Folklore Juif

Special Issue of Cahiers de Littrature Orale No. 44. 1998

Dan Ben-Amos

The Jewish people have a long tradition of documenting their oral literature. The Hebrew Bible, an edited scripture, includes allusions to storytelling, singing, riddling and proverb quoting, and a significant number of its texts bear the earmarks of verbal performance. In subsequent periods the Apocrypha, the Pseudo-Epigrapha and the Hellenized Jewish literature include themes that are common in Jewish and international oral traditions. Later, the Talmudic-Midrashic literature, culturally known as "oral tradition," (torah she-be-al-peh) is saturated with edited and verbatim oral texts that were recited and likely even memorized in the academies, and others which were narrated in the synagogues, at home and in the market place. By that time the documented oral literature included many texts in Aramaic dialects which were spoken in Palestine and Babylon. The linguistic diversity of the documented Jewish oral literature increased with the dispersion of the Jews among the nations, and from the Middle Ages onwards texts have been preserved in Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish and other Jewish languages.

Certainly, there are documented oral literatures that antedate the Hebrew Bible; there are peoples who have preserved in writing the vibrancy of their oral performances better than the Jews, and there are cultures that maintained their oral quality in a more pristine state. But the combination of a long historical duration, linguistic diversity, geographic dispersion, and in spite of all these, continuous ethnic identity, gives Jewish folklore a unique character that is singular among the oral literatures of the world.

Naturally, the essays in this issue cannot address the complex historical, linguistic, literary, and ethnic dynamics that are inherent in this tradition, nor do they represent the broad range of theories and methods which modern scholarship has applied to Jewish folklore. Inevitably selective and limited these essays explore some key research problems. Primary among them is the relations between orality and literacy. Galit Hasan-Rokem searches for the feminine voice in the male-controlled talmudic-midrashic literature. She points out that in Lamentations Rabbah the rabbis included feminine personalities who are motherly figures, yet each represents an inversion of motherhood. Miriam, the only feminine martyr in the talmudic-midrashic literature, is not a nurturing but a sacrificing, or more brutally stated, a killing mother, who let her children die for a religious rabbinical ideal. Inverted in a different way is the figure of Rachel. In the symbolic world of the rabbis she is the biblical mother who became the archetypal lamenting woman. She weeps for the entire nation of the Children of Israel who are her metaphoric children. However of all four biblical maternal figures she is the only mother that died in childbirth.

Motherhood has not only a symbolic but also a real significance. Issachar Ben-Ami examines the representation of the anxiety of motherhood in Jewish myth, ritual, prayers, and magical invocations. The unpredictability of fertility qualified it as a human domain appropriate for supernatural control. Hence it was a subject that was most suitable for inclusion in the ancient Jewish religious literature. However, the anxiety of motherhood runs so deeply in family and social life that the rabbis could not draw upon supernatural canonical beliefs only, but had to include in their writings, and to allow their communities to access to the resources of non-canonical beliefs and practices as well.

The gate keepers of literacy function not only in traditional societies, but also , as Ronnie Biran demonstrates, at the central institutions of folklore research into which oral literature should have had a free admittance. They follow conceptual models rather than religious doctrines, yet their deductive thinking is as effective in excluding tales and songs from the archives for oral texts. The tension between the ideals and reality haunted folklore scholarship from its inception, when Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm edited the stories they recorded to fit their notions of what peasant narratives should be. Now Ronnie Biran uncovered the dynamics of textual exclusion in YIVO, the central institution for Yiddish research. Y. L. Cahan's pursuit of imagined authenticity blindfolded him and prevented him from recognizing the documents of actual storytelling in the texts that Berl Verblunsky submitted.

There are different ways of imagining folklore. The discovery of Judeo-Spanish ballads (romansas) in oral tradition ignited the romantic scholarly imagination, particularly because linguistic and thematic features of medieval Spanish that they preserved. Without denying their retentive quality Sam Armistead strips away this linguistic-folkloristic romanticism from Judeo-Spanish oral literature and presents it as dynamic creation that has been subject to the historic and linguistic experiences of the Judeo-Spanish Jews over the five hundred years since their expulsion. Research discovered a much richer, more diversified and stratified literature than previously imagined.

The tension between ideal and reality effects folklore images from within as well. Tamar Alexander explores how the Sepharadim of Jerusalem negotiate the ideal and the mundane in their conception of their city. Holy places are supposed to be pilgrimage destinations and not living quarters, yet Jerusalem is both. For many years it has been a sacred city, but for its inhabitants it has been also a home town . Consequently, the narratives of its Sephardic citizens are a synthesis of collective and personal memories. While Jerusalem is a unique religious symbol, Alexander's analysis is methodological applicable to many other pilgrimage destinations around the world.

