This collection of 18 stories (in Hebrew Chai means both 18 and life) was masterfully collated by Judaic storyteller and Bank Street College professor Nina Jaffe and Steve Zeitlin, a Ph.D. in urban folklore at a New York cultural heritage foundation called City Lore.
Each piece is accompanied by a brief introduction explaining the background for the story. Some tell where the story is from--the Torah, Talmud, or rabbinic legends called Midrash and a bit about each tradition. Others tell fascinating background. Bet you didn´t know that Herschel of Ostropol--whom Eric Kimmel has brought to life in a recent Chanukah goblin tale--was a real person, born in the Ukraine in the mid-18th century.
The stories themselves are short, but told as riddles. Each one thoroughly enthralls children from the beginning.
Take the Midrash about the Leviathan and the Fox, a tale about a small creature who dared to defy an enormous beast. The Leviathan, knowing the fox is clever, assumes that if he eats the latter he will be not only the strongest creature alive but also the most clever. Thus he sends the Swordfish and Sea Bass to find and bring the fox to him. They lure the fox to come with the false promise of a feast.
Of course, the fox cannot swim, and so the fish agree to carry him. Once he is on their backs at sea, they tell him the truth--that the Leviathan plans to make a meal of him. Now the story breaks, and the child is asked, if he were in the fox´ place, what would he do? This is a tough one, and most children will not know (although there are other tales where they can easily guess the riddle). Alas, says the fox, I left my heart at home. ´´We foxes never travel with our hearts unless it is for a very important reason.´´ He would hate to disappoint the Leviathan, and so the fishes take the fox back to shore. Whereupon the fox dances with joy and runs off. He has even escaped the Angel of Death, he tells them. ´´Do you think I could be fooled by a couple of silly fish?´´
There are stories from famous sages--like Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Rabbi Hillel of ancient Palestine, the wise and patient teacher. One story hails from New York´s Lower East Side, another from Chelm, that mythic town where God deposited all the fools, and still another from Eastern Europe´s maggid (traveling preachers). The last of these involves a coachman who exchanges places with a great maggid of Lublin.
These stunning tales are perfect children who have begun to reach for big ideas, but still enjoy special read-aloud time with Mom or Dad. They provide endless joy and learning. Alyssa A. Lappen