Off the Shelf: Novellas and short stories

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Sometimes an idea for a review doesn’t work out the way I planned. For example, I decided to discuss “Inside Information” by Eshkol Nevo (Other Press) and “The House of Love and Prayer and other stories” by Tova Reich (Seven Stories Press) in one review because neither book is a novel. However, while that is true, the fictional works in each are very different lengths – three novellas in Nevo’s book compared to eight short stories in Reich’s – and focus on completely different types of people. For example, Nevo’s characters are non-religious Israelis, while Reich writes mostly about observant Jews. That means the two books don’t offer many points for comparison. 

Nevo’s three stories could be classified as mysteries since their narrators relate events that concern potential crimes. For example, in “Death Road,” the narrator is writing his side of what occurred during and after his vacation in Bolivia. The plot twists and turns he records include not only how he met a couple there who were on their honeymoon, but what occurred after he attended the shiva for the husband who died in a bicycle accident that ended the honeymoon. At first nothing is what it seems and the emotional responses of all the characters are powerful. The narrator’s tale is convincing, that is until I suddenly wondered just how reliable his version actually was.

The trustworthiness of the narrator could also be called into question in “Family History.” Dr. Caro notes how he took a medical resident under his wing, who later misinterprets his feelings and actions. Is Caro innocent of nothing more than fatherly feelings, or has the recent loss of his wife unmoored him more than he realized? 

The disappearance of her husband changes a wife’s life in “A Man Walks into an Orchard.” This narrator discovers that nothing is sacred when the police become involved. Was his disappearance caused by terrorism? Did he leave his wife because he learned her secret? Or did she have a hand in what occurred? As in the previous stories, readers are left to decide exactly what happened.

The first two novellas in “Inside Information” were my favorites and left me pondering the truthfulness of their narrators. The third was less satisfying because I didn’t find what might have occurred as convincing, but that may not bother other readers. Nevo writes well and the pages of his work turned quickly due to the great amount of suspense he creates. 

Unlike “Inside Information,” “The House of Love and Prayer and other stories” focuses on those involved in Jewish practice. For example, in “The Plot,” Lola Blitzer becomes a member of a chevra kadisha (whose members prepare the dead for burial) in order to befriend her upstairs neighbor. Lola has no living relatives, but does have a specific desire: she wants to be buried in a plot next to her mother, a plot that is only large enough for a child-sized coffin. Lola decides on a course of action to make that happen, but events take an unexpected turn. A Jewish day school is the focus of “The Lost Girl,” which features a principal who expects the Jewish press to understand the difficulties of his being forced to spend his days with teenage girls, and a girl so greatly affected by the hierarchy of students that she hides during an annual trip to a forest. 

Rabbis with unusual congregations are featured in several stories. Rabbi Tikkun-Olam gathers Chinese orphan girls in “Forbidden City,” whom he wants to be adopted by infertile Americans Jews. In order to do this, he must work with those he refers to as “the Bosses,” who complicate matters, as does his wife. In “The House of Love and Prayer,” the spiritual practice of Rabbi Yidel Glatt is not a typical one: he barely eats in order to be close to God at all times. This affects his followers and his wife in different ways. 

My favorite story, “Dead Zone,” offers an absurd and funny solution to Israel’s problems: in the year 2040, the United Nations declares Israel a huge cemetery and the only living people allowed to set foot in the country are those burying their dead. The narrator tells how this came about and his tale includes a ghost whose burial keeps being postponed since it’s impossible to find a grave that doesn’t already contain bones of the dead.

Readers of “The House of Love and Prayer and other stories” have to tolerate long sentences and even longer paragraphs. (The editor in me kept noting where these paragraphs could easily have been divided into sections.) The plots of most of Reich’s tales are not to be taken seriously: her stories are satires, although many of the characters are so human that readers will be able to relate to them, even as they shake their heads at the characters’ thoughts and actions.