Joseph Chetrit addresses a different kind of methodological issues. His essay is the only in this collection that deals exclusively with Judeo-Arabic. Building upon cultural-ethnic speech categories he analyses the proverbs in women's conversations. His method is a synthesis between structural and pragmatic approaches to proverbs, which he considers verbal strategies in daily speech. They acquire their rhetorical power from two sources: traditional uses of language and its metaphors and from the immediate context of discourse. Methodologically Chetrit draws primarily on French scholars, but the basic analytical principles that guide paremiological studies in the United States could have been applicable as well.

In the public and even the scholarly discourse in Israel the Judeo-Spanish and the Judeo-Arabic speaking Jews serve as the primary reference for the concept of ethnicity.

While the term is relatively recent, it has deep roots in ancient Greek in which it signified the foreigner or the national other. Current usage retains such a meaning, as indicated by its common occurrence in reference to minority and immigrant groups. More specifically, it describes not the group itself but the boundaries between societies. Therefore it is applicable to any sub-group in Israel and clearly to Jews in other lands. In Europe the Jews were an ethnic group par excellence. They acquired all the stereotypical images of a minority group, and figured as such not only in jokes and legends but also, as Veronika Grg-Karady points out, in fairy tales. She analyzes Hungarian versions of Tale Types 592 The Jew in the Thorns and 561 Aladdin that manifest the historical native hostility toward and fear of the Jews. In the most recent version of the first tale this attitude is mitigated by a sense of "political correctness," re-defining the narrative acts as a joke. However such a generic re-framing of the Hungarian attitude toward the Jew seems more like a lip-service than re-conceptualization of the social position of the Jews among the peoples of Europe.

Ideally, in Israel Jewish ethnicity should have disappeared, but as Haya Bar-Itzhak demonstrates its re-emergence follows a rather predictable pattern. Yet the personal experience narratives that she analyzes address ethnicity issues from the perspectives of the minority group. The "indigenous" Israelis, who are themselves only second or third generation immigrants, assume the image on an oppressing enemy, a monster, analogous to the role the native European peoples played in Jewish legends, proverbs and tales. Implicit in Bar-Itzhak's discussion is a central methodological question: Is folklore a disappearing or a renewable mode of communication? In the wake of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the coinage of the term folklore in 1996, American folklorists were swept by an anxiety concerning the future of folklore. Bar-Itzhak shows clearly that modern life and oral literature are compatible. Tamar Katriel takes this question even further, exploring orality

in radio communication. In doing so she challenges conventional definitions of folklore, casting doubt on the validity of the criteria of media, traditionality, subject matter, and community that describe the substance of folklore. She shows that the voluntary introduction of personal subjects into the public domain transforms personal into a communal narrative and follows the principals of folklore communication, employing discourse framing, opening and closing formulas, thematic conventions, and dialogic negotiation. The "personal column" of the air, the public airing of intimate matters in talk shows, become an inverted extension of the village square and the family kitchen table. The initial anonymity transform the personal into the public, setting the stage for later development of a community of listeners.

Mass media has entered into the business of tradition long ago. Traditional music has become an object of sound recordings and their commercial distribution, since their inception. However as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett shows that the transition from traditional performance to mass production is not merely a technical question, nor only an issue of cultural musical revival. The emergence of the Klezmer music scenes in New York, Europe and Israel represents historical changes of sensibility toward traditional music among Jews and non-Jews. "Nostalgia and nightmare," a phrase with which Arnold Band captured so well the spirit of the fiction of S. Y. Agnon, the Israeli Noble laureate, can convey the structure of feelings that Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett identify in the ambivalent attitude toward this music among the newer generations. The shadow of the Holocaust hangs heavy over the enjoyment of traditional music.

Not only the last article but all the essays in this collection attest that the study of Jewish folklore at the end of the nineties, nay, the twentieth century is under the impact of the two most traumatic events in Jewish history of the current era: the Holocaust and the foundation of the State of Israel. Destructively and constructively respectively, both events terminated traditional Jewish life in the Diaspora, and reframed the cultural attitude of the Jews toward their oral tradition. Orality and Literacy, the two poles of Jewish tradition, acquire new dimensions, some of which these essays represent, as we make the transition to a new century.

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