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Jewish Folk Tales

The Jewish people are known as “the people of the book”, but we also have a long tradition of oral storytelling. Early in the Torah, Moses explains to the Israelites how they will recount the story of the Exodus to their children before they have even left Egypt: “In days to come, when your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’” (Exodus 13:14). Storyteller and BJ member Peninnah Schram explains that “taking a storytelling approach to life review makes our heritage and history vital because it gives context. When a generation can empathize with its ancestors’ feelings, share their ideas and sorrows, the lessons of their lives will live on.” Jewish folk stories such as “The Apple Tree’s Discovery” and “The Scratched Diamond” can be found in numerous iterations throughout the Jewish world.

Rosh Hashanah, Schram writes, is a holiday that focuses on the oral experience. The prayer Barukh She’amar tells us that it is through God’s words that the universe came into being: “Blessed is He Who Spoke, and the world came into being — blessed is He. Blessed is He Who maintains creation; blessed is He Who speaks and does…” It is through the sound of the shofar, “that distinctive all-encompassing sound,” that we begin to awaken our hearts and stir our souls. For Schram, the sound of the shofar and the words of the storyteller are intricately linked. “There is no substitute for the dramatic sound of the shofar and the sound of the human voice chanting prayers and also telling stories. It is the sound of the human voice that transmits learning and memory. It is through the voice, a person’s exquisite musical instrument,” she explains, “that the words create technicolor worlds that remain long-lasting memories.” The themes of the holiday are illuminated through the stories collected by Schram, such as justice, teshuvah, forgiveness, selihot, and the power of tears and prayer, to name just a few. Rosh Hashanah is a prime time to share stories because it is a time when multiple generations gather together to talk around the dinner table. The opportunity to share stories with a captivated audience without phones in hand is rare, and according to Schram, should not be missed. “There is always a time for telling stories,” she writes, “and there is always a story to fit the time. Storytelling not only reflects but perpetuates life. Rosh Hashanah is that right time to tell stories, listen to stories and share our lives through stories.”

We invite you to read these stories, which come from Jewish communities around the world and which engage the themes of the High Holy Days, and to share them with those seated at your table (or seated at their own tables and brought to you by the power of Zoom) this year.

The Scratched Diamond

Retold by Peninnah Schram, from her book The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales

Published by Sterling Publishing, 2008

Sometimes we need to change the way we look at an imperfection and transform it into something more positive and interesting.

         The Maggid of Dubno was known for his parables. Whenever someone asked him a question, he would always answer with a story.

         One day a student was walking with the Maggid of Dubno and asked him, “Rabbi, I have many imperfections, so many faults. How can I change them so I become a better person?”

         The Maggid said, “Listen and I’ll tell you a story.”

         Once there was a king who owned one of the most splendid diamonds in the world. He was very proud of that flawless diamond and showed it off to all his visiting dignitaries.

         However, one day, the king noticed that the diamond had developed a flaw. There was a deep scratch in this precious diamond. He immediately called for the finest diamond cutters in the kingdom to come to the palace. “You are artists in your work. What can any of you do to return the diamond to the way it was?” asked the king.

         None of the diamond experts could promise that the diamond would ever be restored to its original perfection. But one young man who had just completed his apprenticeship with the greatest of the diamond artisans said to the king, “You majesty, while it is not possible to restore this diamond, as the other diamond cutters have already told you, nevertheless I would be willing to undertake the responsibility to create a beautiful diamond out of this blemish.”

         The king had no other hope and so he gave his consent to this young man.

         The young man worked hard but in secrecy. Then when he had finished his work, he presented the diamond to the king. When the king looked at it, he smiled with great satisfaction. Instead of seeing the scratch in the diamond as a blemish, the young diamond cutter had seen it as the stem of a rose. Then he cut the roots, the flower and the leaves onto the stem. In this way, he transformed the scratch in the diamond into a mark of beauty. The diamond with its rose engraving became the most original and magnificent stone in the entire kingdom – more precious to the king than before.

The Maggid then turned to his student and said, “Just like the diamond with the scratch, we all have faults and blemishes. But it’s up to us to transform them into something of beauty and value.”

         The Maggid of Dubno and his student continued on their walk.

