Jewish folklore is comprised of oral tradition,
including fairy tales, legends, parables, sayings, riddles, jokes,
songs and Purim plays (purimshpil), as well as music and dance.
Within Ashkenazic culture, folklore developed mostly in the Yiddish
language, though there were some sayings and riddles in Hebrew. Written
folklore is also typical for Jewish culture; these include the Torah,
midrashim, apocryphas, and collections of legends and fairy tales.
Jewish folklore was also subject to outside influences, from Ancient
Greek to Slavic, and adapted them to Jewish culture. Popular heroes
included Moses; the prophet Elijah; tzaddikim such as Elimelech of
Lezajsk; jesters and quick-witted characters, such as Hershele of
Ostropol or Motke Ganev [Hebrew, "Motke the Thief"]; and the residents
of the "cities of fools", such as Chelm or Lesko in Poland.
Particular to Jewish folklore are legends about
the 36 "just ones" (lamed-vovnik); about the Ten Lost Tribes, living
beyond the mythical Sambation River; numerous legends about the coming
of the Messiah, and also about the Promised Land. Songs can be divided
into religious ones that are sung during services and special rituals
(such as nigun, zmirot), and secular ones for everyday occasions:
lullabies and songs for children, as well as humorous, romantic and
historical songs. They were accompanied by music with motifs from songs
sung in the synagogue, as well as folk tunes, which had absorbed
elements from the surrounding cultures. In central Poland, these
included mazurkas and krakowiaki; in the eastern Kresy, these were
Ukrainian, Moldavian and Turkish melodies, for example.
Dance in Jewish culture preserved many Mediterranean traits, (hora),
both in terms of dance figures and gesticulation (circle dances,
typical upraised palms, and small, intertwined steps). Jewish sayings,
parables and riddles had their sources in religious texts (the Book of
Proverbs in the Bible and the Talmud tract "The Parables of the
Fathers", for example), as well as in the later teachings of rabbis and
tzaddikim that had been written down. This is an important
distinguishing feature of Jewish folklore as compared to Christian
folklore, which for the most part is based on the oral tradition.
Some of these texts were an intermediate form
between a saying and a joke. An example of this would be the full
meaning of the saying nichnas yayin, yatsa sod [Hebrew, "the wine went
in, the secret came out"], which is based on the fact that the words
yayin [Hebrew, "wine"] and sod [Hebrew, "secret"] have the same
numerical value � seventy (gematria). East European Jews also discovered
the rebus, which has its origins in the brain teasers and exercises
used in traditional religious schools.