Legends and Jewish Identity

Legends and Jewish Identity


Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

Where is Alex?” I asked my daughter.

“He is in bed, reading,” she replied.

At the time of this discourse, my grandson Alex was just 12 years old and a voracious reader. The night before my visit, he had stood in line with many others to make an early purchase of the newest Harry Potter book and thus continue enjoying the youthful magician’s exploits at the school of magic, Hogwarts.

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Now, Alex was in his bedroom reading; his aim was to complete the book in one day. I was very proud of Alex’s linguistic proficiency, and later on I would shep nachas from his achievements, particularly his high marks in school.

Reflecting on Harry Potter and Alex’s interest in the character, I was reminded of my own excitement and eagerness to read stories about my heroes and their magical exploits. The difference between my grandson and I, of course, is that I read in Hebrew about ancient Jewish heroes rather than in English of imaginary English heroes.

Not that I seek to disregard the English literary hero; as a matter of fact, I read the story of the heroic exploits of young Jim Hawkins in Robert L. Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” – but I read it in Hebrew.

Living in a predominantly Jewish shtetl and attending a school in which the language of instruction was Hebrew, my early childhood heroes were David, Solomon, Bar Kokhba and Gideon (just to mention a few), and my favorite book was the children’s edition of Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends). I am convinced that my strong Jewish identity was a function of this internalization of Jewish history through the legends and my identification with the various Jewish heroes.

In my dreams, I imagined that I was a part of Bar Kokhba’s army and I, like he, was so strong that I could wrest a tree by its roots while riding bareback on a horse. I imagined myself possessing the strength of Judah Maccabee, fighting the enemies of the Jews; and standing next to Elijah, fighting the priest Baal. These stories and many more formed the infrastructure of my Jewish identity.

An Old Habit Worth Keeping

The rabbis in the Talmud often stopped their deliberation about a point of law and eased the dryness of their exposition with interspersed tales. Indeed, we Jews have a long tradition of telling tales – or, as we called it in Yiddish, the telling of ma’aseh.

For instance: During Shabbat Torah readings of my youth, I remember the women in the balcony gathering in small groups around an older woman (perhaps my grandmother), who would read aloud from a book called Tzena Urena or another tome of ma’aseh. Also, in small villages like ours, a traveling maggid would entertain his disciples before mincha with various wondrous tales.

For me, this was majorly impactful. There is a strong relationship between childhood stories and the formation of identity; a child starts forming a worldview early in life and is influenced by many conditions, including what he or she reads or the stories that he or she is told. These stories often become forces that continue to exert their influence into adulthood.

The ones that I liked in particular were the stories about the Ten Lost Tribes; that is, the ones that constituted the northern kingdom of Israel. The men of these tribes – unlike us in the shtetls and the ghettoes of Europe – were free, tall and strong; according to legend, red-haired giants who lived somewhere in central Asia, kept apart from the rest of the world by the river called Sambation, which could not be crossed because of the boulders that it threw into the air.

My heroes were not necessarily religious, but they were my ancestors, my progenitors, and their experiences in a way also became also mine. My heroes suffered from intolerance and fought against odds, and they prevailed, thereby anchoring me in Judaism and providing my first link in the golden chain of history that ties me, even today, to the belief in eternal Judaism.

It was through these stories that I became integrated into the historical k’lal Yisrael into the historical Jewish collective.

We are told that every Jew must consider himself as though he himself was a part of the Jewish people who were redeemed from Egypt. We are also told that we should consider ourselves as one of the eternal Jews who stood at Mount Sinai when the law was revealed.

Indeed, such an eternal identity must be fostered from childhood, and I was lucky enough to experience this connection with eternal Judaism through the legends depicting the heroic deeds of my ancestors.

Foundation to Fall Back On

The power of early identity is well exemplified by Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister during Queen Victoria’s reign. Although he converted later in life from Judaism to the Anglican religion as a matter of convenience, his family was faithful to their Jewish tradition in spite of having been forced by the Inquisition to leave Spain.

Disraeli, like all Sephardic Jews, had a rich tradition of Jewish learning. Even after his conversion, he retained his Jewish identity so completely that the members of the parliament would refer to him as “the Jew.” In fact, on one occasion when the members of the parliament made unpleasant remarks about his Jewishness, he retorted and chastised the offenders:

“When my ancestors were writing the Book – yours were still running in the forests clad in animal skins.”

Alas, we know not what specific tales influenced Disraeli as a boy, and the books that influenced me are no longer available – even in English. A few years ago, I went to several Atlanta Jewish book stores, including synagogue gift shops, seeking books of Jewish legends – but, to no avail.

I found ample books about “how Jeremy prepared for Shabbat” and our holidays, but I could find nothing that resembled my old Ha’Aggadah. And still more disappointingly, I came up short when I searched for Jewish tales on internet – I couldn’t even find books about the Wise Men of Chelm.

How can we induct our children into Jewish historicity? I know from personal experience the great contribution of the legends to my identity, and my pride in our achievements has sustained me through the Holocaust and beyond.

Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.


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