Opening Up the Mythical Echo Chamber

In her retellings of midrashic legends for children, Shoham Smith builds a bridge between a generation rolling its eyes in embarrassment in the presence of its cultural treasures and a small number of these same treasures.

One can only welcome undertakings such as this. Every effort to bring Jewish cultural treasures closer to readers in general and young ones in particular is important and welcome. A blighted Israeli identity that does not attend to the profundity of myth, literature and history is a prescription for slim cultural pickings that will lead to ignorance and savagery. Shoham Smith’s project attempts to bridge between a generation rolling its eyes in embarrassment in the presence of its cultural treasures and a small number of these treasures, and for this she deserves congratulations.

Smith, a children’s author, who published an earlier book about world mythology for children, and a regular contributor to these pages, has taken a few midrashim [homiletic stories] from rabbinical sages and translated them into contemporary Hebrew in order to make them suitable for children. Here and there she adds literary additions of her own, some of them quite charming, such as “Asmodeus turned back to Asmodean matters,” or the repeated ‏(ironic‏) suggestion that King Solomon was not only wiser than all men but also than all animals, and the successful interweaving of the saying from the Book of Proverbs about the mysterious “way of a man with a maid” at the close of the popular story about Solomon’s daughter being locked up in a tower.

Vali Mintzi illustrations - November 2011
Vali Mintzi

In the margins of the stories Smith writes her own insights and thoughts, in a manner evocative of a page of Talmud. She correctly notes that the power of these stories is measured by their continued ability to arouse us to think even today. It is possible to take this point further and say that there is nothing stopping us from filtering them through our points of view ‏(and in essence their translation into present-day language has already accomplished this‏). In fact this is exactly what the sages did, filtering biblical stories through the point of view of their own times.

Smith’s language is plain and clear, intelligible and free of adornment and wisecracks, and so in this respect highly suitable for children. A noticeable amount of thought was also invested in the book’s appearance: It is illustrated with charm and in cheerful colors by Vali Mintzi. But the graphic design recalls that of textbooks, and looks too pedagogical and didactic. The comments that accompany the stories are also a little too didactic for my taste. It seems it was important to Smith to grant the stories some educational value, but good literature is really the kind to which you can’t attribute a lesson, and nothing will change this fact. It is true that the sages used the stories many times to transmit an ideological message, but they don’t always support a message that we’d like to use today.

The attempt to present our forefathers in an educational light gives them a pareve feel, as if they were a bunch of goodhearted grandfathers. Were they really? I doubt it. And furthermore: In an age when children are said to be rediscovering literature through Harry Potter, the story of a boy whose parents die before his eyes when he is an infant, and one that is rife with scenes of torture ‏(Bellatrix Lestrange tortures Hermione, Voldemort tortures Ollivander and so on‏), and the best and most beneficent character ‏(Dumbledore‏) is killed in the end, is there really a need to protect children from stories, so plentiful in the tales of the sages, because they contain a little cruelty and meanness? Perhaps it is this − if I can be permitted a subversive thought − that will succeed in bringing them a little closer to that world, once they realize that it contains some action? Or, alternatively, what about all the amusing stories about Rabba Bar Bar Hanna, who wanders the world and sees many unusual creatures? Why weren’t they included?

Subverts the Judeo-centric view

At the same time, Smith’s approach undermines naive Orthodox conceptions and subverts the Judeo-centric view of cultural history. Take for example, her treatment of the Flood, in which she mentions ancient Mesopotamian legends about that event. The story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which in the hands of the sages often turns misogynist and demonic, is, for Smith, a feminist tale, and the opportunity for an enlightened and educational consideration of gender issues. Nonetheless, she is cautious about a decisive rejection of the sages’ conceptual world. At most she gently exhibits her reservations. In this sense, one can tell from her words that she is loyal to the legacy of Bialik, while she keeps her distance from Brenner or Berdichevsky. And so, for example, to take the strange and pathetic story of Rabbi Yehoshua’s victory over the sages of Athens, which reduces the entire ancient Greek culture − science, art and philosophy − to a collection of hollow sophistries, and subjects them to ridicule in the face of a Talmudic victory, here there was room to put Yehoshua, and in general the sages’ tendency to view all external wisdom in a critical light, by using the tool of comments in the margins of the book. But this was not done.

In her introduction, Smith says that as a girl she was deeply impressed by “Bible stories with color pictures.” One understands that she sought to bring her entrancement at that sort of book into the present one. It is worth asking, therefore, whether the enchantment has been preserved. Let’s be precise: the magic of the Bible is to a large extent attached to the concentrated power of biblical language. And so every other translation of the Bible, from Targum Onkelos (into Aramaic) to the Tanakh Ram (into contemporary Hebrew) is defective. In contrast, midrashic language is not as dramatic or as sharp as that in the Bible; it depends, on the contrary, on minimalism, a sort of dryness characteristic of Mishnaic Hebrew, a minimalism that paradoxically does not seem to work in favor of narrative power, but which in fact does contain it.

Take, for example, the heartrending story, included in Smith’s book, of Hillel, who sits on a chimney in the snow in order to hear Shemaya and Avtalian teach Torah. The original version of the tale, in Tractate Yoma ‏(29:2‏) is rendered in language that is minimalistic to an astonishing degree. What is missing? Adjectives and dramatic descriptions of a type it would seem that any story demands. But this to-the-point minimalism empowers the drama here. Smith adds very few descriptions, and nonetheless something of this moving minimalism disappears in her book, and it isn’t absolutely clear what takes its place. That is, she hasn’t really found an appropriate and dramatic literary solution, beyond rewording the text in intelligible language. At the same time, the original language is not completely lost; it is preserved in quotations that sometimes appear in the margins.

With Bialik and Ravnitzky, the problem of transfer to a different language was not as acute. They created in their “Sefer Ha’agadot” ‏(“Book of Legends”‏), a massive compilation, by theme, of tales and wisdom from the Talmud, to which Smith sees her volume being a sequel, a language quite close to that of the Mishna, but gave it a sort of narrative momentum. It should be remembered that the midrash does not present stories in a narrative continuum, but rather combines them into a multi-vocal discussion that deconstructs the narrative line. When they are recollected and added to a continuous and distinct story, they may seem uninteresting and not very impressive. This was my impression about some of the tales here.

Perhaps stories are not one of the Jews’ strong points. Nonetheless, they must be told, not because they are good stories, but because they are ours, and part of the books to which we are attached and with which we buy a mythical echo chamber for ourselves. And so whoever tells these stories and engages in such work is deserving of praise.
Dr. Hagai Dagan is the head of the department of Jewish thought at Sapir Academic College. His new book, “Isis Vefortuna” ‏(Isis and Fortuna‏) is forthcoming from Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan.