8 Modern Retellings of Jewish Folk Tales and Stories
I have always loved reading myths and folk tales. As a child, I devoured Greek mythology, even going so far as to pointing out all the gods and goddesses when we were visiting my parents’ Greek friends’ home. The Clash of the Titans was one of my favorite films in all of its stop motion glory. Then I found Norse mythology and the wonderful wide world of folk tales. But the older I got, the more I realized how problematic many stories were. When I read how Medusa became the monster we know today…boy, was I mad.
Thankfully, we’re seeing a wonderful resurgence of retellings of popular myths and folk tales. I’m down for anything Madeline Miller writes; Circe is definitely one of my favorite books ever. And with that, I’m seeing more folk tales from all over the world retold and adapted. For me, I’m really thrilled to see the plethora of Jewish folk tales and stories finding new life with a new lens. Sometimes the story is not Jewish in origin but given a Jewish spin on it. Here is a selection of eight works that retell Jewish folk tales and more, some published in recent years while a few are going to be released in the near to mid-future. The books come in all forms including prose, poetry, and graphic novels.
My only caveat is that many stories are based on the Ashkenazi diaspora; it would be neat to see more Jewish folk tales retold from Sephardic and other Jewish traditions. But hopefully this genre is just getting started.
8 Retellings of Jewish Folk Tales and Stories
Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes
Drawing on Jewish stories, tropes, and more, Schanoes’ book of short stories tells stories of women facing terrible circumstances with a dash of the fantastic. One notable story is Emma Goldman taking tea with Baba Yaga. That’s a conversation I didn’t know I needed. But readers beware! These are not your grandmother’s tales; Schanoes takes readers on a wild and weird journey through these reimaginings.
The Ghosts of Rose Hill by R. M. Romero
For many visitors of Prague, Czech Republic, the Jewish cemetery is a pivotal destination. It’s incredible to think that such a small plot of land can hold so much history (and frankly so many people). When so many Jewish institutions in Europe have been destroyed over centuries, sometimes Jewish cemeteries are all that are left. And even with time and lack of a local Jewish population, those are falling by the wayside. This story focuses on Ilana Lopez, a biracial Jewish girl who is very talented in violin, who discovers an abandoned Jewish cemetery while visiting her aunt in Prague. She accidentally meets a dead man named Benjamin who ends up showing her the other side of Prague. But Lopez also meets a man without a shadow, named Rudolph Wasserman, who wants to make a deal with Lopez to give her the life she wants. But it’s always important to make sure you read the fine print before you agree to a deal.
Ballad & Dagger by Daniel José Older
Take a dash of the story of Atlantis (but in the Caribbean) and Jewish diaspora, and we’ve got a great new YA series. After the sinking of San Madrigal, survivors founded their own community in Brooklyn. While high schooler Mateo Matisse is from San Madrigal, he’s more focused on his piano and being a part of the Grand Fete, the big San Madrigal celebration of Sephardic Judaism, Cuban Santeria, and pirate heritages. When Mateo sees a shocking murder, he realizes there are dark secrets behind San Madrigal. He himself learns he has power and has to find a way to bring the killer to justice and understand his past.
The Red Door: A dark fairy tale told in poems by Shawn C. Harris (September 3)
I’ve preordered and am very excited about this forthcoming book of poetry. Its tagline is “a dark fairy tale told in poems.” There are 54 poems for the number of Torah selections. Each poem interweaves Jewish prayers, rituality, modern life, racial identity, and so much more. The description for the book has the wondrous starting line: “The story starts at a Jewish funeral.”
Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott (September 13)
So I was inspired to write this list of retellings of Jewish folk tales because of this forthcoming book. Basically imagine the Baba Yaga story with a very Jewish twist. The Yaga siblings haven’t seen each other since the eldest, Isaac, ran away from their puppeteer parents. But when they get word that a distant relative has left them an inheritance that they must pick up at the dock, neither expects to be given a house with chicken legs. Both siblings see potential in the house. Bellantine, Isaac’s sister who is a woodworker with a dark magical secret, finds peace and serenity in the home. Isaac, a conman performer who can transform his body at will, sees dollar signs. They embark on a year-long puppet show across America. But the house isn’t the only thing that has come from Europe. A man known as Longshadow Man is hunting the house down, destroying everyone they encounter along the way. The reason for the house and the villain lie in the family’s origins in a Russian shtetl. It’s a beautiful work weaving the contemporary world and Jewish stories to explore intergenerational trauma.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
The title says it all. The golem is a creature made from mud or clay who is awakened through a Jewish prayer who was made to protect the Jewish people in Prague. In The Golem and the Jinni, a rabbi makes golem Chava to be the wife of a man traveling to the U.S. But when that man dies on the journey over, Chava has to figure out what to do in 19th century New York. Similarly, Ahmad, a jinni, is also accidentally freed in NYC. When these magical beings find each other, they develop a friendship as they face a brave new world. There are two books in this series so far.
The Golem of Venice Beach — A Graphic Novel by Chanan Beizer, Art by Vanessa Cardinali, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jae Lee, Paul Pope, Nick Pitarra, Stephen R. Bissette & Michael Allred (November 15)
Here’s another one that I am really excited to read. It’s a graphic novel via Kickstarter from Clover Press and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. The comic explores the life of the Golem through its 400 years of existence from 16th century Europe to Venice Beach, California. Fabulous comic artists including Bill Sienkiewicz (of Moon Knight) and Jae Lee (The Inhumans) have contributed to this new story of the Golem.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner
Sisters Liba and Laya have only known their tiny little village and their home in the forest, untouched from the pogroms elsewhere. But things start to change when their parents have to see their dying grandfather at quick notice, leaving them in charge. But Liba and Laya soon learn that fairy tales may actually be real — Liba can turn into a bear and Laya a swan — but that means that the evil in fairy tales can also be real. When some mysterious men come to the village, Liba realizes that her sister may be under their spell. Also, Liba’s chapters are all prose while Laya speaks in poetry.
If you want more Jewish-themed fantasy, check out this Rioter list of Jewish fantasy books. If you want to learn about superheroes and Judaism, check out this essay on Jewish superheroes I wrote last fall.