NYFS logo    tagline
 Pinto Guira making guiramaking a mandalaplaying mandolin

Voices Spring-Summer, 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column, “The Folklore Fundamentalist” by Steve Zeitlin here.
JOIN the New York Folklore Society today to receive Voices.

Voices cover


Volume 29

Headline - The Folklore Fundamentalist by Steve Zeitlin

Downstate"Why were human beings created?" goes a traditional saying that I first learned from Elie Wiesel. The answer: "Because God loves stories." Some years ago, I used that phrase for a title of a book of interviews, stories, and essays—an anthology of Jewish storytelling. As I happily slaved over that work, I became interested in interviewing a Hasidic woman who, I had heard, told remarkable stories about surviving the Holocaust and her subsequent life in Crown Heights. I called up the family to ask about setting up an interview and spoke to her daughter. Since most folks seem to want a chance to tell their stories, I was surprised when the daughter hesitated. She asked if I could show her anything I had written previously to help the family decide. Not long before, I had coauthored a children’s book of Jewish folktales with Nina Jaffe, called While Standing on One Foot. It contained some beautiful Hasidic tales. I sent a copy to her, confident that this would prove me worthy. A week later I called and asked about setting up an interview.

"The answer is no," the daughter said.

"No?" I said. "Didn’t you like the book?"

"Your book is a collection of folktales," she told me. "These stories are not our folktales—this is our religion."

Needless to say, the book was published without the Hasidic woman’s stories, and I eventually became involved in a new writing project—a collection of tales from around the world on the theme of justice. Each story would pose a question, asking young readers what they would have done had they been in the protagonist’s shoes. My coauthor and I discovered a story from the Koran, a theodicy legend, that addresses the age-old and still compelling question, "Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper in life?" We retold the story in our own words, and as the book was nearing completion, we sent the manuscript to an Arabic scholar to ask whether it contained any inappropriate material. She could barely hold her temper with me on the phone. The words of the Koran, dictated by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammad in the seventh century, could not be paraphrased or improved upon, she said emphatically. Besides, inserting a question into the piece was nothing short of blasphemy.

I thought of the last line of the tale, spoken by a bird: "Every person on this earth possesses as much knowledge as the quantity of water I have taken from the ocean with my beak." We apologized for our ignorance and struck the Koranic tale from the book. But I came away with a renewed appreciation for the importance of stories as key to cultural understanding.

When I was writing those books, I was not conscious of shifting narratives from the domain of religion into the realm of story. Like most folklorists, I work on the assumption that it is not only acceptable but laudable to collect and present stories, even though the context for each story is crucial. I took for granted that even the faithful would appreciate the way that those who did not share their beliefs might enjoy the texts as beautiful but secular stories, uplifting nonetheless. One person’s religion is another’s mythology. The Hasidic family and the Arabic scholar believed that I was disparaging the veracity of the stories by placing them under the rubric of folklore. Perhaps they shared the popular conception of the terms folklore and myth as untruths, falsehoods—"it’s just a myth." As folklorists, we recognize that folklore is a useful term because it encompasses myth, legend, and oral history, because it embraces both what is verifiable and embellished—sacred myths, tall tales, oral histories, and everything in between.

Story. Such a simple term, and yet one that holds a key to an issue that continues to elude us: peaceful coexistence. As we teach our children to grow up in a world where we can’t afford to hate our neighbors, the wealth of folktales that folklorists and others have researched and made available can make a difference. As my friend the storyteller Roz Perry put it, "It is difficult to hate someone whose stories you know." In the shadow of conflagration, folklorists have a role to play in creating tolerance, and what they bring to the table is stories (sometimes in the form of songs), tales without borders that can be shared because they can be apprehended and appreciated whether or not the listener believes they are "true." Perhaps this explains the fanaticism of folklorists—our dedication to documenting stories, preserving and sharing them—and allowing the literal truth of each story to remain in the minds of their readers and audiences.

I love the story my wife Amanda tells of her South Carolina grandmother, who believed above all in the literal truth of three things: the Bible, professional wrestling, and the Democratic Party. Once a great uncle asked her if she believed that the whale literally swallowed Jonah.

"I do," she said.

"And if the Bible had said that Jonah swallowed the whale, would you have believed that?"


As cultures clash over religion in our world, we all sit in the belly of the whale, and would do well to consider the stories that brought us here, and turn an ear to the stories we may not yet have heard.


Steve Zeitlin is executive director of City Lore and codirector of the Place Matters project, 72 East First Street, New York, NY 10003.Photo of Steve ZeitlinPhoto: Martha Cooper

In the shadow of conflagration, folklorists have a role to play in creating tolerance, and what they bring to the table is stories (sometimes in the form of songs), tales without borders that can be shared because they can be apprehended and appreciated whether or not the listener believes they are “true.”

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Spring-Summer 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

TO PURCHASE A BACK ISSUE of Voices, visit our online book store.

TO PURCHASE A SINGLE ARTICLE from Voices, use the form below:

Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

To order a single article, please enter volume number, issue (“fall-winter” or “spring-summer”), and title of the article you wish and click on an order button below to purchase through Paypal or with your credit card. We will send you a PDF of the article via e-mail upon receipt of your order.

ITEM #603
Single Article $3.00
Volume No. & Issue

Member Price  $2.00
Volume No. & Issue

NEW YORK FOLKLORE SOCIETY ♦ 129 Jay Street ♦ Schenectady, NY 12305 ♦ 518.346.7008 ♦ Fax 518.346.6617 ♦ nyfs@nyfolklore.org