Behrman House Blog

On the Creation of New Folktales: A Look Into the Jewish Traditions in Goblins of Knottingham

In The Goblins of Knottingham (Apples & Honey Press, Fall 2017), Rabbi Zoe Klein weaves together deeply familiar tropes from Jewish tradition to create a modern folktale of children learning to recognize their capacity for problem solving and self-determination. 

Judaism has a rich tradition of goblins, not just in folktales, but even within our rabbinic literature. The rabbis had an origin story for demons, suggesting that on the sixth day of creation, God was busy finishing up the world’s creatures when the sun began to set. It was the first Shabbat, so God stopped working, leaving a bunch of beasts half-baked. Among them were many mythical monsters like the talking serpent and all sorts of ghosts, ghouls and goblins. Knotty, Knotsalot and Notnow are a part of this mythical tradition, tangling things up since the beginning.

We can find a sampling of these demonological problems in Talmud Berakhot 6a: “Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge around a field. Rav Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand. Raba says: Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them.” In The Goblins of Knottingham, Zoe Klein adds the tangling of hair.

Knots themselves are a powerful and fascinating element of Jewish symbolism. There are knots in tzitzit, tefillin and the red string bracelet, and braids in the challah and havdallah candle. They are seen in folklore, Talmud, and Kabbalistic texts. Joshua Trachtenberg in his book Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939) wrote: “Binding knots was a common homeopathic device, and even served as a description of magic, which, in the Talmud, was said to consist of "binding and loosing." In the book of Daniel (5:12,16) the ability "to loose knots" is listed as one of the magician's accomplishments.”

In some places, knots are used to hold back negative forces. The knots of the tefillin bind us directly to God. In fact, the rabbis say that when God passed by Moses on Mount Sinai, God specifically wanted to show Moses how to do the knots on the back of the tefillin. The knots on the tzitzit are about remembering the commandments which bind us to God’s will. In other places, binding is seen as harmful. Trachtenberg writes: “It has found its way into Jewish folklore in such precautions as to loosen the bride's hair before the marriage, to untie all the knots in the clothing of bride and groom, and to be careful that no knots are found in a shroud. These precautions were based not only on the general superstitious dread of knots, but equally on the fear that such knots might have been the subject of a sorcerer's interest.”

In many stories a Jewish object – like the mezuzah, the hamsa, or the knotted fringes of the tzitzit – has the power to protect us from demons and mischief-makers like Knotty, Knotsalot and Notnow. Why not challah?

Challah is a special force in Jewish life. Challah ushers in Shabbat, our day of peace. Eating challah on an ordinary Tuesday just doesn’t have the same effect. Friday evening, we breathe in that comforting aroma and we can feel our knots loosen. All the tension we store in our muscles and brains from a week of good, hard effort starts to unwind. Goblins and other pesky annoyances fade away. Our bodies relax and our spirits are refreshed.

Challah is made in many different shapes, all of which have meaning. The braided challah is understood by some today to symbolize truth, peace, and justice. It is a symbol of unity, and the intertwining of humankind and God on Shabbat. Yet there are scholars who trace the braided challah to a sinister origin, saying that it is derived from Germanic tribes who evolved from sacrificing virgins to cutting off their braids and burning them, to replacing the whole system with braided bread. Folktales are often rooted in very dark histories.

Every myth, modern or ancient, is interpretive. In this case it is not about a historical look at the origins of challah that concerns us. It is about weaving together elements from Jewish tradition (petty demons, the power of ritual objects as protective amulets, the significance of knots, the importance of challah, the peace of Shabbat) to create a new story that rings true to our long history of Jewish folktales while reminding us once again of the things that are important to us as Jews. For our story-telling goes beyond preserving the old, familiar folktales. It embraces the creation of new interpretations of our ancient traditions and texts. And so as the 1980’s brought us Eric Kimmel’s Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, today we have Zoe Klein’s The Goblins of Knottingham.