The Heart is a Mirror: The Sephardic Folktale

Tamar Alexander-Frizer. The Heart is a Mirror: The Sephardic Folktale. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. Xiv + 690 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8143-2971-9. $65.00 Hardcover.

David Elton Gay
Indiana University

The Heart is a Mirror is a translation of Tamar Alexander-Frizer’s 1999 Hebrew study of Sephardic folk narrative, The Beloved Friend: Studies in Sephardic Folk Literature. The title of the Hebrew original gives a far better sense of what this book is about. It is far more than a book on the Sephardic folktale alone, as implied by the English title; rather, Alexander-Frizer intends to introduce the reader to the wealth of Sephardic prose folk narrative in its many genres.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part, “The Characteristics of Ethnic Identity,” surveys the stylistic and linguistic ways in which ethnic identity is marked in the various kinds of narratives. Alexander-Frizer also compares Sephardic narratives to Hebrew narratives, with a special concern for the Hebrew origin of some of the Sephardic narrative corpus, in a section called “The Correlation with Hebrew Sources.” The next section, “The Connection to the Land of Origin,” looks at how Spain is imagined in Sephardic folktales, legends, and other traditions. The Sephardic Jews came from Spain, and their folk narrative still shows a longing for Spain, though the attitude expressed is, understandably, ambivalent. The final section in this part of the book is “The Linkage to the Surrounding Culture,” which mostly looks at the relationship of Sephardic culture to Turkish culture, where the ancestors of the Sephardim Alexander-Frizer works with settled after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and Israeli culture, where these Sephardim now live. This part of the book also includes a section, “The Corpus of Tales,” which is concerned with the sources of the narratives and the methods of documentation. There are interesting comments here about collecting and editing Sephardic narrative, and about previous collections of Sephardic narrative, but the section does seem out of place in this part of the book.

The second part of the book examines the various genres of Sephardic folk narrative. Alexander-Frizer includes separate chapters on the legend, ethical tale, the fairy tale (that is, the Märchen), the novella, and, finally, the humorous tale. This latter chapter includes a section on the well-known cycle of stories about the trickster Joha.Part three of The Heart is a Mirror is an extended look at storytelling in Sephardic culture. Alexander-Frizer first considers the art of the performer in “The Performance Art of the Storyteller.” She then takes up the role of the audience in creating the performance in the chapter “The Audience as a Factor in Shaping the Story.” The final section in this part looks at “Circumstances of Time and Place:” that is, who tells the stories? when? where? and why? The book concludes with a brief epilogue, “Gaps and Bridges between Researcher and Storyteller.”

This is a very good book on Sephardic folk narrative, though it sometimes shifts between being an introductory survey and a monograph on Sephardic folk narrative: Much is said at times that would be obvious to any folklorist familiar with folk narrative research, and some of what is said is obviously aimed at the professional folklorist and not a popular audience. This shifting mode in the book is its worst part; its best part is that it is a sensitive and broadly conceived survey of Sephardic prose folk narrative, a part of Jewish folk tradition that, until recently, had little written about it in English. Alexander-Frizer’s book is also very rich in stories—she often quotes entire folktales and legends—which makes this study something of an anthology of Sephardic folk narrative as well.

Until recently only the Sephardic ballad was well represented in English language scholarship. Now, with Alexander-Frizer’s book, we have a fine guide to the Sephardic prose narrative traditions to go along with the recently translated anthologies of Sephardic folk narrative.


1 Comment

  1. [31] See, for example, the linguistic studies of Crews (1935; 1979), Luria (1930); Wagner (1914; 1990). Later folktale collections include Kolonomos (1978); Koen-Sarano (1986; 1991; 1994). Larrea’s very substantial Moroccan collection (1952-1953) was poorly collected and poorly edited—from texts taken down in shorthand (!)—from which a great majority of the dialect’s Arabic loan words have been eliminated. Despite the violence done to the tale’s linguistic fabric, the collection at least gives us viable outlines of the narrative content and continues to be an essential reference. ¡Peor es nada! Martínez Ruiz’s editing is incomparably better (1951). For everything concerning traditional stories, Reginetta Haboucha’s splendid Types and Motifs index is indispensable (1992).

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