I can’t help myself- this time of year, as cold winds start blowing, leaves begin to fall and music of the geese magically fills the air, I think of the Shretelech. Don’t you? What? You’ve never seen one before? What?! What?! You’ve never even heard of them before?
Well, let me start from the beginning. Truthfully, I’m not totally shocked because as a guide who leads Shretelech expeditions, well, I’ve met all types in my day. The Shretelech (singular Shretele), are the little people. Others call them elves, fairies, or gnomes; but Jews from Eastern Europe call them by their Yiddish name, Shretelech.
Shretelech live in the woods, or fields, or by streams- in holes in the ground and in trees. During the cold winter they are not opposed to coming inside to live behind our stoves, where warmth and crumbs abound. Of course, the Shretelech are not just waiting around to shake our hands. The Shretelech are like wild birds and animals, they do not like loud noises. We need to use quiet stealth and keen observation if we have hopes of spotting one.
I take my job as Shretelech guide seriously. I model how we can walk quietly and use our hands and sign language to point out something interesting. You can imagine the commotion if you were to begin jumping up and down shouting, “I see one, I see one!” The little Shretelech wouldn’t come out of hiding for days!
We practice listening and even the youngest of children will strain to hear as much as possible. For older participants who have forgotten their inner sense of wonder, (and maybe even have a chronic case of the indoorsies without even realizing it!), I translate this experience as a contemplative nature hike. I teach Thich Naht Hahn’s beautiful walking mediation. I find this gives those parents and teachers a respectable opportunity to quietly enjoy being outside, to breathe fully and notice the great beauty found with each step.
I set the pace to a slow stroll, lingering around holes and exploring rotting logs. Kids never seem to need any extra encouragement. From the beginning they are intensely looking for Shretelech, often trying to gain our attention with waving hands and wide eyes. At the center of the hike, we build Sukkot for the Shretelech, kind of like a Habitat for Humanity brigade. After all, they are mighty busy preparing for winter, stocking up on food. They can’t just visit the grocery store and turn up the thermostat like we can.
This is also a great opportunity to introduce traditional blessings for the many wonders of the natural world. We have ancient blessings for the awe of seeing first flowers, hearing thunder, seeing a rainbow, coming to the sea, and more. Sometimes I wonder if these blessings were slipped into the prayer book from radicals at the Santa Cruz Hippie Hillel. Nope- these are ancient alright! Sources can be found in the Talmud and throughout our tradition. The kids take it all in stride. I like to ask everyone, if you were one of the ancient rabbi’s, what blessing would you create?” You can never have enough radical amazement, eh?
For the record, many groups have at least one child who sees a Shretele during our expedition, or perhaps earlier, in their home yard. In all honesty, to date, I have not witnessed these sightings with my own eyes, or discovered any physical proof from these word of mouth testimonies. In fact, scant physical evidence exists for this rare and elusive species. Often, we hear a hammering in the forest- hoping it is a Shretele repairing his home, discover it is a woodpecker. Or, after silently circling a small movement in the grass, discover it is a grasshopper munching away. Amazingly, not only is no one ever disappointed after these encounters, sometimes they become the very highlight of our expedition!
Thankfully, we definitely have the stories. They can be found in a gem of a book, Yiddish Folktales, by Beatrice Silverman Weinreich. She was a career Yiddishist, folklorist and lover of riddles. She worked at the premier institution for Jewish culture of Eastern Europe, YIVO in New York. This great institute began in Vilna, Poland (currently Lithuania), in 1925 with the goal of using modern scholarship to document Jewish culture. YIVO trained teams of Zamlers, collectors, who traveled throughout Eastern Europe collecting stories in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Which is to say this book is the real deal. Not just one person’s memory of favorite Yiddish stories. I am sure the Shretelech, like many of our ancestors, found ways to immigrate here to America.
My Shretelech expeditions carry the very romantic view of bringing the world alive. Using the power of story and imagination, sprinkled with wonder and awe and a taste of Jewish life, a little outdoor magic comes to all who participate.
I look forward to hearing from you If you would like to arrange a Shretelech Expedition for your group or just have questions about the Shretelech. All the best, Maggid David
PS A word of warning: like mushroom hunting, please, if you choose to seek out the little people on your own- do your homework. Make sure you are able to positively ID him/her as a kindly Shretele. You know, it could be a Kapelyushnikle, and then you’d be in for who knows what kind of tricks! Good luck.