Sources:  This story is adapted from “The Sound of the Shofar” in Heinemann’s The Maggid of Dubno and his parables, pp. 193-194. Another version, “The Blemish on the Diamond,” is in Ausubel’s A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, p. 66 which was based on the Parables of the Preacher of Dubno.

The Apple Tree’s Discovery

Peninnah Schram & Rachayl Eckstein Davis © 2004

       In a great oak forest where the trees grew tall and majestic, there was a little apple tree.  It was the only apple tree in that forest and so it stood alone.

       One night the little apple tree looked up at the sky and saw a wonderful sight.  The stars in the sky appeared to be hanging on the branches of the oak trees.

       “Oh God, oh God,” whispered the little apple tree, “how lucky those oak trees are to have such beautiful stars hanging on their branches.  I want more than anything in the world to have stars on my branches, just like the oak trees.  Then I would feel truly special.”

       God looked down at the apple tree and said gently, “Have patience, little apple tree.”

       Time passed.  The snows melted and spring came to the land.  Tiny white and pink apple blossoms appeared on the branches of the apple tree.  Birds came to rest on its branches.  People walked by and admired the beautiful blossoms.  The apple tree continued to grow all summer long.  The branches filled with leaves and blossoms, forming a canopy overhead. 

       Night after night, the little tree looked up at the millions upon millions of stars in the sky and cried out, Oh God, I want more than anything in the world to have stars in my tree, on my branches and in my leaves – just like those oak trees.”

       God looked down and said, “You already have gifts.  Isn’t it enough to have shade to offer people and fragrant blossoms, and branches for birds to rest upon so they can sing you their songs?”

       The apple tree sighed and answered simply, “Dear God, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but that is not special enough.  I do appreciate how much pleasure I give to others, but what I want more than anything in the world is to have stars, not blossoms on my branches.  Then I would feel truly special.”

       God smiled and said, “Be patient, little apple tree.”

       The seasons changed again.  Soon the apple tree was filled with beautiful apples.  People, walking in the forest, reached up and picked apples to eat.

       Still, when night fell on the forest, the apple tree looked at the stars in the oak trees and called out, “Oh God, I want more than anything in the world to have stars on my branches.  Then I would feel truly special.”

       God asked, “Isn’t it enough that you now have wonderful apples to offer?  Doesn’t that satisfy you?  Doesn’t that give you enough pleasure and make you feel special?”

       Without saying a word, the apple tree answered by shaking its branches from side to side.  God caused a hard wind to blow.  The great oak trees began to sway and the apple tree began to shake.  An apple fell from the top branch and split open when it hit the ground.

       “Look,” commanded God.  “Look inside yourself.  What do you see?”

       The little apple tree looked down and saw that right in the center of the apple – was a star. 

       “A star.  I have a star!”

       God laughed a gentle laugh and added, “So you do have stars on your branches.  They’ve been there all along.  You just didn’t know it.”

Epilogue:  We usually cut an apple by holding it with the stem up.  In order to find the star, turn it on its side.  If we change direction in life we can find the spark that ignites the star within each of us.  Look carefully and you’ll find that beautiful star.

This story was published as an illustrated book: Peninnah Schram and Rachayl Eckstein Davis. The Apple Tree’s Discovery. Illustrated by Wendy W. Lee. Minneapolis MN: Kar Ben Publishing, 2012. hc & sc. For 9-page Study Guide created by Peninnah & Rachayl: www.karben.com/assets/images/eSources/eSourceTheAppleTreesDiscovery.pdf. This story also appears in the following anthology: Schram, Peninnah, Editor. CHOSEN TALES: STORIES TOLD BY JEWISH STORYTELLERS.  Published by Jason Aronson Inc., an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, 1995. Sixty‑eight stories written by storytellers/rabbis/educators. Foreword by Rabbi Avraham Weiss. National Jewish Book Award winner in Folklore. “The Apple Tree’s Discovery” appears on pp. 1-4.

Written By Peninnah Schram

Peninnah Schram, a 22 year BJ member, is an internationally known storyteller, teacher, author, and recording artist. She is Professor Emerita of Speech and Drama at Yeshiva University. Peninnah is...

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