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Wishes and Fears of Wizards and Rabbis : LILITH'S CAVE Jewish Tales of the Supernatural; selected and retold by Howard Schwartz (Harper & Row: $22.50; 320 pp.)

December 06, 1987|Janet Hadda | Hadda teaches Yiddish at UCLA. Her "Passionate Women, Passive Men: Suicide in Yiddish Literature" is forthcoming from SUNY Press. and

"Lilith makes her home in every mirror," explains the narrator of the title story in Howard Schwartz's unusual anthology. Vice and demonic danger may occupy the same space, he suggests. It is this felicitous interpenetration of supernatural imagination and homespun wisdom that renders the tales collected here accessible to even the most skeptical of modern readers.

Judaism is deeply associated with rationality, through its legal code, its heritage of scholarship, its concentration on ethical issues. Even its mystical traditions--for those not actively involved in enacting them--are often viewed from a perspective of intellect and abstraction.

Thus, powerful historical strains of superstition and belief in magic may seem inimical to the Jewish mind. For this reason alone, Schwartz's compendium, which includes examples from throughout the Jewish world, is a revelation. Open it and enter a world of witches, dybbuks, ghosts, homunculi, wizards; a realm of Black Arts, amulets, sacred vows and curses.

As the erudite introduction makes clear, the demonic aspect of Jewish folklore dates back chiefly to an inconsistency in the Bible. There, God's creation of humanity is first described as follows: "Male and Female He created them." (Gen. 1:27). Later in the Book of Genesis, however, Eve is formed from Adam's rib. In order to reconcile this discrepancy, the rabbis designated Lilith (whose name appears on a single occasion elsewhere in the Bible) as the first female. They thereby conceived a figure who, in a proliferating mass of legends and tales, became the embodiment of seduction and infanticide.

The author quite rightly asserts that, had Lilith's only purpose been to harmonize divergent biblical passages, she would not have inspired the numerous variations and elaborations on the theme that exist today. Rather, Lilith, and the other supernatural beings inhabiting Jewish folklore, constitute a pulse spot for the wishes and fears of their inventors. In a culture that harshly condemns marital infidelity, for instance, the benefit of portraying beautiful female temptresses as demons is self-evident. So, too, is the interpretation that certain types of knowledge are demonic, for they lead away from religious obedience.

The tales themselves, accompanied by Uri Shulevitz's inventive and suitably ghoulish illustrations, are rich in psychological information. "The Dead Fiancee," for example, concerns a man who, pestered by his wife to reverse the couple's childlessness, discovers that he must first apologize to the beautiful woman whom he had jilted as a youth. After an arduous search, he obtains her blessing, only to learn later that she had returned from the dead to pardon him and solve his problem. The denouement of this story is chilling, to be sure. Yet at the same time, the tale provides a vivid rendition of the inhibitory power of guilt, as well as a corroboration that the human psyche is not limited to relationships with the living.

In "The Kiss of Death," a lovesick demon princess murders her human husband when he refuses to renounce his first wife. A clear portrayal of lover's revenge, this tale also provides a picture of what can cause such violence: intense loneliness, the devastation of being spurned, rage coupled with helplessness.

Perhaps most revealing of all is the unfolding of "The Demon of the Waters," an oral tale from Russia recorded in Israel. Here, a woman tumbles down the steps of a ritual bath. A water demon seizes the opportunity to impersonate the unfortunate woman, creating havoc with wild, destructive anger and uncontrolled eating. The woman's husband suspects that his wife has lost her mind as a result of the accident--and, indeed, the demon does behave in a manner which we might today describe as psychotic.

Many of the folk tales included in this work are categorized according to the general criteria established by Aarne and Thompson. Yet, for all its universal implications, Schwartz's collection resonates with specific Jewish flavor: traditional piety, the power of repentance, the supreme importance of family harmony. It thus illuminates the vital and productive mix of insularity and outreach that is the essence of Jewish life.

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