When my son was a young boy, I wanted to read him some stories of Jewish interest besides the favoured pirate adventures. After all, Judaism has generally communicated its ideas and values through stories rather than systematic creed so where better than to start at bedtime?
There was a collection of stories about the daft exploits of the wise men of Chelm he enjoyed, and a version of the Golem, the Jewish Frankenstein, that I feared would give him nightmares; I occasionally dipped into David Kossoff’s old Bible tales. But, in truth, there seemed little that caught the eye in the bookshops, at least suitable for our Jewish milieu.
So the new Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales would have been welcome on our shelves, had it been published then. It is an anthology of Jewish folklore retold by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, the director of JHub, the Jewish innovation centre in London.
Not only it has been illustrated and produced to a high standard, but it also includes a double-CD of the stories read by the actress Debra Messing (of Will and Grace fame), who is a fan of Barefoot, an American-based publisher.
“What I love about this book,” Messing has said of Jewish Tales, “is that it does not matter what your belief system is, because it is a collection of beautiful stories about compassion and working together.”
Some of the eight stories are midrashic, others Chasidic originating from such masters as Nachman of Bratslav, others are Jewish variations of tales found in other cultures. But as, for example in the opening story, “Elijah’s Wisdom”— where a good person appears to be shortchanged while a callous one rewarded— they address serious themes.
“One of the things I wanted to do was to write an authentic book of Jewish tales that wasn’t overly pious or preachy,” said Rabbi Boyd Gelfand, who is the mother of an eight-year-old and six-year-old twins. “I wanted one that had a more chatty style that was acceptable to children and adults, so that they could have conversations with each other about moral questions.”
In the “Boy Who Prayed the Alphabet”, the hero is a little boy who is fascinated by the shapes of Hebrew letters but is unable to read and write; when his parents are embarrassed to find him cutting out paper letters in synagogue on Yom Kippur, a miracle takes place and his random letters are arranged into a prayer.
“One of my children was struggling to learn Hebrew,” Rabbi Boyd Gelfand, “so I was telling the story for him, to help him see that he could just learn the letters, and if he learned the letters, it would be ok. And so when it appears in the book, it is actually a story about a child with a learning difficulty.”
While the events are set in the past, they have been updated to reflect contemporary mores with a touch of egalitarianism here and there. The protagonist of one story, who is one of the lamedvovniks, the 36 secret saints, here is a woman rather than a man, as would almost certainly have been the case in yesteryear. Another story alludes to both bar- and batmitvah preparations.
The book could be said to have been born of Limmud conference. “I love narratives,” she said. “Someone heard a session I did at the conference and asked if I had ever done’s children’s stories. I hadn’t but I told my children stories every night. So she said try writing it down. And I did.”
That person happened to be children’s literary agent, Sarah Manson, who arranged the contact with Barefoot.
Rabbi Gelfand said it was actually written in a kind of “mid-life crisis. I have reached a point in my life where I realised I am not going to be around forever. I started to think, how will my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren know who I was and what I believed in. I figured if I wrote a book of stories my grandchildren will leave them to their children."