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Reader ratings: 4.9
The author of the book: Joachim Neugroschel
Edition: Overlook Books
Date of issue: August 1st 1997
ISBN: 0879517824
ISBN 13: 9780879517823
Language: English
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 38.93 MB
City - Country: No data

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I wasn't sure what I was going to get when I picked this book up. I was familiar with some of the more famous stories--the golem and the dybbuk, and i'm pretty sure I've heard "The Tower of Rome" somewhere--but most of them were new to me, and considering the book is 700 pages, it's no surprise that I didn't immediately take to all of them. The reason I gave it three stars is because two of the stories were so annoying that they nearly put me off finishing the book and are pretty much the entire reason that it took me so long to finish.

To avoid burying the lede, I'll talk about those stories first. "The Messiah of the House of Ephraim" and "The Mare" stand out from the other stories in Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and the Occult because they're both very long, they're both obscure, and they're both more interested in imparting a moral lesson than actually being a good story. "The Messiah of the House of Ephraim" is the worst story in the book by far, and it took two days for me to slog through its 80 pages because my eyes kept glazing over as I was reading, I'd lose the thread of the plot, go back and reread, and then realize that it wasn't that I had lost the plot, it's that I had never had the plot in the first place. The only note I took on the whole story is "WTF?" and I couldn't tell you anything that happened except that it was about the tzaddikim, here called Lamed-Vovniks, and the main character was the Messiah, or maybe not? I hated it, is the summary.

"The Mare" was better, but only just. It was at least comprehensible--it's about how people are mostly horrible to each other--but while I thought it started out in a promising fashion, with the main character's desire to become a doctor and how that set him apart from his family and his community, it quickly went much to hard into metaphor territory and lost almost everything that made it interesting. I should have known after the intro, which talked about how most people would just read it as a tale of a man and his talking horse but those with treu discernernernment would discern the hidden meaning and blarg. No thanks.

"The Rabbi Who Was Turned into a Werewolf" stood out for negative reasons, because it has another feature of a lot of traditional stories--misogyny. Namely, how untrustworthy those damn women are. The rabbi gets a wish-granting ring, but his wife steals it, turns him into a wolf, and makes herself rich. Only the wolf's friendship with the king allows him to get the ring back, after which he turns his wife into a donkey and works her to death. Don't tell a woman any secrets, kids!

My favorite story was "The Gilgul or The Transmigration." Gilgul is the Kabbalistic belief in reincarnation, where each soul is reincarnated repeatedly in order to correct its faults and fulfill all of the 613 Mitzvot over its lifetimes. The subject of this story, however, is going to take a long time to get there, since every time he's born as a human his life is full of misery and sin. Then he's reincarnated as an animal, lives a virtuous life (for an animal), and becomes a human, starting the cycle over again. From a horse to a cantor to a fish to a tax collector to a pig, the best part of the story is seeing how his deeds are reflected in his new form and how he redeems himself while in the body of an animal.

"The Golem or The Miraculous Deeds of Rabbi Liva" is a reminder of how much the blood libel used to be a part of Jewish life in Europe. Nowadays it's all that we control the media or that we're manipulating international foreign policy to benefit Israel, but back in the day it was all about putting Christian blood in our matzah. There's even a character, Father Tadeus, who hates the Jews so much that he goes so far as to murder a child in order to get enough blood for a blood libel accusation. That's why they needed a golem created from the dust of the earth, because with adversaries like that, there's no point in playing fair.

The story is also interesting for its folktale miracles. For example, a lot of what the golem accomplishes, it can do because Rabbi Liva gives it an amulet of invisibility. You'd think that this would be forbidden sorcery and thus an abomination, but Liva's a rabbi, so it's a miracle. I mean, this does fit the anthropological definition of miracles vs. magic, but it's still a bit jarring to see in a Jewish source. It's a reminder that current non-Hassidic Judaism is very much a creation of modernity in its almost-complete excising of messianism, the influence of angels, and the afterlife.

"The Penitent" stands out to be because of how odd it is. A man becomes a robber and murders his parents who try to stop him, but decides he wants redemption, and is assigned penance to water a pear tree for decades using only water he carried in his mouth, and when the pears fall, he would be redeemed. He does this for decades and eventually he sees an informer, who went around to peasant villages and told the lord what the peasants were up to. So the former robber murders the informer through deception and that's the last thing he needs to be redeemed. Nothing to lose but your chains, I guess?

With not too many changes, "The Fool and the Forest Demon" could have been a 20th-century weird fiction story. It actually reminded me a lot of the [[[H. P. Lovecraft]]] story Memory, in that it was a bit poignant without much point that I could determine. A man serves a demon in the forest and his only real companion is a stone, and eventually the stone calls him and he is set free. Strange, but whimsical. Probably my second-favorite story.

There's quite a few more, but in the interests of space--and that they didn't stick out in my memory the way that the above stories did--I won't go into them. If you want a brief description of each of the stories within and their context, there's one available here. And you probably should, because the collection here is very uneven. I would have skipped maybe a quarter of the stories in here if I didn't want to read every page to review.


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