Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture
50 Broadway, 34th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10004

Tel: (212) 425-6606
Fax: (212) 425-6602
Email: office@mfjc.org

Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News November 2007

November 29, 2007

JEWISH FOLKLORE

The Foundation, since its inception in 1965, has provided over 13,000 scholarships and fellowships to scholars all around the world and supported the publication of almost 4,000 books. The vast majority of these people and publications have dealt with what can be classified as “hard core” Judaica, scholarly, textual, normative Jewish culture.

In this report I should like to report on another aspect of Jewish culture, the cultural creativity of “amcha”, the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Jewish people, transmitted from generation to generation in their communities all around the world. One cannot hope to fully comprehend the culture of any people if we focus only on its elite. Parallel to original, innovative, individualistic creativity, there exists the culture of the society that inheres in these “traditional” folklore creations, produced by generations of anonymous artists, writers and musicians and transmitted onward as part of the society’s heritage.

This cultural creativity is mainly transmitted by oral tradition in the form of folk literature and folk music. But it also consists of a visual genre, including arts, crafts, costumes, ornaments and other material expressions of folk culture, and a cognitive one, which includes popular beliefs that find their expression in Jewish customs and practices.

Any attempt to understand the culture of our past cannot ignore these expressions of our creativity because all these transmissions take place alongside, and have multitudinous mutual contacts with, normative Jewish culture and literature. Jewish folklore and Jewish religion, for example, have always influenced each other; Jewish folklore has been profoundly imbued with the Jewish religious spirit, and in turn, left its mark on Jewish religion.

In this report I should like to deal with the Foundation’s important role in this area by focusing on the work of the major folklorists who have made vital contributions to our contemporary understanding of this field, which will simultaneously demonstrate the long-range impact of the Foundation’s work on behalf of Jewish culture.

 

DOV NOY

Prof. Dov Noy is the major figure today in the renaissance of the preservation and perpetuation of the tradition of Jewish folklore in Israel. His work encompasses all aspects of Jewish folklore and touches on almost all periods and communities in Jewish culture.

Prof. Noy created Jewish folklore as an academic discipline in Israel, where it had formerly been viewed by many main-line Jewish intellectuals as marginal to Jewish life. He received numerous institutional grants from the Memorial Foundation from 1969 thru 1985 for his work on Jewish folk literature and folktales in which he specialized, and other folklore studies and publications at the Folklore Research Center he established at the Hebrew University.

Born in Poland, Prof. Noy was influenced early in life by the oral folklorist traditions. He immigrated to Israel in 1938 and began his studies as a student of rabbinic literature at the Hebrew University. This source is ever present in his work. In his earlier research, Prof. Noy acted primarily as a midrashic scholar, and folkloristic methodology provided him with fresh insights to deal with ancient materials.

Subsequently, the systematic folklore studies he conducted inspired his future scientific work in new directions. He began collecting folktales from the new immigrant communities in Israel after the creation of the State of Israel. There was a great sense of urgency at that time for this enterprise because of the rapid acculturation of the new ethnic groups in Israel stemming from their modernization, and the accelerating pressure for their integration into Israeli society. Prof. Noy created the Israel Folklore Archives at the Museum of Photography and Folklore in Haifa to house those materials, which today contain over 23,000 folktales. He also applied the international classification system to these traditional Jewish narratives.

Prof. Noy experienced the destruction of the European Jewish folkloristic culture through his encounter with Holocaust survivors in Cyprus after World War II, during which he served in the British army. Subsequently, Prof. Noy hastened to integrate the perspectives of that past by summing up the work of the folklore scholars that perished in the Holocaust, notably the writing of S.Z. Pipe and Sh. Anski. In this way Prof. Noy came to exert an important role as a mediator between the former generation of European Jewish folklorists and the young Israeli folklorists, who were mostly his disciples.

In addition to his scholarship, Prof. Noy has succeeded in inspiring public and community institutions to deal intensively with the study of folklore. His institutional leadership, open minded scholarly personality, and his equally serious approach to all sectors of the population and non-elitist conception of culture have contributed to his stature as one of the most influential Jewish folklorists. He was awarded the Israel Prize in 2004 for his pioneering work in Jewish folklore. I had the great pleasure of being present at that ceremony.

 

OTHER FOLKlORISTS

Prof. Noy’s students and colleagues at the institutes he established, many of whom the Foundation supported early in their careers and whose names are listed below, today populate various universities in Israel and elsewhere and make up a large part of the infrastructure of research in Jewish folklore:

Galit Hassan Rokem, who completed her doctorate at Hebrew University under Prof. Noy, is a specialist in the proverb genre. She is currently the incumbent of the Max and Margarethe Grunwald chair in folklore at Hebrew University, the first endowed chair in folklore in the world [Memorial Foundation doctoral scholarships in 1975 and 1976, fellowship in 1979].

