Ilse Weber (née Herlinger, 1903–1944) wrote many Jewish folk and fairy tales. Partly in reaction to burgeoning antisemitism, she strove through her work to impart Jewish values on children and to bolster their sense of self-worth. In 1928, she published the volume Jüdische Kindermärchen (Jewish Tales for Children). The historical edition of this folk tale collection (in German) has been digitized and can be browsed online using the DFG Viewer.
Nearly a century later, Florian Schmeling has lovingly illustrated one of these tales, “The Prophet’s Ring” and painstakingly animated it to recorded narration by Ulrike Sonnemann (available with English translation). We hope that “The Prophet’s Ring” will find a new interested audience today!
Content warning: The folk tale contains portrayals of ableist and antisemitic experiences.
The Prophet’s Ring (text version in English translation)
by Ilse Herlinger
In all the town, there was no boy poorer than little Levi, the junk dealer’s son. Because of his short, stooped-over frame, he mostly hung around his father’s shop, for he knew that the minute he ventured onto the street, the bullies would chase him around, calling him nasty names about his back and his Jewishness, which filled him deeply with pain. Only when his father said,
“Look what a beautiful sunny day it is, Levi! Why don’t you get some fresh air?” would he go outside for his father’s sake and bravely face the bullies’ ridicule. He never complained so as not to distress his father, who would surely have been upset that the boy was being mocked for his condition.
Behind their shop was a little shed, which was stacked high with all sorts of worthless knickknacks. Near a little window, through which a few shy rays of daylight peeked, was an old recliner where Levi spent his happiest hours. After hoarding any books he could lay his hands on, he would sit there reading and reading until his eyes ached and his father’s disapproving voice could be heard from the next room:
“Levi, enough reading already. You’ll ruin your eyes!” Then Levi would find himself back in reality and sigh a soft farewell to the marvels of the far-off lands to which the books had transported him.
“Oh, if only I could travel too!” he sometimes wished, but he knew that this wish would never come to pass because his father was very, very poor.
One day, a stranger came into the shop. His father was out on an errand, so Levi asked the man how he could help him. To Levi’s unspeakable dismay, the man was looking for the very book that Levi loved the most. With slow, reluctant steps, he walked back to the shed and got the book; but before returning, he held it to his heart and a big tear fell on its brown-leather binding.
“Are you so sad to part with the book, my child?” asked a voice next to him, and when he looked up, he saw the kind eyes of the stranger, who had followed him without making a sound.
“Yes,” Levi whispered, then immediately added,
“but do take it. Father needs the money!” The stranger leafed through the book.
“You must want to travel then?” he asked next, and when Levi nodded, he slipped a nondescript ring off his finger.
“Take this ring, Levi,” he said.
“It will make three of your wishes come true, whatever sort they might be. You can wish to travel. You can have as much gold as you like, and—”
“Oh,” Levi interrupted him with shining eyes,
“Can I wish for an upright back?”
“Of course, that too!” said the stranger with a smile, and when Levi’s father arrived, he held his finger up to his lips as a sign that Levi should keep this quiet, then left after paying.
Levi wore the ring on a ribbon around his neck. Each day, he would take it out, and the thought that he could make his greatest wishes come true filled him with fresh happiness. He often came close to wishing away the bump on his back, but then he would pause and think, wisely:
“Who knows? Maybe it’s best that I wait.”
One day, his father went on a trip and came back with a curly-haired little girl who smiled at the boy, full of trust:
“Levi, this is your new sister,” he said,
“my best friend’s daughter. Her mother and father have died, and so she will have a new father in me and a loyal brother in you!”
Levi came to love little Miriam very much; he spent many hours with her, and his days grew so busy that he nearly forgot about the ring. One day, the junk dealer was called to the home of a rich merchant to buy some odds and ends, and after he came home, the merchant discovered that a valuable piece of jewelery had gone missing. The suspicion immediately fell upon the junk dealer, and although he insisted he was innocent, he was thrown in jail, to the endless sorrow of the two forsaken children. Levi finally mustered up his courage and went over to the merchant to beg him to release his father. He took Miriam along by the hand, and after many humiliations, the two children were finally ushered to the merchant’s room. But all their pleas were in vain. With furious words, the merchant told the crying children to leave, upon which Levi, in his hour of greatest desperation, remembered the ring.
