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Stock Figures in Jewish Folklore: Universal Yet Uniquely Jewish

Solveig Eggerz
Summer 1996

Part I of this article, "The Universal and Unique Nature of Jewish Folklore," appeared in the Fall 1995 Issues. The author wrote: "Jewish folklore has a vibrant and long history of nearly 4,000 years. It is endlessly diverse in its expression, yet at the same time uniquely Jewish. This seeming contradiction suggests a Judaized version of universal folklore. But according to mythologist Joseph Campbell, this adaptation of stories to serve a culture’s purposes is the manner in which folklore is both preserved and passed on. It explains also why universally known stories are, like ice cream, enjoyed in such a wide range of flavors." Part II discusses the stock figures which appear in Jewish folklore and explores their universal yet uniquely Jewish nature.)  

Jewish folklore abounds with characters ranging from simpletons to "schnorrers." Some of these colorful figures who dominate Jewish stories appear to be uniquely Jewish. However, upon closer examination, we discover in these characters qualities that are universal to many folklores, rather than unique to Jewish folklore.  

The Simpleton  

Perhaps the favorite figure in all folklore is the fool or the simpleton. He is laughed at, yet despite his deficiencies the fool often ultimately wins the girl or the kingdom. The German Grimm’s Fairy Tales contain three seemingly related short tales about the victorious simpleton: "The Queen Bee," "The Three Languages" and "The Three Feathers." In each story the fool succeeds where his brothers fail because of power or help that comes to him through the animal kingdom.  

Given the emphasis on wisdom and learning in Jewish tradition, one might expect that simpletons would be held in contempt in Jewish folklore. And some, such as the fools of Chelm, seem to serve the sole purpose of awakening laughter.  

But there is also an underlying theme of "the wise fool," a suggestion that the fool’s simple nature is but a guise for something else. There is something more ethical than magical about this sort of ambivalence regarding the fool. For, indeed, the prophet Jeremiah warned: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom."  

The classic Jewish simpleton is Gimpel in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story, "Gimpel the Fool." Hard working Gimpel is deceived by everyone, especially his wife. While the neighbors laugh, he strives to care for the children born of his wife’s adulterous relations. "I, like a golem, believed everyone," Gimpel states. His indulged wife, Elka, dies with a smile on her lips after telling Gimpel that none of their children are actually his. Such a man awakens not contempt but compassion.  

"It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are fools. For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses paradise himself." These are the words spoken to Gimpel by the Talmud-quoting rabbi of Frampol. In the depths of his foolishness, Gimpel achieves something akin to saintliness.  

The Fools of Chelm  

A popular genre of fool stories is the kind that associates foolishness with a specific place. Examples are the Jewish stories about the town of Chelm in Poland, English stories about the "wise men" of Gotham, and German tales of the fools of Schildburg, in what is now Germany. The similar flavor of these stories attests to a relatedness, but which group of stories influenced the others, and how, is not clear.  

The "wisdom" of Chelm is renowned, as exemplified by the story of the rabbi and his Talmud student who spend a night at an inn. The student asks the servant to awaken him at dawn so he can catch an early morning train. The next morning, after being awakened, the student, seeking his hat, gropes about in the darkness and accidentally seizes the rabbi’s hat and places it on his own head. Once inside the train, the student glances into the mirror. Seeing the rabbi’s hat upon his head, the student becomes furious. "I asked him to wake me, but instead he went and woke the rabbi," he shouts at the mirror.  

Foolish in the same way are the "wise men" of Gotham as exemplified by an incident that takes place on a bridge at Nottingham. A man pretending to be herding sheep, insists that another "wise" man back off the bridge to allow his sheep to pass. A third man, striving to resolve the argument, comes along with a sack of meal which he dumps from the bridge into the river.  

"How much meal is there in the sack?" he asks the other two. "None," they answer. "Now, by my faith," said the third man self righteously, "even so much wit is there in your two heads to strive for the thing which you have not." The story ends with the question, Who was the wisest?  

Very old tales drawn from a universal source of folklore have been reworked by Jewish storytellers intent on reinvigorating the Yiddish tradition. In the process, old tales may take on a uniquely Jewish quality, such as the self irony that characterizes so many humorous Jewish stories.  

