For Ages
10 to 99

You don't need to be Jewish to love Levy's rye bread, nor do you need to read Yiddish to appreciate these wise tales. This engaging collection offers access to modern works--translated for the first time into English--for anyone who appreciates a well-told story rich with timeless wisdom. A year-round book for families. Includes a comprehensive introduction on Yiddish culture.

Largely overlooked or forgotten, these hidden treasures from the early and middle twentieth century by some of the most respected Yiddish writers of their time—including Jacob Kreplak, Moyshe Nadir, and Rachel Shabad—remain surprisingly resonant for a contemporary audience. Folktales can be scary, as wrongdoers often get their comeuppance in unsuspected or even macabre ways, but the reinvigoration of values sometimes perceived as quaint makes for a stimulating read.
In this collection you’ll meet a king who loves honey so much that instead of ruling over his people, he licks honey all day. You’ll ponder the conundrum of the moon, who longs for a playmate—but where to find a child who isn’t fast asleep at night? You’ll enter a forest in which the king of mushrooms and the queen of ants coexist autonomously but face the same threat: the little hands and trampling feet of children at play. And you’ll learn how flavoring food with the salt from tears can pose a challenging dilemma.

"Collected and arranged with the lightest of touches by David Stromberg, this gathering of little-known Yiddish tales enchants with an always-new old-world magic. In the Land of Happy Tears is utterly and actively refreshing, for the wide-eyed child in every grownup and children wising up everywhere." —poet, translator, and MacArthur Prize winner Peter Cole

An Excerpt fromIn the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times

In the Land of Happy Tears


Moyshe Nadir


Listen here, children. Do you want to hear something you’ve never heard before? Then sit yourselves down on this bench, like good children, and I’ll tell you a story.


If you’ve ever studied geography, then you know that not far from Mount Hotzemklotzem lies a river called the Ampsel.


All week long, the river Ampsel spews a boiling sealing wax that makes it impossible to even get close. If you do, you instantly get sealed up--a package ready for the Angel of Souls, who stands by with an inkwell, immediately writes down an address, and sends you off to the World to Come.


But once in 666 years, when the Sabbath falls on a Wednesday, you can approach the river backward so it thinks you’re actually walking away. And when you’re just close enough, you throw a blue onion over your shoulder and say three times:






Echepeche meche-merly.


Little river, it’s still early.






This scares the river Ampsel, and it freezes with trembling waves on both sides, like the angry lips of an irate person whose mouth has opened and can’t be shut. And that’s when you jump off Mount Hotzemklotzem, sitting on your hands--which you hold together under yourself like a little bench--and start flying wherever you want. You fly for a day and a night, and then another day and a night, until you fly into the very middle of Shortfriday and tear it into two halves. One half runs off to the left, the second to the right, and you end up standing just where you ought to be, that is: in Tearania.


This is obviously easier said than done. Before you break into Tearania, you have to first bathe in the Goldwater of Ashm, where the Ampsel flows into the Krikrama. When you come out, you look like a golden figure on a sign--completely gold and, besides that, not moving your feet. The Goldwater of Ashm has this quality that whoever bathes in its waters starts walking with their neck. That is, your feet stand or sit in place, while your neck stretches out on its own and your head goes wherever you want. That’s why all the inhabitants of Tearania have such long necks--except when their necks come back.


But the main story we want to tell you, children, is about the salt that doesn’t exist there and that, if it were to exist, would possibly make it the happiest place in the world!


It’s like this. The region around the Ampsel is very rich. The soil is not actually soil but rich, freshly baked bread. When you’re hungry, you tear off a piece of hot soil and eat.


Or when you want meat, you don’t need to spill any blood, the way we do, but what? You just unzip the hide of a cow or an ox. (Hides in this place are undone with zippers under the bellies.) You tear off whatever piece of meat you want--you just have to leave behind the end, and soon a new animal grows beneath the very same hide. And it doesn’t even feel that it’s a different animal.


As for rain--in Tearania, it rains wine. If you want to sleep, there are mountains made of cotton balls. Otherwise you just sneeze and geese come flying, stuffing themselves inside white pillowcases they carry in their little bills, and you sleep to your heart’s content.


But there’s one thing, children, they don’t have in Tearania: salt!


They have everything: gold and silver, coal and oil, iron and copper, brass and tin, bread and meat, honey and almonds, icebox cakes and malted milk shakes. And in short, it’s a place where you can live and laugh.


Laugh? No. I haven’t told the truth. In Tearania, people cry more than they laugh. That is, they could laugh in Tearania, and why not? Such a land! Such plenty! Such soil! Such animals! But what? It’s just the same thing again: salt!


Since there’s no salt, parents smack their children so that they cry and salt the bread. And when children refuse to cry, they get smacked even more. And if they don’t want to cry straight onto the bread, they get a proper swat. After the children have cried out all their tears and salted their little lunches, the whole story starts all over again with dinner.


The mother says to the father:


“You have to cry out the bread today.”


The father says to the mother:


“Me? Why me? You can cry! I feel joy in my heart today--I’ve had some brandy.”


“Is that so?” says the mother. “You’re becoming a drunk on top of it all!” And she starts to cry.


The father rushes over and slides a fresh cucumber just under her eyes.


The mother says to the father:


“Take the cucumber away, you drunkard.”


The father says to the mother:


“Don’t be silly. I just said that because an unsalted cucumber has no taste.”


These kinds of scenes would occur in Tearania almost every day. Until one person--a wise man and watchmaker--invented a patent. Instead of smacking children or upsetting wives, people would be better off if, at every meal, they placed a lady near the table to grate horseradish, so that tears would flow from everyone and fall straight into their bowls of noodle soup--or onto their hot dumplings.


Translated by David Stromberg