contains not only the oral traditions of the early Hebrews, but also descriptions of ritual narrations. For more than 2,000 years, Jews living in Israel and in the lands of the Diaspora have relied upon the Oral Law (Torah she-be-al peh) as well as the Written Law (i.e., the Bible). The written Torah comprises the Holy Scriptures, but the oral Torah is a comprehensive entity that encompasses Jewish culture as a whole. Many of the oral tales in the IFA resonate with themes from earlier Jewish historical traditions. Allusions and references to biblical, talmudic, and medieval themes, figures, and ideas are commonplace in these stories. The interdependence of the oral and written traditions has been a hallmark of Jewish culture. From ancient times, Jewish oral tradition has spoken in plural voices: the language of the marketplace and the academy, the language of the synagogue and of home, the sacred language of Hebrew and the vernacular of daily life. The collective memory of the Jewish people, in short, extends well into the second millennium B.C.E. and is based on both literacy and orality. Yet, the stories represent not only continuity, but also discontinuity in tradition. While some themes and figures reach back to sources in late anxix tiquity and the Middle Ages, other narratives from these periods have not survived the vagaries of transmission from generation to generation and from community to community. Tales preserved through ritual or in print as classic narratives of Jewish culture have all but died out in the oral literature of current societies. Stories that were popular in previous centuries and are available to us in manuscripts from different Jewish communities have a dwindling presence among the storytellers of today. Surprisingly, some iconoclastic narratives that do not conform to normative images of traditional figures have survived. A Rich and Diverse Folklore The dispersion of the Jews among the nations through forced exile and natural migrations has steadily expanded the themes and forms of their folklore. In most countries, Jews actually developed new languages (among them,Yiddish, Judeo-Berber, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Greek, JudeoSpanish , and Judeo-Persian) in which they spoke, performed, and later wrote down their folklore. As a people living in the Diaspora, Jews have incorporated the folklore of other nations while simultaneously spreading their own internationally known themes around the world. Although this reciprocal process is basic to the transmission of folklore among all nations , it occurred intensely among the Jews and is a distinguishing characteristic of Jewish folklore. As a result of national dispersion and linguistic-cultural diversity, there is no single period, no single country, nor any single language that can claim to represent the authentic composite of Jewish folklore. The earliest known periods of Jewish folklore are no more genuine, in fact, than the later periods, with the result that no specific Jewish ethnic group’s traditions can be considered more ancient or more authentic than those of any others. Instead, Jewish oral tradition is rooted in a succession of particular historical and cultural contexts, each of which contributes to the totality of Jewish culture and literature, but all of which are distinctly bound by historical context and circumstance. The experience of exile—living as an ethnic minority among other peoples—has had a major part in shaping Jewish narrative traditions. These traditions were forged by two contrasting tendencies: localization and general Jewish orientation. The latter involved a common conception of Jewish national history, the maintenance of Hebrew as a valued language , and the interdependence between Jewish written and oral cultural heritage, while the former tendency manifested itself in the emergence of  xx  Introduction to Folktales...


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