Book review: “The angel and the cholent”, by Idit Pintel-Ginsberg

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“The Angel and the Cholent”, by Idit Pintel-Ginsberg.

The Angel and the Cholent: Representations of Food in the Archives of Israel’s Folk Tales features food stories told by 29 storytellers representing 17 different places or communities around the world.

Ppeople who love food (and we all eat!), people who love storytelling (don’t we all love a good story?) and people who love scholarship (a small group) will enjoy The Angel and the Cholent, the latest collection of folktales from the Israel Folktale Archives published by Wayne State University Press.

The Angel and the Cholent: Representations of Food in the Archives of Israel’s Folk Tales features food stories told by 29 storytellers representing 17 different places or communities around the world. With each story, author Idit Pintel-Ginsberg provides information on where and how the story was collected, and from whom. It also offers a scholarly discussion of the significance of each story in relation to Jewish traditions and in the context of the Aarne-Thompson Index of Motives for Folk Tales of the World.

The Israel Folktale Archives in Haifa now contains more than 24,000 stories collected from Jewish communities around the world and from non-Jewish Israelis, Arab Muslims and Christians, Bedouin, Druze and Circassians.

Pintel-Ginsburg groups the stories into five themes (although she admits that many stories could fall into more than one classification):

• Pleasures of the world

• Food and gender

• Food and lessons

• Food and Kashrut

• Food and sacred time

If you think of folk tales as a simple and entertaining plea for old-fashioned expected values, each ending with a neat moral, this anthology will surprise you. Some of these stories seem simple and sweet, some give the impression of light humor, but others seem subversive and some seem as complex as any work by famous authors.

Some examples: A story that may seem sweet:

A king asks his guests at a banquet, “What is the best music?” He finds their answers unsatisfactory. When the waiters take out the food, the serving containers ring and the guest begins to rejoice. The king observes: “This is the best music!

A story that may sound like a simple joke: “The angel in charge of the explosions of Shofar”:

God gives an angel the task of watching over the sound of the shofar. The angel, however, has nothing to do for the rest of the year, which seems a waste of angelic talent, so the angel also makes sure the cholent comes out well every Shabbat. Although other foods require human attention, cholent has been cooked on the stove or in the oven, ignored since just before Shabbat, and is still delicious, because of the angel assigned to cholent. On Rosh Hashanah, the same angel makes sure that the shofar is ringing correctly. But when Rosh Hashanah comes out on Shabbat, the poor angel has a conflict. He can’t do both. This explains why we do not ring the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.

A subversive and complex story, “The Way to Become Rich”:

Discouraged by his years of poverty, a man finally listens to his wife and asks the rebbe to teach him how to become rich. The Rebbe tells him to go home, earn some money, spend what he has on a sumptuous Shabbat meal, and then eat it on his own, not sharing it with anyone.

He follows the advice. When his wife and sons beg for some food, he refuses, even though it hurts him. When his smallest child, his daughter, begs for food, he gives in. He shouts, “God, just give me clothes to wear and bread to eat.” I don’t want to be rich. Do you hear me, Rabbi? I don’t want to be rich! He then shares the meal with his family.

What does this story, “The way to become rich”, make us think of the rebbe? How does he assess wealth? The story seems enigmatic, paradoxical, recalling the famous stories of IL Peretz, Franz Kafka and SY Agnon.

The collection includes “If Only You Knew the Taste,” a version of a familiar tale in which a priest at a banquet offers the rabbi delicious, but not kosher, food. When the rabbi refuses, the priest says, “If only you knew the taste.” Later, the rabbi thanks the priest for inviting him to the beautiful meal, although he has not eaten, and he asks the priest to convey the rabbi’s thanks to the priest’s wife. The priest replies that “his Torah forbids him to marry.” The rabbi replies, “If only you knew the taste.”

In the scholarly notes on this story, oddly enough, Pintel-Ginsberg attributes the rabbi’s attempt to thank the priest’s wife to the rabbi’s “ignorance and naivety”. The rabbi, in his analysis, simply does not know that priests should remain celibate. She may think the priest doesn’t know that the rabbis refrain from eating non-kosher food. The scholar Pintel-Ginsberg overlooks the possibility that the priest intends to mock the rabbi, and the rabbi returns the mockery.

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