On the way home from the cinema I realised the problem. There aren’t any popular Jewish fairy tales. Having watched Disney’s latest animation, Wish, the younger kids were excited that the lead could’ve been Jewish. Asha calls her grandad “Saba” and was well placed to be Sephardic, but was I trying too hard to bake a cake out of a few crumbs?
A few years ago there was Princess Rebecca lighting a Hanukkiah in an TV episode of Disney’s Elena of Avalor, and Sarah Silverman states her character in Wreck-It Ralph is Jewish, but again, we’re talking scraps. Not that this is Disney’s fault, but where are all the wondrous yarns of mystical adventure and bravery that feature Jewish characters? Tales to fill our children with wonder and awe from their own culture? Oh yeah, the Torah.
The Talmud and Midrash are also chock-a-block with bizarre encounters, we’ve even got our own talking donkey, so you’d think there’d be at least some some fairytale offshoots and ensuing cartoons. Well it turns out that entertainment which scares and delights kids about the dangers of the wider world is somewhat different to allegorical teaching tools for achieving spiritual enlightenment. Feel free to read Taanit 25a:6-10 at your children’s next bedtime and see how well that goes down.
Looking into it when I got home, our problem seems to be that Jews just can’t resist a teachable moment. We love ’em. Turns out there are loads of Jewish folktales, but it’s telling that with so many Jewish storytellers across time, so few have crossed over to wider culture. Essentially, there’s the Golem, and the 36 hidden righteous, and neither involves children.
The Israel Folktale Archives collected thousands of oral stories from communities all across the diaspora, but even with the prerequisite fantastical elements, the ending’s are less happily ever after and more rabbinical declaration.
I did find a book called Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, written in 1919 by Gertrude Landa, a children’s columnist for this very newspaper. It’s unclear the extent to which she was capturing traditional oral tales such as the Brother’s Grimm, or they’re totally new ideas, but again the bulk of it wouldn’t have been out of place in the Talmud.
However, aside from the further adventures of Bible characters, there is one story, The Red Slipper, that has potential. With a lost magical shoe, wicked ugly stepsisters, and an enamoured foot-fetishist prince, this is the cousin to Cinderella. Yet a jinn instead of a fairy godmother and being whisked away on a camel speaks of a more Arabic influence.
This makes sense knowing how fairy tales are a hodgepodge of archetypal narratives, spreading across cultures and adapted to local climes. And it got me thinking. Perhaps the solution, is to do a bit of reverse engineering. Take the classics, and adapt and update them to our culture. It’s either that, or read another Jewish kid’s book about a magic dreidel, a talking Torah scroll, or a haunted mikva.
First up then, we’ve got the Three Little Pigs. Rather than being a shaming critique of differing DIY skills, surely the better strategy would’ve been trying to convert the wolf to Judaism? They teach him the mitzvot, they’re off the menu.
Jack and the Giant Beanstalk is the tale of a young man that goes to the market and trades his cow to pivot from husbandry to plant-based agriculture. By studying hard and developing advanced farming techniques, he grows massive beans and dominates the soy business, obtaining lots of gold.
Little Red Riding Hood is about a young girl wanting to visit her sickly grandmother, but her mum won’t let her leave the house without putting on her cloak because it’s chilly. The two have a gigantic fight and the father ends up taking over the food instead. The grandmother complains that he didn’t bring her granddaughter, and when the father can’t take it any more he lets in a wolf.
Rapunzel is about a girl who lives in a tower, and has really really curly hair. She grows it and grows it, and it never gets long enough to reach the ground. In the end the witch gets so frustrated that she can’t climb the hair up into the tower she lets Rapunzel go. Rapunzel discovers hair straighteners and meets a prince.
This is my favourite though. And frankly I’m expecting an offer after this, to be the second JC columnist to bring out a Jewish fairy tale book. The Afikoman starts with a pious childless old woman preparing for Pesach. She bakes some matzo and the Afikoman leaps from the oven and hides. She can’t find him and soon the entire village is searching as he sings: “Search, search as much as you can! You can’t find me. I’m the Afikoman.”