An example is the Chelm Goat Mystery, a tale that focusses on the gullibility of the disciples of the wonder-working rabbi of Chelm. An innkeeper who lacks the traditional foolishness of the residents of Chelm switches the female goat for a billy goat, a change which goes unnoticed until milking time. Sholom Aleichem’s story "The Enchanted Tailor," a reworking of this story, is no longer a funny tale about fools. Rather, it is a satire on the pomposity of those who are overly impressed by their own degree of learning.  

Schlemihl and Schlimazl  

From the stock folklore figures of fools and knaves have emerged specifically Jewish figures, the schlemihl and the schlimazl, who particularly dominate the stories set in the ghettos and shtetls of Europe.  

How to tell them apart? A schlemihl, it is said, is a man who spills a bowl of hot soup on a schlimazl. Not quite a simpleton, the schlemihl cannot cope successfully with any situation in life. The schlimazl, on the other hand, does not lack skill, but he faces life with the deck stacked against him. He suffers from bad (schlimm) luck (mazl), as exemplified by Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye, the dairyman, in "Fiddler on the Roof." "When Schlemihl Went to Warsaw" is a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer about a man who, although a schlemihl, has the good fortune of dwelling among the fools of Chelm. With the help of his wife, he transforms his own gullibility into a situation whereby the foolish elders of Chelm decide to pay Schlemihl a salary for babysitting his own children.  

According to folklorist Nathan Ausubel, both schlemihl and schlimazl are products of the "same economic swamp of ghetto stagnation." In their hopeless, bumbling inability to rise above their circumstances, these characters symbolize the consequences of strictures placed on Jews in shtetl and ghetto. The same swamp gave rise to a particularly debased form of schlemihl — the henpecked husband. Aleichem’s tailor in "The Enchanted Tailor" is one, as is Tevye.  

The henpecked husband is a pitiable schlemihl as in the story of the shrew who delighted in demonstrating to friends the absolute control she had over her husband:  

In the company of several of her women friends, she suddenly shouts at her husband, "Schlemihl, get under the table!" Obediently, he silently crawls under the table. "Now, schlemihl, come out!" she commands. "I won’t. I won’t," the husband squeaks back. The wife’s women friends stare at the husband under the table in disbelief. "I wont come out. I won’t come out. I’ll show you I am still master in this house," the husband squeaks.  

Given the uniquely Jewish setting of such stories, and given the appearance of the schlemihl as a Jewish underdog suffering yet one more indignity, one might conclude that the henpecked schlemihl is a figure typical of Jewish folklore. The fact that women in the Jewish shtetl had no means for gaining dignity or respect except through their husbands adds credence to this notion. In her bitterness over being shackled to a schlemihl, the Jewish wife might easily develop into a shrew.  

However, satire on the shrewish wife and the henpecked husband is an ancient literary convention which occurs in writing throughout time and all over the world and is not necessarily associated with particularly harsh circumstances of women. Yet, as in other cultures, the henpecking takes on a particular flavor, in this case a Jewish quality.  

The Schnorrer  

Stories from the ghetto feature not only victimized underdog characters, but also very clever survivors, such as the schnorrer. In most shtetls begging was a common occupation. The fierce competition among beggars gave rise to the very clever form of beggar, the schnorrer. He is not pitiable, but rather the beggar with impudence, the one who brings to bear chutzpah on his profession.  

The schnorrer thrives within a Jewish atmosphere for he exploits the Jewish obligation to perform charity. Unlike the hapless schlemihl, the schnorrer has many talents. He uses intelligence, wit, and imagination to avoid having to demean himself by stretching out his hand for alms, like an ordinary beggar. Many schnorrers are well versed in Torah in order to convince their prey that it is an honor to give to a schnorrer. Some schnorrers demand rather than beg for alms as in the story "Schnorrer in Law."  

Every Friday evening for years the schnorrer has appeared at the rich man’s house for the Sabbath meal. But one Friday, a young stranger appears with him. "Who is this?" asks the host irritated. "Oh," replies the schnorrer tolerantly. "I suppose I should have told you. This is my new son-in-law. You see I promised to give him board for the first year."  

Within the shtetl, the class system was rigid, with the rabbi just above the "nogid" or rich man. Most of the residents were profoundly poor. Stories featuring the audacious arrogance of the schnorrer, who successfully manipulated the class system, flourished in this atmosphere. The schnorrer appears to be a uniquely Jewish character.  

One of the most extreme examples of the schnorrer’s victory over his benefactor occurs in "The King of the Schnorrers" by the British writer Israel Zangwill. Here the schnorrer who, unlike the wealthy butt of his jokes, boasts a sephardic origin, uses humor and intelligence to humiliate the wealthy capitalist, Joseph Grobstock.  

