Our newest story collection, The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales, features eight stories from the Jewish tradition. Author and Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand shares her creative process.

Why did you want to share these stories?

I am in love with Jewish stories – they fill my life. While many people know and love Biblical stories, most are not familiar with post-Biblical Jewish stories. I wanted to share those in a way that wasn’t overly pious or preachy, but rather in a voice that made them accessible to everyone – Jew and non-Jew, adult and child, and everyone in-between.

The author Philip Pullman once said, “We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. ‘Thou shalt not’ is soon forgotten, but ‘Once upon a time’ lasts forever.” I’ve found that stories are exactly the right medium for discussing values.

Where did the stories come from and where did you hear them first?

Some are long-time favourites that I’ve loved since the moment I heard them. Others I discovered as I did the research for this book. Some of them in their original versions were very short and sparse, so I rewrote them, elaborating to make them relevant to today.  In particular, I tried to add some strong female characters to stories where those characters initially were absent or peripheral. Hundreds of years ago, when these stories were originally composed, women would have had less prominent roles in society. But for today’s audience, there was no reason not to portray strong female characters in a Jewish folktale, so I did.

Why did you choose these particular tales?

I chose each of these stories because it contained a universal moral lesson within a traditional Jewish narrative. Each of these lessons was one which I felt would trigger a meaningful conversation between children and their parents. I wanted these stories to be a catalyst for discussions about the kinds of questions that we all ask: Why do bad things happen to good people? What happens after I die? What defines me, my feelings or my actions?

I like the way the stories are from different ages and different cultures. Can you tell me a little more about that?

These stories come from different times and places in Jewish history, but they all contain values and messages that are timeless and universal. My hope is that their being set in different cultures and ages gives us enough distance from them that we can see ourselves in the universal truths they contain.

What is your ambition for this collection?

I wanted to give parents and children an opportunity to discuss issues that matter. I hope the book teaches adults that they can have powerful conversations with young people and that it teaches young people that their parents share the same questions they have. Most of all, I hope that it will help both adults and children realise that they don’t need to know all the answers to moral questions in order to start a conversation; the important thing is to have tools like these stories that allow them to share the questions with each other and explore together what their answers might be.

If you want to trigger a discussion about values, why use stories?

When my children were quite young, I started making up stories with them as a way to help them process their day and evaluate whether they had made good decisions. Each evening at bedtime, I would start a story, “Once there was a little boy named George . . . ” My children would then tell me about “George’s” day and, in that way, together we would explore whatever had happened to them during the course of the day. Had I asked them whether they had come across any moral issues during their day at school, they would have looked at me blankly. But there is something about narrative that helps us explore identity and morality in a way that nothing else can quite do.

Which is your favourite story?

I love them all, but if you push me to choose one, I would have to say it is “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster” because it captures my own experience of writing the book. It’s a story about the relationship between what we think we are and who we really are. When I was asked to write this book, I wasn’t sure if I was a children’s author. All of my prior work had been with adults, so I didn’t feel like a children’s storyteller. But during the course of writing and working with the team at Barefoot Books, I learned that I was, indeed, a children’s writer. So I can personally really relate to the message of this story – behave as the person you want to be, and perhaps you will start to become that person.

How did you choose the names for the characters in the stories?

Most of the time, I used symbolic Hebrew names that reflected something about the character, such as Ezra whose name means “helper” or Eliana whose name means “God will answer.” But I have to admit that I did sneak in the names of my own three children as well. So my eldest, Natan, often asks me to read “his” story to him, “The Boy Who Prayed the Alphabet,” while my twins, Ely and Ariella, like to hear the story of “Heaven and Hell,” where one of them is an angel and the other the righteous woman. It’s my little gift to them so they will always feel a special connection to these stories. I guess it’s my way of passing my values to them.


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