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Review: Tales from Schwartz's 'Garden of Eden' haunt — and comfort

Jewish imagination has long found outlet in storytelling. Howard Schwartz, three-time Jewish Book Award winner, has plunged into this rich sea of Jewish folktales and legends and fished out 100 classic tales. Divided into four basic types — fairy tales, folktales, supernatural tales and mystic tales — these short stories, some only a couple of pages long, cover a vast geographical range and span hundreds of years.

Many of them, particularly the fairy tales, would make wonderful bedtime stories for children. Others, such as the ones involving Lilith, the seductive demon who ensnares men with her lush, naked body, are fascinating for adult consumption. In the collection are Jewish versions of Snow White, Cinderella and Rapunzel, as well as the horror story that inspired Tim Burton's movie The Corpse Bride. In a twist on Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights, a young man must tell riddles to a princess to keep from being killed.

There are several recurring themes in the stories. Many involve impossible quests, usually having to do with tracking down a biblical figure such as Elijah, or finding the answer to some important, unknowable question, such as where is justice.

The haunting eponymous tale, Leaves from the Garden of Eden, is about deep grief over the death of a foster brother that is only alleviated when the departed arrives in a dream, bearing leaves from the garden of Eden. When the leaves remain after she wakes, the bereaved is finally able to move past her despair — again, not the best story for children, but a lovely one for adults.

These stories come from Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, Tunisia and other countries of the Jewish Diaspora. They reflect the universal concerns, obsessions and hopes of a people scattered across the planet. Haunting, absurd or thought provoking, these glimpses into the minds of everyday people through their stories will make a welcome addition to any library.

Tammar Stein is the author of "High Dive" and "Light Years." She lives in Florida.

Leaves from the Garden of Eden

By Howard Schwartz

Oxford University Press, 525 pages, $34.95

Review: Tales from Schwartz's 'Garden of Eden' haunt — and comfort 12/20/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 20, 2008 3:30am]

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