By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Stories from 1930s’ (pre-World War II) Europe and 21st century Israel: what do they have in common? Human nature, of course: the search for love and meaning, and the struggle against the sorrows of daily life. In their wonderful tales, Chana Blankshteyn’s “Fear and Other Stories” (Wayne State University Press) and “Café Shira” by David Ehrlich (Syracuse University Press) show how humanity’s basic needs have not changed over the past century.
Blankshteyn’s book originally appeared in Yiddish two weeks before the author’s death in 1939. Few copies of the original exist, so Anita Norich has performed a real service in translating these stories for publication. My favorites are the love stories: they feel real, showing how life can be a series of compromises, yet still bring joy. For example, in “The Decree,” Shtoltsman is a determined communist who has passed a decree that religious marriages are no longer legal. Leah, the woman he loves, is the granddaughter of a rabbi and refuses to be wed unless it’s under a chuppah. The resolution of their dilemma is delightful.
“The First Hand” shows love developing over time as its characters struggle to make a living. Andrée, who never knew her father, is left an orphan after her mother dies. Her only living relative, an aunt, can’t care for her since she needs to work in order to survive. Andrée is taken to an orphanage, and, once she turns 15, is sent to work at a clothing business. She slowly improves her lot by hard work and determination. True love is not easy to find, though, and it’s a pleasure to watch it develop and grow, despite the obstacles placed in its way. However, in the story “The Incident,” love is thwarted when politics turn deadly, but that isn’t the ending: life continues in ways that can still bring comfort and, sometimes, joy.
Blankshteyn also writes about the difficulties the Jewish population faced in the period before World War II. “Director Vulman” is a terrific story about how Jews were often chosen as scapegoats when the government was looking for someone to blame. What’s ironic is that the Jews in this case feel more German than Jewish. The title character wonders, “What connection did they all have to Jews, to those very different Jews there on the other side of the border. He felt like a German, loved Germany with all his soul, was proud of the country he thought as his, the land of high culture and infinite possibilities.” Unfortunately, not everyone felt the same way.
All nines stories in “Fear and Other Stories” were well done and featured interesting plots and characters. My hope is that Blankshteyn’s work will now reach a wider audience.
“Café Shira” by David Ehrlich (Syracuse University Press) calls itself a novel, but feels like a connected collection of short stories. That’s not a complaint: the café is the scene for much of the action, which focuses on those who visit or work there. Although Avigdor owns the café, he spends as little time there as possible. When the café first opened, he had grand plans for it; now he just wants to be left alone. The café is mostly run by Rutha, a waitress who recently moved to Jerusalem and is exploring what it means to be an adult.
The café is frequented by regulars who get upset if anyone else sits at their table. There is Ruhama Shittin, who writes poetry, but doesn’t make a living from it; Kuti, who prefers to sit outside, even when it’s cold and complains about the prices, even though he has no financial worries; Raymond, who can become violent when disturbed; and Noar Sela, who is in love with Rutha and writes stories that imagine them as a couple. The cast of characters is far wider than this since it includes people who only periodically stop by the café. Readers not only hear selections of their conversations, but learn what they are thinking. Adding to the mix is Christian Joubaux, a tourist from France who is studying for the priesthood. He hopes to have a religious experience, but undergoes a different type of conversion.
Ehrlich captures what the café means to the people who frequent it: Rutha thinks that “it’s amazing what a coffeehouse can be for so many people, what a crossroad, what a meeting place for worlds and ideas. And despite her ability to read people and sometimes even their thoughts, there are more stories and plots to Café Shira than she can handle.” The tales show how the café means much more to people than a place to buy and drink a cup of coffee; it is in some way their home away from home.
“Café Shira” was published in English after Ehrlich’s death. (The introduction notes that he died during the pandemic, but not of COVID. He refused to seek treatment for a heart attack due to his fear of being infected with COVID at the hospital.) This excellent work makes me wish he were alive to write more great books; I can only hope that his other works will also be translated into English.