American author compiles work of visionary Ukraine-born storyteller of the Jewish Hasidic movement
Once there was a king, and two kings, and a wise man, and a queen and her slave, and a Master of Prayer, and a pauper, and a wealthy shopkeeper, and two close friends, and a prince who thought he was a rooster.
All of these protagonists and more, along with the lessons they can teach, are included in this comprehensive volume amassed and interpreted by St. Louis, MO author and editor Howard Schwartz. He says “A Palace of Pearls” is the most complete collection ever of the tales, parables and other gems of the oral tradition handed down from Rabbi Nachman, a visionary storyteller of the Jewish Hasidic movement.
Nachman was born in 1772 in Ukraine, the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, who was the founder of Hasidim. He followed the oral tradition of storytelling, but his work was written down and spread by a loyal scribe, Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov.
Though he lived for only 38 years, Nachman’s influence has been great and enduring. In his introduction, Schwartz notes that the rabbi had “complete knowledge of the Torah and the rest of the Bible, the Talmud, and the other rabbinic texts and Biblical commentaries.”
During his life, Nachman paid close attention to dreams that he believed came from two sources, an angel and a demon, and his stories often took on a dreamlike quality. In many cases, they resemble what came to be known as traditional fairy tales, with their beautiful princesses, evil sorcerers and magical transformations.
“A Palace of Pearls” is divided into several sections, including major stories, parables, dreams and vision tales told by Nachman and those told about him. Schwartz notes that the rabbi’s stories have endured largely because of how they took elements of Judaism, then set them out in original ways that made them more personally relevant.
He adds that using “the universal language of fairy tales was a bold act with profound implications, reflecting the thinking of an especially innovative rabbi. Reb Nachman was well aware of his originality, once saying, ‘Not even a breath leaves my lips without originality.’”
And, Schwartz adds, Nachman’s stories were designed not merely to entertain but to teach, combining “astonishing literary quality and amazing synthesis of Biblical themes with Jewish mystical and traditional teachings. Even though Nachman did not think of himself as a writer, he was one of the great ones.”
The variety of material in “A Palace of Pearls” can be read and shared on several levels, from simple stories to far-reaching allegory. So a brief story titled “The Missing Portrait,” about a king who sought to “possess a portrait of every king in every kingdom,” can be about an earthly ruler or about God. A wealthy shopkeeper whose store is struck many times by thieves can be a simple hard-luck case or a man suffering the trials of Job.
The compilation isn’t necessarily designed to be read straight through. Rather, readers can dip into it at any point and come away with a fresh way of looking at an old situation, like wandering through an art museum’s many exhibits, one after the next.
Schwartz even quotes Nachman as saying that his “lessons are like entering a palace with many entrances, halls, and chambers. All are of awesome beauty, with story upon story, each with its own unique style. No sooner do you enter a room, fascinated by the novelty of the design, than you notice an opening leading to another room.”
So once there was a Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, and a Howard Schwartz of St. Louis. Readers of “A Palace of Pearls” will be thankful for both.