Book Review: Short stories from American, British and Israeli authors

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Although my preference is for novel-length fiction, I continually find myself surprised by the quality of short stories currently being published. The books under review come from a variety of presses – from a mainstream publisher to a new, small press specializing in Jewish works. Except for one collection, these books are the first full-length publications by their authors. The best of these stories offer the emotional depth of a novel, even if they contain far fewer pages.

“The UnAmericans”

Sometimes you immediately know you’re in the hands of a master writer. That was my reaction to reading the first pages of Molly Antopol’s “The UnAmericans: Stories” (W. W. Norton and Company). Antopol, chosen for a 2013 National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” award, not only writes wonderful prose, but gets so deeply under her characters’ skin, you experience their emotions. My first thought on finishing several of these stories was, “Wow, that was wonderful!”

For example, at first “My Grandmother Tells Me a Story” seems a quiet tale of romance. The narrator explains how she and her future husband grew close during World War II when they were partisans fighting against the Nazis. However, the seminal event in her life, which affects all her future relationships, proves to be something unexpected. “The Quietest Man” features an unpleasant hero, who is only now trying to have a good relationship with his adult daughter because he’s afraid of how she’s portrayed him in a play that’s scheduled to run Off-Broadway. Seeing himself through his daughter’s eyes gives him a very different view of his past. The narrator of “Duck and Cover” yearns for a normal life, one far from the reach of the Communist party and the union organizing her father does in the 1950s. However, when faced with a difficult choice, she comes to understand the different between the fantasy she seeks and the real-world decisions she must make.

The main action of my favorite stories is set in Israel. After Eva Kaplan dies, her family must choose someone to represent them at several gatherings in Israel to honor her memory in “Retrospective.” Although they ask Boaz to attend the events, he feels out of place: he’s not only just a son-in-law, but his pregnant wife, Miro, the true Kaplan, recently left him. Although Boaz hopes that he and Miro can repair their marriage, an unexpected discovery changes how he views the future. In “A Difficult Phase,” Talia is forced to confront her hopes and dreams. Returning to Israel from Europe after her journalist career collapses, she finds her family hoping she’ll concentrate on getting married and having children. Talia still yearns for a career, though, but finds herself sidetracked after meeting Tomer, a recent widower with a teenaged daughter. Her feelings and her family push her in very different directions, in a story I hated to see end.

What’s unusual about “The UnAmericans” is that every story is excellent. During the course of these works, Antopol’s characters are forced to view their lives more clearly, even when they wish they could escape the harsh realities of their choices. Her deep insight into these people will make readers care about them, foibles and all.

“The Hidden of Things”

Almost all of Yael Unterman’s stories focus on one thing: the trials and troubles of dating in the Orthodox and traditional Jewish worlds. Yet, the characters in “The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing” (Yotzeret Publishing) also hope to connect with their spirituality and navigate through the balancing act of friends, family and work. First in most of these characters’ thoughts, though – whether they are female or male – is finding someone with whom they can start a family. While that might make the stories sound repetitious, that’s definitely not the case. In these interconnecting works, Unterman alternates between a serious and humorous (some parts are laugh-out-loud funny) tone, while also offering a slightly critical eye on her characters and the world they inhabit.

In “Cold Dates,” Shari is discouraged by the sheer number of dates she’s been on – 88 and counting – without finding someone. She’s tired of small talk and trying to become the woman she thinks these men will want. One gleeful moment of acting out backfires when she gives another what she’s unable to receive. Hannah finds herself turning into a religious feminist in “Species,” although the reaction to her decision is shocking and strange. “Snobsk” focuses on twin brothers who make aliyah together, yet discover very different paths once they arrive in Israel. Illness and family bring them together in a story whose ending is clever and cute. The characters in “Cages” find themselves boxed in by their preconceived notions of how a person’s past might affect their future. They also learn that love can be painful.

Unterman experiments with form in some of my favorite stories. Emma’s sarcastic comments on her blog in “Katamonsta,” were very funny, even as the author uses her character’s voice to explore prejudice. “The Fellowship of the Ring” is presented as a play. It brings together most of the characters from previous stories, updating what has taken place since the original tales – that is, before the author loses control of her characters, who are unhappy with the way they’ve been portrayed. The most original story is “Dateline Manhattan 2029,” which is set in the future, after the Orthodox rabbinate has declared a singles’ crisis. All singles must either date or attend a certain number of singles events, or risk being fined. Hudi – who wants to be married, but dislikes dating – discovers that he’s been blacklisted by a women’s only website dedicated to discussing problematic single men. This clever tale is a wonderful spin on an old-fashioned love story.

Parts of “The Hidden of Things” may seem foreign to those outside the traditional and Orthodox community, but its characters are all too human. Although Yotzeret Publishing publishes books aimed at the Jewish reading public, this work deserves a wider audience.

“Who Will Die Last”

The problem with many short story collections is that the tales feel so similar it’s difficult to separate the plots and characters. This is definitely not true of David Ehrlich’s “Who Will Die Last: Stories About Life in Israel” (Syracuse University Press), which contains works from two collections originally published in Israel in 1999 and 2003. Edited by Ken Frieden, with translations from the Hebrew by a variety of writers, Ehrlich’s range of subject matter and style is impressive.

Some of the stories are only a page or two. These offer glimpses of Israeli life, focusing on road rage (“To the Limit”), the problems of bureaucracy (“Green Island”) and adapting after making aliyah (“Vadim”). My favorites, though, offer in-depth looks at their characters’ conflicting emotions. “On Reserve” is a beautiful, complex story about a man who must come to terms with his true nature. What occurs during his reserve service in the Israeli army gives him a window to other life possibilities, even as he wonders if change is truly possible. After the people in a Jerusalem neighborhood find themselves mesmerized by a street performer, the ending of “Tuesday and Thursday Morning” shows them how surface and depth are two different things.

Ehrlich is not only able to write serious tales, but very funny ones. The concept behind “On the Porch” – that God might need to learn to use a computer – made me laugh out loud. Black humor is the focus of “Who Will Die Last,” where a writer pitches increasingly bizarre ideas for a TV reality series. Ehrlich’s particular Israeli sensibility means his work may not appeal to everyone. However, he manages to capture the joys, pains and absurdities of life in the Promised Land.

“Fire Year”

Sexuality and religion are the focus of the majority of the stories in “Fire Year” by Jason K. Friedman (Sarabande). Many of Friedman’s characters are seeking clarity in their lives, although that quality seems to elude them. For example, in “Blue,” a bar mitzvah celebration offers the narrator an opportunity to understand his relationship to Judaism. The unnamed cantor in “The Cantor’s Miracle” finds that proving his love to his girlfriend may cost him more than he expects. Desire also plays a role in “Reunion” when the gay narrator – who was unpopular in high school – realizes he’s being pursued by the golden boy of his class. “All the World’s a Field” – which focuses on the passive-aggressive relationship of a mother and a son – opens with a great line: “They were moving and the cow wasn’t coming with them.” At least, that’s what the son thinks; his mother has a very different idea.

Not every story is successful: “The Golem” left me wondering about the connection between the two main characters. The reason for the relationship between a successful businessman and his mentally-challenged friend is hinted at, but never clarified. However, my favorite work, “There’s Hope for Us All,” does an excellent job showing how secrets can hide in clear view: Jon makes a startling discovery about the art exhibit he’s helping curate when his non-academic boyfriend notices something different about a 500-year-old painting. Unfortunately, Jon is just as nonobservant when it comes to his personal life. All Friedman’s characters are looking to find their place in the world, yet somehow never really discover their true home.