The foreword by Rabbi Adam Chalom


The foreword by Rabbi Adam Chalom

The culture of ordinary people can be extraordinary.

Living at this moment in history, we enjoy the openness of our intellectual culture – no longer limited exclusively to elite sources, we now draw inspiration and historical continuity from the creativity of ordinary people to a degree not supported by previous generations. While the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries tied folklore to political nationalism and the essence of the “volk” [people], secular Jews who recorded East European Jewish folklore at the turn of the 20th century were often mining for something else: a well-spring for a modern cultural Jewish identity. To base one’s Jewishness on a broader understanding of Jewish culture, and not just on the elite sources of Talmudic law and rabbinic discourse, was a first step towards a Jewish identity based on the diversity of the Jewish experience.

What was an act of preservation in Eastern Europe 100 years ago and in Israel over the last 60 years can now be a source of inspiration for Secular Humanistic Judaism. This work by Bennett Muraskin, a well-respected public intellectual in the secular Jewish movement for many years, has taken some of the best Jewish folklore preserved by previous generations and made it available, accessible and meaningful. One of the missions of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism is to publish materials of interest and inspiration to secular, cultural and Humanistic Jews, and this work meets that mission admirably.

There are two particular nuggets of wisdom underlying this publication. First, Muraskin realizes that we need more roots than only the past few centuries since the Enlightenment, but also that our more ancient roots in the Bible and most of rabbinic literature are complicated for Secular Humanistic Jews to use. When we cite these latter sources, we have to explain their context, take them out of context, or otherwise mediate the fact that, even when the ethical values expressed agree with ours, they were written by individuals whose lifestyle and beliefs differed vastly from our own. In Jewish folklore, on the other hand, we have both literature whose origins lie centuries before our own and whose relevance to our way of life is very clear. Indeed, it is satisfying to find many examples of this folklore–this “underground tradition” –in the central documents of rabbinic Judaism such as Talmud and Midrash.

Even more important, Muraskin is wise enough to avoid the “god-allergy” that all too often afflicts framers of secular Judaism. Some who have left or react against a religious tradition become so allergic to the word “god” that they seemingly cannot bear to hear or read the word in any other than a negative setting. So they rewrite Biblical stories to eliminate Yahveh, the God of the Hebrews, having Moses part the Red Sea by magic rather than Yahveh’s miracle. And they reject any folk tales where characters genuinely talk and pray to God, and sometimes where God answers back.

Muraskin, in both his Introduction and his astute choice of readings, clearly understands the difference between a philosophical or liturgical affirmation of theological belief, which Secular and Humanistic Jewish communities avoid, and the use of “God” as a character in myth and folklore. No one is allergic to reading about Zeus; they do not feel their secularism threatened. Why not treat Yahveh, the God of Jewish tradition, as we do Zeus? Why not treat Jewish folklore, which began before Enlightenment was a twinkle in Spinoza’s eye, as the continued myths of the Jewish people? Most important, we today can find inspiration from historic themes in Jewish folklore like talking back to God, confronting injustice, mentshlekhkayt (human decency), the dangers of fanaticism, and every other chapter in this collection; they are not identical to our approach, but they are clearly evolutionary forebears just the same.

There is a Jewish tradition of another writer providing a hakdama, a introduction to and endorsement of the volume at hand. What today are blurbs on book jackets were for our ancestors invitations to begin reading. Having learned from, studied with and taught next to Bennett Muraskin, I am very proud to carry on that tradition. Now, come and study!

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Dean, North America
International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism


My heavy reliance on Nathan Ausubel’s A Treasury Of Jewish Folklore requires some explanation. After collecting the stories for this book, I researched Ausubel’s background and discovered similarities to my own.

In 1948, the year A Treasury of Jewish Folklore was published, Nathan Ausubel was closely affiliated with the CPUSA, the American communist party. He had been a contributing editor of the communist journal New Masses and was currently a writer for the Yiddish communist daily the Freiheit.

In January 1948, the Communist Party press issued a pamphlet by Ausubel, “Jewish Culture in America: Weapon for Jewish Survival and Progress” in which he touted the achievements of the Soviet Union in nurturing a progressive Jewish culture and urged Americans to emulate them. This, of course, was pernicious nonsense. However he also argued insightfully that “although the main emphasis on Jewish culture in the past has been religious…underneath it all, like a subterranean stream, flowed swiftly and strongly the affirmatively secular, the humane, the rational and the will to the good and just life for all men.” (sic). He then cited selections from the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud to prove his point. He ended his essay with a parable from the Midrash on the theme of uniting the weak to defeat the strong.

