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Based on a presentation for the panel, "God, Midrash, and Legend in Jewish Children's Literature" (with Marc Gellman and Barbara Diamond Goldin), at the 28th Annual Convention of the Association of Jewish Libraries, New York, June 22, 1993.

Abstract

Until recent times, Jewish children's legends did not exist as a separate literature. Children learned stories either from classical Jewish sources, family members, or traveling story tellers.

Recent interest in and publication of Jewish children's stories represent both a boon and a danger. Contemporary versions of traditional tales blur the distinctions between fiction and folklore, challenging the inherent conservatism of the folk process.

What makes a particular story Jewish? Jewish tales attempt to find meaning and divine purpose in national and personal events. They also resonate with old voices—"proof-texts" from the Bible and rabbinic writings—as well as new voices continuing ancient conversations and debates. The tales are often driven by the process of midrash, amplifying and interpreting older narratives.

The subject matter of Jewish legends has changed in the wake of national exile and persecution. Post-exilic tales reflect the "double-edged" experience of Jewish life the triumph of Jewish wit and the shame of Jewish powerlessness. Today's tales continue this tradition but add to the folkloric process the new element of individual authorship.