Of all the stories I’ve heard over the years, my favorites are those in which one character outwits another. In folktales, it is nearly always the weak one who does the outwitting. And in Jewish folktales, it is always the Jew who outwits the anti-Semite. The story below, from Nathan Ausubel’s classic, 70-year-old Treasury of Jewish Folklore, is no exception.
In his introduction, Ausubel writes, “The years of labor which have gone into the preparation of this work will be more than rewarded if it will reveal to the Jewish reader the existence of the little known cultural treasures of his people and, in consequence, will fill him with the sense of human dignity and worth that is his birthright.”
Here is my version:
The Caliph of Arabia hated Jews. But like many of his kind, he wished to appear reasonable. So he issued an order to his guards. Any Jew who tried to enter the kingdom was to be stopped and told to give an account of himself.
“What if he lies?” one of the guards asked.
“Then fatally shoot him.” the Caliph replied.
“What if he tells the truth?” another wondered.
“Then hang him.”
The guards were puzzled, but orders were orders. Each day, the Jews who came to the kingdom were taken away and executed, no matter what they had to say for themselves. Word quickly got around that the new mandate was a no-win situation.
Then one day a Jew came to the gates asking to be let in.
“Tell us something about yourself,” one guard said.
“With pleasure,” said the Jew. “I am going to be shot to death today.”
At this, the guards looked at each other. They didn’t know what to do. If the Jew was lying, they would have to shoot him. But if they shot him, he wouldn’t be lying. If he was telling the truth, they would have to hang him. But then his saying he was going to be shot would be a lie. They wrung their hands in consternation.
When the Caliph heard that a Jew had come to the kingdom and had not been executed, he strode down to the gates to ask why. The guards explained.
“Hmmm,” he said. “There is nothing for it. We will have to let in this Jew.”
I would like to think that from then on, all Jews coming to the kingdom announced that they were going to be shot, too.
Caren Schnur Neile, Ph.D., is a performance storyteller. She teaches at Florida Atlantic University. Contact her at email@example.com.