A Palace of Pearls: The Sto­ries of Rab­bi Nach­man of Bratslav

Howard Schwartz; Zann Jaco­brown, illus.
  • Review
By – July 23, 2018

Howard Schwartz unites the largest body of tales told by and about Rab­bi Nach­man, the great-grand­son of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the founder of Hasidism, to build a case for his place as lit­er­ary and psy­cho­log­i­cal trail­blaz­er. He opens by retelling thir­teen of the rabbi’s major oral tales, includ­ing The Lost Princess” and The Pirate Princess.” These are fol­lowed by sev­en­ty-two addi­tion­al sto­ries, para­bles, dreams and visions, and tales about Hasidism, many of which are less well-known. Folk­tales the rab­bi shared with his fol­low­ers and the sto­ries they in turn told about him com­plete this collection.

Schwartz’s analy­sis is char­ac­ter­ized by respect, schol­ar­ship, and a sense of joy. He shares his insights into the mean­ings of recur­ring motifs with­in Rab­bi Nachman’s sto­ries. Through the fig­ures of folk­loric princess­es, for exam­ple, Rab­bi Nach­man cre­at­ed alle­gories about the exile of the Shekhi­nahGod’s bride or essenceas a way to reach his fol­low­ers. He want­ed them to par­tic­i­pate in repair­ing the world by help­ing to end her absence after the tem­ple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Schwartz explains how Rab­bi Nach­man embraced mul­ti­ple inter­pre­ta­tions of his sto­ries. The min­is­ter who seeks the lost princess may var­i­ous­ly rep­re­sent a hid­den saint, the nation of Israel, or the Mes­si­ah. Rab­bi Nach­man believed that explor­ing the mys­ter­ies and dis­cov­er­ing new mean­ings with­in the Torah could lead to the high­est lev­els of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty – some­thing he felt his sto­ries could help oth­ers achieve.

Schwartz metic­u­lous­ly sources each tale and places it in the arc of Rab­bi Nachman’s life. He par­al­lels the telling of The Sab­bath Guests,” where the Ba’al Shem Tov believes he is going to have to sac­ri­fice his own life for lost souls, with Rab­bi Nachman’s own arrival in Uman. He want­ed to be buried there, where thou­sands of Jews had been mur­dered, because he believed they would need him to lead their souls to the after­life. He also believed in his own spe­cial pur­pose as a holy teacher, a hid­den saint, or the Tzad­dik who would pave the way for the heav­en­ly Messiah.

Steeped in Rab­bi Nachman’s lit­er­ary style, reli­gious faith, and mys­ti­cal beliefs, Schwartz com­plet­ed nine of the rabbi’s unfin­ished sto­ries, includ­ing A Gar­ment for the Moon” and The Souls of Trees.” Rab­bi Shapiro’s fore­word shows great appre­ci­a­tion for Schwartz’s accom­plish­ment — step­ping into Rab­bi Nachman’s world and recre­at­ing his sto­ries for con­tem­po­rary readers.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she has been help­ing stu­dents vis­it­ing 826 Valen­cia loca­tions around the city to write sto­ries and poems and get­ting adults up and retelling Jew­ish folk­tales to share with their own spin. 

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