Off the Shelf: Connections and relationships by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Our actions can be easily influenced by family and friends. Sometimes we resist their attempts to change/sway us, while other times it’s easier to follow their lead, even if we aren’t thrilled with the course our life is taking. Two recent works of short stories – “The Man Who Loved His Wife” by Jennifer Anne Moses (Mayapple Press) and “Sarahland” by Sam Cohen (Grand Central Publishing) – feature characters struggling to find their place in the world with the help and/or hindrance of others.

Judaism plays an active role in many of Moses’ stories. “The Uncircumcised” features the aging Felder, who survived the Holocaust because his parents were radicals and hadn’t circumcised him. They and his sister, Esther, died during the war. When his daughter gives him a dog as a pet, Felder believes it is the reincarnation of his sister. That finally gives him a chance to learn what happened to her and think about how lucky he’s been in his own life. However, his daughter would now like him to make another change, one he resists. 

A father who lives on a secular kibbutz in Israel talks about religion and duty in “The Holy Messiah.” When his son becomes religious after his stint in the army, the family must learn to cope with this major change – one that goes against their active dislike of Orthodox practice. Mixed feelings play a large role in “Next of Kin” where Annie, who has been sick with cancer for the past three years, wishes her 95-year-old mother would die. Annie is weary from her own illness and dealing with Ruth – who suffers from dementia and other health problems – is just too hard. Perhaps life would be easier if Annie got support from her husband, Paul, but, since retirement and her illness, he’s retreated into his own world.

A mixed marriage plays a role in “The Man Who Loved His Wife” when Jewish Julia Glass marries Martin, a non-practicing Christian. Neither have expressed interest in any religion, Western or Eastern, until Julia becomes ill. Then one day, she unexpectedly tells Martin that Jesus appeared before her and she wants a Christian funeral, something that does not sit well with her parents. Yet, something similar happens to Martin that creates an odd, but interesting, end to the story. 

Several stories focus on parents and children. “The Story of My Socks” shows the effect on a young child of matters beyond his clear understanding, in this case, his mother’s illness and society’s potential for antisemitism. The fact that his parents have very different reactions to his suffering does not help. Sol is faced with a different dilemma in “Sol’s Visit,” when his mother becomes ill enough to need a nursing home. The home, though, is unhappy with her behavior. What Sol discovers is that, in her mind, she has returned to Europe, reliving events that occurred long before he was born. He also learns about his mother’s capacity for love, something of which he was unaware. What Moses does in this story, and all the stories in her book, is create interesting characters who face difficult events with wit, pathos and deep feelings.

Although there is no central theme in “The Man Who Loved His Wife,” the stories in “Sarahland” are connected by a literary device: all include characters named Sarah and most of those Sarahs are Jewish. Fortunately, this quirk – which could have been irritating – is easy to overlook. The best story, “The First Sarah,” is a clever reworking of the biblical story of Sarah and Hagar, in addition to being a subversive look at the struggle between God and Mother Nature to rule the world. More disturbing, though, is “Sarahland,” which takes place in a college dormitory. The main Sarah in question (the story features several) finds herself part of a clique, surrounded by people she’s not sure she likes, while doing activities with the group that are not only unsatisfying, but painful. Some readers will find parts of this story upsetting. 

One thing many of the Sarahs have in common is that they have no direction in their lives, which creates problems when they try to form relationships. For example, in “Exorcism, or Eating My Twin,” Sarah thinks she has found the perfect match, believing Tegan both her twin and someone with whom she wants to live. However, Sarah’s inability to understand boundaries leaves her lost and confused. Relationship difficulties also happen to Manny in “Gemstones.” Unfortunately, her desire to please her new friend gets in the way of her more permanent relationship. The story’s Sarah connection becomes clear when she and a new friend enter a booth called “The Sarah Machine,” which offers a surprising game.

A different method of storytelling is explored in “Gossip.” Rather than learning what occurred to a couple who dated for a few weeks and then broke up through their own eyes, readers discover what happened by listening to friends and acquaintances gossip about them. One of those gossiping is, of course, another Sarah. Two stories offer fantasy twists. In “Becoming Trees,” two women decide to change their lives by literally becoming trees: they take supplements to turn themselves green, grow roots and be planted in their own backyard. “The Purple Epoch” views a world void of humans, with the writer noting that all the Sarahs in the world are now dead. While the story might sound depressing at first, its wonderful, warm ending changes that. That’s also true of Cohen’s book: by its end, people will feel for all the Sarahs whose lives are on display.