Then to make amends, and to show that he bears the magnate no ill will, the schnorrer offers to become the rich man’s Sabbath guest. By the end of the story Grobstock is limping along behind the schnorrer, weighed down by the schnorrer’s package.  

When the schnorrer and his prey arrive at Grobstock’s house, the schnorrer demonstrates the degree to which he has taken control by running gleefully ahead to the door of the rich man’s mansion, shouting "we are at home!"  

The Trickster  

The unnamed schnorrer in Jewish stories can qualify as the ultimate trickster, but Jewish folklore also contains stories about real pranksters who are closely related to pranksters in other literatures.  

Hershel Ostropolier was born in Balta in the Ukraine during the second half of the 18th century. Hershel was hired as a kind of court jester for the amusement of Rabbi Boruch, the hereditary Hasidic tzaddik of Miedziboz. In that capacity he spun out a rich collection of tales about himself.  

Hershel’s story "The Feast" features a group of wealthy Hasidim who make fun of Hershel while sharing a coach with him. To avenge himself he extends an invitation to the Hasidim from a particular innkeeper to a lavish banquet. Then he turns to the innkeeper and tells him that the Hasidim would like to hold a banquet at the inn and that they will spare no expense.  

Hershel laughs to himself throughout the luxurious banquet, but manages to steal away just before it was over, and just before the innkeeper presents his bill to the Hasidim.  

Because of this prank and many others, Hershel Ostropolier is said to have died with a smile on his lips. According to his final story, this is literally true. For just before he died, he told his friends, "remember when you lift me up to lay me in my coffin, be sure not to hold me under the armpits. I’ve always been very ticklish there." The thought so amused Hershel that he died with a smile on his lips.  

The Hershel stories are a similar phenomenon as those of the merry Dutch prankster, Tyl Eulenspiegel. Tyl brought laughter to the Dutch population during the hard years of the Spanish occupation by telling stories of tricks he played on the oppressors. Tyl, like Hershel, became a legendary figure because of the stories which grew up around him. Although typically Jewish, Hershel shares with Tyl a guise of folk jester and a style of wit designed to provide a people with an outlet during difficult times.  

The Kabbala offered the ordinary Jew a direct route to God, free of the talmudic discipline placed by the orthodox rabbinate on every aspect of Jewish life. Central to Kabbala is the hope of the coming of the messiah. Satan becomes a prominent character. The story "Joseph della Reyna Storms Heaven" depicts the travels of the great Kabbalist and his five disciples through the world to oust Satan and to prepare the way for the messiah. The essence of Kabbala is contained in the Zohar which appeared in Spain in the late 13th century. Offering a magical way to find God, Kabbala also incorporated systems of bizarre astrology, cryptic formulae, and strange erotica.  

These influences entered the Jewish storytelling tradition, as in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story "The Destruction of Kreshev.’ Here Satan makes use of the Kabbala to ruin a young, married couple. Through his readings of the Kabbala, Shloimele, the learned young husband, becomes a secret disciple of Sabbatai Zevi. The couple’s growing depravity ultimately leads to the destruction of the whole town.  

An attempt to revitalize the Jewish spirit came with the teachings of Hasidism, initiated by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), later known as Baal-Shem-Tov, "the master of the good name." Baal Shem preached that the love of God was more important than formalistic religious worship. To do good among men was better than to observe the details of law and ritual.  

Stories depicted a humble, perhaps foolish, person who turns out to be the anointed one. These "holy fools" were similar to those featured later in moralistic tales by Leo Tolstoy. A Jewish example of this might be the tales of the Lamed-Vav-Tzaddikim or "The Thirty Six Hidden Saints."  

"The Master of the Name," by Israel Zangwill is a modern version of one of the Baal-Shem legends. It depicts a man who sets out in search of the great holy man, the Baal-Shem. He takes a ride in a wagon driven by a simple, humble old man who seems to know something about the Baal-Shem. The traveller finally discovers that the kindly old man is the Baal-Shem himself.  

Nathan Ausubel sees the pursuit of virtue as a heroic quest as a "fundamental tradition in Jewish life and lore." He writes:  

"These legends and tales, dealing with cabalists and hasidic rabbis, endow their tzaddikim with invincible wonder-working powers. Many of them, like the knights of chivalry, sallied forth into the world to pursue quests of high valor. They were not accompanied by armed esquires, but by worshipful disciples.... They went forth to battle against the power of evil, to redress wrongs, and to protect their people against threatening dangers."  

