Classic Jewish Stories

17 Nov

Have you ever you heard the R’ Nachman story of The Turkey Prince? In case you haven’t, I’ll give you the executive summary:

A prince suddenly snaps and begins acting like a turkey. He sits under the main table, naked, and eats the crumbs other people drop when they eat. The king is distraught and hires everyone he can think of to cure his son, but no one can fix him.

One day, a stranger comes in and asks the king if he can try something unorthodox. The king says, “Why not?” The stranger then goes over to the prince, strips naked and sits down with him. The prince is bewildered, but the man says, “I heard you were a turkey. Can’t there be two turkeys?” The prince agrees, and the two men go naked eating crumbs.

A few days later, the man says he’s cold and wants a shirt. The prince says that turkeys don’t wear shirts. The man says, “Why not? Can’t turkeys wear shirts if they’re cold?” The prince is cold as well, and agrees that there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. A while later, the man pulls some real food under the table. They go through a similar conversation and start eating real food. They go through all of his behaviors until the prince is doing everything normal again. The story ends, “And nobody recognized that the prince was still a turkey.”

Like all R’ Nachman stories I know, there are basic archetype characters, there’s no easy explanation to the story, and yet it still hits you somewhere inside. That said, I think we can figure it out if we just drop the classic Jewish approach to stories like this, i.e., someone did something wrong, and here’s what he can do to redeem himself. Because if you’re taking a traditional approach, this story just kicks your brain around. First off, the archetype role-swapping. The king (usually equal to God in mashalim) is trying to help but clueless- a very human role. And the son isn’t doing anything noticeably wrong to anyone. Secondly, the turkey can’t represent anything traditional because turkey is an American bird that probably wasn’t even found in 1800’s Eastern ColdasHellshka.

Here’s how I understand it. The story doesn’t need detailed analysis on each piece, it’s just missing backstory. The prince is under pressure to be the next king and do everything he is supposed to, and has a breakdown. The king tries to fix the behavior, but he doesn’t understand what’s causing it. The wise mystery man does. He realizes that the problem was that the prince didn’t feel good enough to do what he was expected to do, and he rebelled. But how? He couldn’t attack the king outright. So he rebelled inwardly. From then on, he wouldn’t do anything the king wanted of him. And since he knew the king needed him to take over his kingdom, that act of self-sabotage, was his first act of living his life. “Let’s see if you can accept me without me having any use to you.”

The problem was that the prince was too scared to say that out loud to his father, so the king had no idea what he should do. He might have tried to understand his son, but he had a kingdom to run, and besides, it was undignified for him. He was the king. Let his shnooks fix his son.

The mystery man sees that neither side is budging in this royally f’d up family is and decides to help out. He sheds his clothes and acts like the prince. It’s fine to be a turkey. This is what works for you, so, fine. I’m on your side. I accept you without judgments or expectations. But you don’t have to restrict yourself from things you want, just because someone else wants you to do them. Take ownership of everything you do. Do it for your own reasons and make it yours. You never have to stop being a turkey, if that’s what you feel you want to do. And now nobody will give you any trouble for being a turkey either.

It’s a brilliant way out of a catch-22, accomplished by self-sacrifice and deep empathy. And once upon a time, that’s what the point of a Rebbe was.

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