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Israeli Folktale Archive Preserves Folklore of Jews from Many Countries

September 27, 2005
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“This is our holy of holies,” says Idit Pintel-Ginsburg with great reverence as she opens the door to a small, windowless room where rows of long shelves are lined with hundreds of cardboard files. Inside the carefully marked boxes are 23,000 folk tales from 80 ethnic groups, collected over the past 50 years. This precious material is the lifeblood of the Israel Folktale Archive — a comprehensive repository of tales drawn from the folklore of Jews who immigrated to Israel from countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Poland. Also documented are stories from Israel’s Arab population — including Bedouin, Christian, Muslim and Druse folklore.

“There are many communities in Israel with nothing but an oral tradition. The literature from places like Kurdistan, Afghanistan, western Asia and Ethiopia, for example, had no written literature,” explains Dov Noy, who founded the archive in 1955, when he was a young doctoral student in Jerusalem. “Everything was oral, and I wanted to document them in an archive.”

The result is a priceless treasure trove of diverse stories — some simple, some fantastical — of angels, kings, hidden righteous men, fortunes lost and found, blood libels, talking cats, even cloves of garlic that turn to gold. All of the tales have one thing in common — they all shed light on what it is to be human.

Noy, who won the coveted Israel Prize — the most highly regarded award in the country — for his painstaking work safeguarding the folklore of the inhabitants of the Jewish state, was originally regarded with skepticism in academic circles. In the 1950s, when Noy first began recording stories, the social policy of the state was to create a melting pot where Jews from around the world would shed their individual Diaspora identities and become “Israelis.”

The cultural focus was not the recent past or the teeming cities, colorful towns and tiny shtetls that immigrants came from, but the biblical past. And if any ethnic culture was embraced, it was Ashkenazi culture — not that of the Mizrachi Jews, who came to Israel from North African and Arab countries.

“It was very avant-garde at the time because what he wanted to do was to recognize all ethnic groups as meaningful groups at a time when there was a policy that Israel should be a melting pot that asked all immigrants to forget their dress and culture from the past,” explained Pintel-Ginsburg, the academic coordinator of the archives. “To focus on folklore at the time was radical.”

Despite a lack of support, Noy pressed forward, convinced that if the thousands of oral stories were not collected they might be lost forever.

The archive recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a festive day of speeches and the presentation of research papers. The event was held at the University of Haifa, where the archive is housed.

Inside the archive’s storeroom, where the stories are collected and organized by year, Pintel-Ginsberg carefully lifts a piece of yellowing paper covered in handwritten notes out of a cardboard file. It is the archive’s first recorded story, “Two Brothers and Their Luck,” taken down from an immigrant from Turkey in 1956.

The lively tale of two brothers quarreling over a pair of fruit trees was recorded by one of the archive’s original team of volunteers. Today, stories are still collected by a volunteer staff. Between 200 and 400 folk tales are recorded each year.

The archives’ collection is believed to be the largest of its kind and serves as a research tool for academics both in Israeli universities and abroad.

The folk tale, usually of anonymous authorship and sometimes containing fantastical or legendary elements, is typically concerned with the mundane traditions of daily life. Folklore often links the practical and the esoteric into one narrative thread. Folk tales sometimes express hidden wishes, secret hopes, and impossible scenarios that give justification for life and help listeners or readers reflect on human behavior and learn the best ways to act in certain situations.

Certain themes appear repeatedly in stories across cultural lines — hospitality, helping the poor, and various aspects of morality.

In the folk tales that emerged out of the incalculable pain and suffering wrought by the Holocaust, the theme of being miraculously saved at the last minute appears again and again, said Pintel-Ginsburg.

In the late 1970s, Noy began hosting storytelling nights for Moroccan Jews and immigrants from other Middle Eastern countries in several northern Israeli towns — helping to spark previously unheard-of interest in Mizrachi culture.

In recent years, the archive has also begun collecting recurring jokes and stories related to army life and even terrorist attacks — part of an initiative to capture the ongoing oral tradition in contemporary Israel.

Among the more recent tales collected are those of Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia and from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Noy described his mission during the early years of the archive, writing, “We ventured out to collect, preserve and study widespread cultural traditions among the various ethnic groups in Israel. Along with the dry scientific items — data to be recorded, catalogued and preserved on the archive’s shelves — we also found individuals: the storyteller and his listeners, the narrator and his public who drank his words with thirst, an individual and his fate, a human being and his world.”

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