While there are indeed a great many stories about wonder working rabbis and holy men, there are also numerous stories which treat such subjects humorously. This one is called "Realistic Miracles."  

A disciple was bragging about his wonder-working rabbi: "When my rabbi climbs on a bench he can see with his luminous eyes to the very ends of the earth!" "What’s the idea of your rabbi having to get on a bench if he can see that far?" he was asked. "My rabbi, I’d like you to know, wants his miracles to look realistic," answered the disciple proudly.  


At the core of many of the stories about saintly men on a holy quest was a struggle against Satan and against the hosts of darkness. These forces of evil took on many forms ranging from devils to dybbuks, to succubi.  

A key figure of evil is Lilith derived from Babylonian demonology. The first Jewish reference to her is in Isaiah 34:12 — "Yea the night monster shall repose there, and shall find her a place of rest." Lilith and her relatives prey on women in childbirth and on newborn infants. They seduce men and, like the Greek siren, Circe, they destroy the children they produce. In Midrashic literature she is described as a demon of the night, an irresistibly seductive woman who was Adam’s first wife. She often occurs in Jewish folklore as the wife of Samael, the Angel of Death.  

Demonic figures play an important role in the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer, where Lilith continues to bed men and cause them to suffer tragic consequences. In "The Unseen" a Lilith figure, disguised as a servant girl, seduces and ruins a happily married man. At last the truth dawns on the man, "She’s not a woman, but a demon." In "Taibele and Her Demon," a woman abandoned by her ascetic husband, leads a relatively happy, although strange, existence with her demon lover.  

In some cases demons have been Judaized to serve the role of ethical teaching in Jewish stories. Yet the larger source is the same, as evidenced by the widespread occurrence of such figures in other folklores.  

The wife of the Angel of Death appears in English folklore as the devil’s concubine or wife — "The Devil’s Dame." In "The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs," from The Grimms Fairy Tales, the Lilith figure appears as the devil’s grandmother. Here she assists the human by obtaining from her grandson information that he needs for his quest. Yet this woman is surrounded by a snake, echoing perhaps Lilith’s original position in the Garden of Eden.  

Among German speaking Jews there is a folk ceremony which involves giving a newborn child a secular name on the fourth Sabbath after its birth. Called the "Hollenkreisch" ceremony, this involves guests gathering in a circle around the baby’s cradle. Then the baby is lifted three times into the air while the guests call out the words: "Holle! Kreisch!" and recite Biblical verses. The purpose of the ceremony is to ward off Frau Holle, a succubus in German mythology who attacks children. She is clearly related to Lilith.  

In the Grimm’s collection there is a tale about a witch named Frau Holle who entices young girls into her home to work for her. They clean house for her and shake out her featherbeds so that it snows feathers on the earth below. The song goes — "Im Himmel wohnt Frau Holle...." She rewards the good girls by covering them with gold leaves; evil girls she covers with pitch. Here Lilith has evolved into a witch, but remains decidedly demonic.  


Among the most popular Jewish stories are the golem legends. People have always been fascinated with the idea of creating life from something inanimate, in effect duplicating God’s work. The golem stories are a Judaized version of this universal theme.  

The Golem of Chelm, a 16th century story, features a lump of clay which responds much like Frankenstein does when it is given life. It goes on a wanton binge of destruction. A later version of this story, however, "The Golem of Prague," has a Jewish social conscience. The Prague golem, where unleashed, destroys only the gentile persecutors of the Jews.  

But the golem goes too far, for the Jews decided that if it destroys all the gentiles of Prague there will be nobody left to light the Sabbath fires. But when Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the chief rabbi of Prague in the 16th century, sings "A Song of the Sabbath" the golem obediently ceases its bloody slaughter.  

Thus the indiscriminate instinct of the golem to destroy is harnessed to serve Jewish purposes and the golem becomes a protector of persecuted Jews. Certain tales and legends may have an origin common to other cultures, but all folklore is adaptable to suit cultural circumstances.  

Folk legends are far from being accidental in origin, Ausubel notes. Instead they are "a true record and mirror of the complicated historical and cultural experiences of a people."  

The savior golem is but a distant relative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We find the analogy in other story figures. And so it is with many characters in Jewish folklore. They are universally known stock figures on the one hand, and uniquely Jewish figures, carefully adapted to Jewish circumstances on the other.  

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