Eli Yassif, another disciple, is currently professor of Folk Literature at Ben Gurion University. His main subject of research is Hebrew literary folklore, especially from the medieval period. His book, The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning, received the National Jewish book award in 1999 [Memorial Foundation fellowships in 1989 and 1997].

Dan Ben-Amos deals with Jewish Folklore in the wider historical perspective, which has added significantly to our understanding of the development of Jewish folklore. His volume of Folktales of the Jews: Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion, the first in a 5-volume series, received the National Jewish Book Award in 2006. He currently serves as professor of Folklore and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Pennsylvania. [Memorial Foundation doctoral scholarship, 2003].

Aliza Shinhar is engaged in the study of folk literature in Israel. Her appearances in the mass media there have contributed to the public’s growing interest in Jewish and Israeli folklore [Memorial Foundation doctoral scholarships, 1971 and 1972].

Hedda Jason, another of Noy’s students, who studied the ethno-poetics of Jews from Islamic countries, has developed a comprehensive genre system for Jewish folk literature. [Memorial Foundation fellowships in 1973 and 1977].

Yael Zerubavel, who has written on modern Israeli national myths, like Dan Ben-Amos, also deals with Jewish folklore in the wider historical perspective. [Memorial Foundation doctoral scholarship, 1974].

Other important folklorists who the Foundation has supported include:

Chaim Schwarzbaum, the last of the major members of the generation of folklorists who preceded Dov Noy, examined Jewish folklorist texts within the wider context of the Talmud and Midrashim, medieval Jewish literature, and Jewish culture of both east and west. He also studied the affinity between Jewish and Arab folklore and the contemporary encounter between these two cultures in the Middle East. [Memorial Foundation fellowship, 1967].

Olga Goldberg Mulkiewicz, who immigrated to Israel from Poland in 1968 has dealt with the image of the Jew and Jewish symbols in Polish folk art. Her later work focused on Jewish folk artists [Memorial Foundation fellowships 1976, 1978].

Tamar Alexander, who received her folkloristic training in the United States, deals with folk tales of Judeo-Spanish Jews and the expression of ethnic identity in folk literature of Judean-Spanish Jews. Together with Galit Hassan Rokem, she edits the journal Jerusalem Studies and Jewish Folklore. [Memorial Foundation doctoral scholarship, 1974 and fellowship in 1983].

Harvey Goldberg, an anthropologist, has studied folkloristic aspects of Jewish society in North Africa [Memorial Foundation fellowships in 1979 and 1982]. A fellow anthropologist, Yoram Bilu has dealt with the phenomenon of folk healing and popular saints in Israel. [Memorial Foundation fellowship, 1984].

In the United States, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, one of the most important folklorists there, has served as past president of the American Folklore Society. Prof. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and her associates have studied a broad range of materials that reflect the amazing folkloristic and ethnographic creativity in the Jewish community here, ranging from Jewish Renewal to the Chassidic communities, including music, ritual objects, the use of media, sacred spaces and the production of books. Her range of expertise is extraordinarily broad both in general and Jewish folklore. Among her many publications, she has co-edited two volumes, The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Folklore, and Literature; Fabric of Jewish Life: Textiles from the Jewish Museum Collection; and Image Before My Eyes, A Photographic Image of Poland Before the Holocaust, a volume whose preparation and publication was originally supported by the Memoriall Foundation. Her most recent volume, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, was co-authored with her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt. [Memoriall Foundation fellowships in 1973, 1980, and 1989].

This brief survey of the contribution of the Memorial Foundation to the study of Jewish folklore illuminates two aspects of the Foundation’s work. The first, as I indicated above, is our modest contribution in the evolution of a marginal Jewish cultural area to recognized academic status. Our support has undoubtedly contributed to a greater understanding and appreciation of the role of Jewish folklore within the larger dynamic of Jewish culture.

The second is the cumulative impact of the Foundation’s policy of support of creative Jewish scholars, especially in early phases of their career. This report of our activity in the area of Jewish folklore, as well as earlier reports about other areas of Jewish scholarship about which I have written in the past, again and again amply validate the Foundation’s policies and posture to which we have adhered over the last decades. As with Jewish folklore, the very attractive returns from our investments become marvelously manifest in time.

Best wishes for a joyous Chanuka
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President