In 1953, Ausubel’s next book appeared—A Pictorial History of the Jewish People. By then he recognized the anti-Semitic nature of the Soviet regime, without surrendering his attachment to secular, progressive Jewish values.

I come from a later generation of communist Jews—one that had already distanced itself from Stalinism. I grew up attending the Yiddish schools (folkshuln) originally established by the procommunist Jewish Peoples’ Fraternal Order (JPFO) and reading Jewish Currents magazine, which, until 1967, retained a residual loyalty to the Soviet Union. By my early teens (the mid-60s), I already rejected the Soviet model in its entirely, however, I continued to think of myself as a socialist and a progressive Jew. As an adult, I joined the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO), in some ways a successor to the old JPFO, and in time became a regular contributor/columnist to Jewish Currents and its Canadian counterpart Outlook. In light of this history, I now understand why I was most drawn to Ausubel’s selections. We were both searching for a “usable past” for secular progressive Jews.

Notwithstanding the merits of Ausubel’s book, it poses a problem on a completely different level. He does not cite his sources or so much as include a bibliography. Although these shortcomings have not prevented A Treasury of Jewish Folklore from becoming the single most popular book on the subject, still in print 60 years after it was published, in the interests of good scholarship, for this new edition I have tracked down and provided the sources for all of Ausubel stories that come from Talmud and Midrash. His renditions often differ slightly from the original, but I too have adapted certain stories and I hope the reader will accept them as part of the ongoing process of creating Jewish folklore.



p. 7 – Pirke Avot 1:18
p. 11 – based on Lamentations Rabbah 24
p. 12 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 111a-b
p. 14 – based on Leviticus Rabbah 19:20
p. 18 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Ketubbot 77b
p. 21 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59a-59b
p. 25 – Pirke Avot 2:3 (Be cautious…)
p. 25 – Pirke Avot 5:11 (…justice delayed…)
p. 26 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 83b-84a
p. 27 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 25b, Sanhedrin 74a
p. 28 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 18b
p. 36 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b
p. 38 – based on Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10, 27d-28a and Numbers Rabbah 7:19
p. 46 – based on Jerusalem Talmud, 2:5 (8C), Intro. to Tahuma Buber, 15:2, Pesikta De Rav Kahana, 9:1
p. 47 – based on Jerusalem Talmud, Terumot 8:10 and Genesis Rabbah, 94:9
p. 53 – Pirke Avot 1:14 (If I am not…)
p. 53 – Pirke Avot 3:22 (Rabban Yohanan…)
p. 54 – Pirke Avot 2:13 (In a place…)
P. 54 – Pirke Avot 2:6
p. 59 – based on Midrash Tanhuma 68
p. 63 – based on Intro. to Tanhuma, Buber 135
p. 67 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 22a
p. 82 – Pirke Avot 5:9
p. 83 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14b , Eruvin 13b, Berakhot 10b
p. 84 – based on the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30b-31a
p. 86 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 15b
p. 88 – based on Sanhedrin 109b, Numbers Rabbah 9:24, Genesis Rabbah 42:5,49:6, Leviticus Rabbah, 5:2, Pirkey de Rabbi Eliezer 25
p, 89 – Pirkey Avot (…plagues occur…)
p. 89 – based on Pesikta De Rav Kahana, 9:1 (Rabbi Joshua took…)
p. 91 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 83a
p. 97 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 86b
p. 106 – based on Leviticus Rabbah 34:10, Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah, 5-5, 21b, 8:9
p. 107 – The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan 31b
p. 110 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b-57a, Genesis Rabbah 10:7, Lamentations Rabbah 1:15
p. 111 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b-57a, Genesis Rabbah 10:7, Lamentations Rabbah 1:15
p. 113 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b
p. 139 – based on Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b, 33a-b (Lilith…)
p. 139 – based on Genesis Rabbah 70:19 (Leah…)
p. 156 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b and Genesis Rabbah 53:9,14
p. 158 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 20a-b
p. 160 – based on Ecclesiastes Rabbah 28a
p. 162 – based on Tosafot on Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zorah 10b
p. 164 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 10a-b
p. 166 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a (A pagan…)
p. 166 – based on Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:3, Jerusalem Talmud Ketubot 8:10 (Dealing honestly…)
p. 171 – based on Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 12:3, Horayot 3:5
p. 172 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b
p. 174 – based on Midrash Tanhuma Mishpatim par. 2 (Scholarship…)
p. 174 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 15b, Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 77a-b (But there are alternatives…)
p. 188 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim, 40a,
p. 190 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a
p. 192 – based on Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5 and Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a
p. 193 – based on Leviticus Rabbah 4:6
p. 196 – based on Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 8a
p. 197 – Pirke Avot, 1:10, 5:13, 2:5, 2:6,
p. 198 – Pirke Avot, 3:12, 2:21