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Tales of the Hasidim

April 6, 2007

One of the first things that appealed to me when reading Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim was the familiarity and depth of the imagery. I had heard a number of these tales before in different forms, but had never been told that they were attributed to the Baal Shem Tov and the hasidim. One example is from the Baal Shem’s early years, in which he is a teacher’s assistant. Every morning he went out and rounds up all the students and walks them to the school. They hike through the fields and forest and on their way he rejoices in the birds and animals and sings songs. Bringing all this joy and celebration into the world catches the attention of the Opponent who turns himself into a werewolf and attacks the party. All the parents were afraid to let their children go with the Baal Shem the next day, but he convinces them, and the next time they are set on by the werewolf, he strikes it between the eyes and kills it. The version I had heard before was about the Heart of Darkness and illustrated the evil eye. The main character in that version was simply a nameless rabbi who is escorting a group of children to school, and is attacked by a wild man who was born without a soul (a void inside) or the Heart of Darkness. The Heart of Darkness manifested as the evil eye that the rabbi must ward off.

In both versions I love the imagery a werewolf who returns to a sorcerer’s form when killed and a wild man born with the Heart of Darkness. Both highlight a person tethered to their animal or negative nature, and both illustrate an oral tradition, which really appeals to me. I like that both stories have a slightly different take on the source material and that the text is alive and open to interpretation.

That is something else that appealed to me about how Buber put this collection of stories together. The stories are more or less in loose chronological order under the person or people they were attributed to. This format is more true to the spirit of the material and also shows how one zaddik may have had a specific take on a story or highlighted certain elements in their teachings, but later generations had focused on different teachings in the same story. The material is alive and always open to interpretation.

This is an element that interests me in my writing. How do different people understand or re-tell the same information in varying ways… yet all still be true. This is something I am trying to apply to my main character in Stalking America as he explores his telling as a secondary source. What details will he highlight based on his character and perspective? I’m not really sure how this will manifest itself, but it is good food for thought.

Another element that really appealed to me is the specific imagery from these stories. The structure of the stories is very simple (sometimes with no apparent point), but also eloquent and beautiful. While talking about the transmigration of the soul there is a story about bees. It says that the proud are reborn as bees. “They say that I am a writer, I am a singer, I am a great one at studying” (129). These proud people come back as bees who always hum, “I am, I am, I am”. There is something really amazing and simple about the image of these people coming back as humble bees to correct their souls.

I like that these are stories that evolve and are meant to be lived with. I would like to spend more time with this book in the future. I am also interested in the simplicity and magic of the stories and would like to bring elements of this type of storytelling into my writing.

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