“I wish for my father’s innocence to be revealed!” he begged, clutching the ring. And suddenly the merchant let out a joyful cry. He had opened a little box absentmindedly, and sure enough the lost jewelry was inside. Right away he summoned the junk dealer, asked his forgiveness, and sent him on his way with many gifts. Yet from all misfortunes he had suffered, the junk dealer soon became very ill and took to his bed, and before the week was out, the doctor had given up any hope of a recovery. Once again, in his hour of greatest need, Levi remembered the ring, and with trembling hands, he took it out and wished for his father’s recovery. Again the ring demonstrated its miraculous powers: the junk dealer was cured.
“I have only one wish left!” Levi realized one day.
“Whatever shall I wish for? A journey to foreign lands – or an upright back?” Unable to make up his mind, he tucked the ring back under his shirt with a feeling of satisfaction. He often went for walks with Miriam. Whenever the bullies on the street called him those nasty names, he did his best to ignore their taunts and thought to himself, if I so pleased, I could be more healthy and handsome than them! But why he still hadn’t wished away his bump, he did not know himself.
Soon the joyous festival of Simhat Torah arrived and all three of them were happy as could be. After sunset, they went to Temple in their holiday best. It was magnificent. All the lamps were aglow and made the golden ornaments gleam. The Rabbi and the cantor were dressed in their finest and a cheerful crowd of children waited with rosy cheeks for the celebration to start.
“Why don’t I have a flag?” Miriam suddenly asked when she noticed that all the other children were holding little flags. She turned to Levi, crestfallen. And she was right – she didn’t have one! He hadn’t thought to buy Miriam a flag. He felt very sorry because he knew the girl’s devotion and saw the longing looks she was giving the other children. Already, the cantor was carrying out the beautifully decorated Torah scroll, and the children were waiting in line for the parade. They all showed off their flags to one another. Some of them were made of blue-and-white paper on plain wooden sticks, others were linen with smoothly carved holders, and a few of them even had elegant finials with glittering tips. From the pews, the parents and older children stood beaming at the crowd of little ones.
Levi glanced at Miriam. She tried her best to hide her disappointment that she could not honor the beautiful festival properly; she even attempted to put on a brave smile when Levi turned in her direction. But when he looked in her eyes, he saw they were full of tears. And soon the goodness in his heart won out. No, Miriam should not be sad! Not if he had it in his power to make her happy. Without a moment’s hesitation, he reached for the ring.
“I wish,” he said under his breath,
“that Miriam had a beautiful flag!”
And suddenly, an unseen hand reached out to give the little girl the most splendid flag imaginable: a shining white field embroidered with a gold Star of David and fringed with gold. The golden rod was tipped with a gilded finial and inlaid with sparkling gems. Entranced, Miriam gazed at the flag, then held it high in the air, and all the other children made way so she could lead the parade, right behind the Torah. And when Levi saw her great joy, he did not regret having used up his last wish, not for an instant.
That night, he had a wonderful dream. The stranger who had given him the ring approached his bed and said to him:
“I am Elijah the Prophet. I granted you three wishes and you used all three of them for other people’s sake. And so, for your selflessness and goodwill, I want to reward you in the name of the Almighty, who is most pleased when a child is good.”
The next morning, Levi awoke feeling pleasant and refreshed.
“It was so beautiful last night,” he thought.
“And what a strange dream I had!” He got dressed and skipped blissfully down the stairs. It felt easier than ever before.
When he walked into the room, his father and Miriam stared at him in amazement.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Levi asked, confused. Miriam fetched a mirror and held it up for Levi. He looked at his reflection, more and more astonished.
“My bump is gone!” he shouted, laughing and crying with joy. That was how Elijah the Prophet had rewarded his good deeds!
Levi grew into a handsome young man. He loved books as much as ever and became a great scholar. When he was fully grown, he married Miriam and they lived a life of happiness and contentment. He could also travel as much as he pleased, for God’s blessings had rained richly upon him, allowing him to fulfill his great childhood wish.
JMB (2022), The Prophet’s Ring. A folk tale by Ilse Herlinger, illustrated by Florian Schmeling.