I have long been interested in Urban Legends - those modern myths that everyone has heard from a "friend of a friend" but never witnessed in person. Once I discovered the Snopes web site, I was able to learn the unblemished truth about some of the ones that had bugged and intrigued me for decades. However, many of my favorites are not found there, being too distinctly and obscurely Jewish in nature to be of much general interest. A while back, I complained about the lack of a Jewish Urban Legends (JULs) website to fill in these gaps.
Well, apparently someone heard me! Today I came across Jewish Legends, a site modeled after Snopes, which has made an excellent start in collecting these specifically Jewish bits of lore. They already include a few of my pet JULs:
- Hebrew was almost the US national language
- Cat Stevens' real name was "Steven Katz"
- The eighth grade Kiddushin legend. In fact, the site actually uses my earlier blog post as a reference!
Legend: Mordecai from the Book of Esther was, of course, Esther's uncle.
Truth: They were first cousins, not uncle and niece, as clearly stated in Esther 2:7. The persistence of the uncle-niece misconception never ceases to amaze me, as I ranted last Purim-time.
Legend: The Yiddish word "yarmulka" comes from the Hebrew "Yorei Malka", fear of the King (i.e., God).
Truth: "Yarmulka" most likely derives from a Russian word meaning "small cap", which can be found in Russian literature from the 1800s - e.g., Turgenev. Other etymological theories are found here.
Legend: The High Holiday piyyut [liturgical poem] "Unesaneh Tokef" was composed by a dying martyr named Rabbi Amnon, who then appeared in a dream to payyetan Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullam and taught it to him. Full story here, among many places.
Truth: As Birnbaum points out, Rabbi Kalonymus published Unesaneh Tokef in the eleventh century, while the first version of the Rabbi Amnon legend didn't appear in print until two centuries later. It's quite unlikely that if authentic, this story would not have been known contemporaneous with the piyyut itself. Nor is it believable that Rabbi Kalonymus himself would have kept quiet about his alleged source. Still, it's a powerful story, and certainly in keeping with the mood of the day.
Legend: Paul Simon used his grandfather's tune for the zemer [Sabbath table hymn] "Dror Yikra" as the tune for "Scarborough Fair"
Truth: Scarborough Fair - aka "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme" - is a traditional English ballad dating back to medieval times, to which S&G added a second set of new, anti-war lyrics, interspersed with the original. So though Paul was certainly Jewish, he didn't chop this tune from Zaydee. However, the tune does fit Dror Yikra quite well, and in deference to this JUL, our family uses it for that zemer each week!
Legend: And speaking of S&G, didn't they first meet as chavrusas [learning partners] in their Yeshiva day school?
Truth: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did become friends back in high school, but it was a public school, where they first met as actors in a school production of "Alice in Wonderland". Though they were both Jewish, neither was brought up observant or attended yeshiva.
I will probably follow up with some more JULs soon. Meanwhile, feel free to submit comments with your own favorites!