Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Jewish Cinderella

I enjoy folklore from many cultures, but I have to confess that many of my favorite folktales are from Jewish and African cultures. Although it's not entirely correct or fair to lump all their folktales together (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Middle Eastern Jews have their own folklore traditions, while West African folktales are not the same as folktales in other areas of Africa) within each culture, the humor, the lessons, and the joie de vivre that are found in the stories are truly delightful to read, read aloud, and perform.

Despite the country/region of origin, folktales (usually) have something in common: the hero/heroine/main character of the story must encounter several obstacles before his/her quest is finished (this is also evident in myths). Let's take what is perhaps the most famous folktale heroine in history: Cinderella. Although the name (and very rarely, the gender, as in the Irish Billy Beg and His Bull and an Indian version) and details change, the story stays the same. An unfortunate girl wants to attend a ball (or wedding feast, as in the Iraqi The Golden Sandal)despite being prevented by her family, catches the eye of a handsome prince (or a warrior, in the Ojibwa Sootface). She usually catches the eye of the young man because she is beautiful (both inside and out), but sometimes it's because of her cooking, as in the Mexican Domitila. There's usually someone to help her; a fairy godmother in the French (Perrault) version, a cow in the Hmong Jouanah, or a (male) snake in the Indian The Enchanted Anklet.

The Way Meat Loves Salt, a Cinderella-ish story from the Jewish tradition, includes many of the familiar Cinderella elements. There's no wicked stepmother here; instead, a rabbi's daughter, Mireleh, is cast out from her family when her answer to his question does not please him ("How do you love me?"). On she wanders, until she is brought into the home of a respected scholar. After overcoming some obstacles and inconveniences, the two marry. Mireleh's father, not knowing that his daughter is the bride of the scholar's son, is invited to the wedding. After tasting the salt-less meat, he discovers that Mireleh is the bride.

Despite some variants, the story does have recognizable Cinderella motifs, including the fairy godmother figure, who happens to be Elijah the Prophet in this Yiddish folktale.

The Way Meat Loves Salt would make a great read aloud for kindergarten and up.

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