Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Have you ever wondered why so many well-known writers, including Nobel Prize winners, are Jewish? From Isaac Asimov through Franz Kafka, Lillian Hellman, Emma Lazarus and J.D. Salinger to Elie Wiesel, to name a few, hundreds of Jewish authors have challenged our imaginations and shaped the course of literature. What is it about being Jewish that stimulates the creative impulse to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and pour out captivating tales? One answer may be that Jews are steeped in stories – stories that are thousands or at least hundreds of years old and passed on from generation to generation.
The primary source of these stories is the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians generally refer to as “the old testament.” Jews refer to the first parts of these scriptures as the Torah, or the five books of Moses. The first book alone includes two creation stories, stories about the first humans, the flood that destroyed everyone except for Noah and his clan, the first generations of Hebrews headed by Abraham and Sarah, then Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and his wives (Leah and Rachel) and his concubines who gave birth to the twelve tribes of Israel. The second book is packed with stories about the Israelites becoming slaves in Egypt, their rescue with the leadership of Moses and his sister Miriam, and Mount Sinai where the ten commandments were received.
The whole collection of Hebrew scriptures is called the Tanakh. Included are the well-known stories of Jonah and the whale, the tragedy of Job, the lovely story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, the tale of the love between David and Jonathan, the story of brave Queen Esther who saved the Jews in Persia from being killed by the wicked Haman, and scores of other stories less well known among people who aren’t Jewish. Some of these stories are grim and grisly – stuff of which nightmares are made. Others are inspiring, some championing the rights of women. And there are others that are beautiful stories of erotic yearning.
Many Jews are raised on the stories from Tanakh, often from the beginning of their lives – the day they are born. Jewish children usually are given two names; one a popular name in the country in which they are born and the other a Hebrew name borne by a late relative – the latter is generally drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first stories Jewish children generally hear, in addition to The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, are Bible stories about their biblical namesake, the person who bore their name in the Tanakh. The stories become deeply personified. Children named David know they are meant to be musicians and kings. Children named Rebecca love to hear how they were recognized for their kind acts. And little girls named Esther enjoy parading around with a crown acting brave.
Jewish children have been told stories from Tanakh for millennia and given beautifully illustrated books of these stories. The 20th century saw the addition of baby board books and easy reader books with brightly drawn short Bible stories. And stuffed toys such as a Noah’s ark and a little plush replica of a Torah introduce wee ones to stories as they hug them close. Traditionally, at age three Jewish children begin to learn how to read Torah themselves. A piece of honey is placed on the first word to learn; and when the child sucks on the honey while learning to read the letter, the sweet taste of honey becomes synonymous with the sweet taste of learning the stories in Torah.
Stories from Tanakh have for thousands of years stimulated other stories by being embellished. Spin-off stories written by rabbis and scholars have been collected in books called Midrash. Each major character in Tanakh has generated dozens of stories that help flesh out and provide insights into their personalities and motivations for their actions. Abraham is depicted as a child willfully destroying the idols in his home. Sarah is described as one of the most beautiful women in the world even in old age. And Moses as a shepherd, it is told, showed such great compassion for a little lost lamb that he was chosen as the leader to guide the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.
Many Jewish children learn these elaborated stories along with the Biblical versions. And when they attend Sunday School or Hebrew School classes, they are encouraged to create their own interpretations of these stories. It is common to see preschoolers or those in the earliest grades of primary school proudly bringing home stories they have written about a character in a Torah story – their letters can be irregular, their words misspelled, and their sentences ungrammatical – but just as midrash written millennia ago is prized, so are these early efforts.
Older children and teens are often encouraged to write their own plays or music based on stories from tanakh and midrash. This creativity, continued into adulthood, has produced innumerable TV programs, movies, novels, poetry, and musical scores, not necessarily on Jewish or religious themes.
So, consider how much of current culture, including magazine articles, is founded on children learning stories.