Off the Shelf: Literary works

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Translated Jewish stories

Nora Gold has earned just praise for the Jewish online journal,, that she edits. According to the journal’s website, it is “the only English-language journal, either in print or online, devoted exclusively to the publishing of Jewish fiction.” As important, it offers Jewish short stories that were originally published in languages other than English. That fact is the premise for the book Gold has edited: “18: Jewish Stories Translated from 18 Languages” (Cherry Orchard Books).

In her introduction, Gold discusses what makes a story Jewish: it has to “reflect Jewish experience, Jewish consciousness, or the Jewish condition,” although she admits it can be difficult to define those terms. She notes that no matter how good a story that is submitted is, if there is nothing Jewish about it, she won’t publish it. That’s because her goal is larger than just publishing literature: she believes Jews of all stripes can be brought together by fiction, which offers readers insight into those with a different Jewish practice or who were raised in a different Jewish environment. 

I found the stories a mixed bunch: there were some I thought were wonderful and others (mostly because of their writing style) that did not impress me. However, that’s true of most anthologies and should not discourage readers, who may prefer the stories that interested me less. Some of my favorites include:

  • “Hostage” by Elie Wiesel (translated from French), which tells of a little known American Jewish writer who becomes famous after he is kidnapped by two men looking to play a role in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The writer’s reactions to his incarceration lean toward literary thinking, which makes the story less a thriller than a meditation on life. 
  • “The Guest” by Varda Fiszbein (translated from Spanish). This gem of a story reads like a Jewish folktale, showing what occurs between a host and one of his guests at a Passover seder. While I predicted what would happen, watching it unfold was great fun.
  • “Purchase of Goods of Dubious Origin” by Augusto Segre (translated from Italian). Is it possible to become part of non-Jewish society after emancipation? That’s what Elia wants for his son. The results are different from what he hoped and dreamed.
  • “New York” by Peter Sichrovsky (translated from German). In 1995, a couple who survived the Holocaust and now live in New York City try to decide whether they will attend an event at the Austrian embassy. While they debate their decision, they also review their lives: the bad moments and the good.
  • “Luck” by Irena Douskova (translated from Czech). Two men – one Jewish and one not – travel together to find food for their village during World War II. They are not friends and dislike each other almost on principle. Luck or lack of luck plays a major role in their tale.
  • Readers interested in Jewish literature will find much to enjoy in “18.” The anthology definitely shows the richness of Jewish fiction across the world. 

An award-winning novel 

The novel features only around 190 pages of text, but, by the halfway mark, I was tempted to stop. What kept me reading was that “Study for Obedience” by Sarah Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf Canada) was not only short-listed for the Booker Award, but won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for fiction. After finishing, I did something I never do before writing a review: I read what other reviewers said, which led me to some interesting thoughts about what I now see as an intriguing, if flawed, novel.

In stream-of-thought, meandering prose, an unnamed narrator moves to an unnamed country to help her brother after his wife leaves him. The narrator is Jewish, although she never uses that term: it is her mention of prayer, school and community that shows her heritage, although it’s also clear that she doesn’t feel part of the Jewish world. Clues to her new home are offered, again in a vague way, but enough for readers understand that, decades ago, something awful happened to her ancestors who used to live there.

It’s clear from the opening chapter that the narrator is not welcomed by her neighbors and blamed for several odd events. Yet, it was difficult not to see that part of the problem stems from her own behavior: she created odd talismans and delivered them to her neighbors’ houses during the dead of night when no one could see her. It’s not surprising that people viewed this with suspicion. Her family relationships also seem odd. She notes that she has devoted her life to her siblings and molded herself into the person she thinks they want her to be. Unable to keep a satisfactory job, she quickly agreed to join her brother in a foreign country and claims she does everything for him.

None of the reviews I read suggested something that came to me as I neared the end of the book: does the main character qualify as an unreliable narrator? Is she just incredibly, almost mind-numbingly introspective, or does she suffer from some sort of mental illness or disability? Could her family be trying to keep her safe? It’s impossible to tell, but the last section of the book left me wondering something no one else suggested, something I don’t want to share here in case someone wants to read the novel. (However, if you do read the book, please let me know so I can share my suspicions with you.)

I can’t help but wonder why “Study for Obedience” received such critical praise, including its award nominations. Is the book so popular among critics because it’s possible to interpret its words to fit your prejudice? Maybe they are just fond of literary writing that contains little to no plot. However, this is not a book I can recommend, as much as I’d like to discuss my thoughts with another reader.