Off the Shelf: Novels featuring folklore, mysticism and queer culture

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Fictional works featuring Jewish folklore and mysticism are now considered part of mainstream Jewish culture, as are books that acknowledge queer Jewish culture. This combination works because people see many pathways to being Jewish – ones that might not have been contemplated even 10 years ago. That means that the main characters in “City of Laughter” by Temim Fruchter (Grove Press) and “The Secret That Is Not a Secret: Ten Heretical Tales” by Jay Michaelson are able to manifest their Jewish identities in very different ways. 

In “City of Laughter,” Shiva Margolin yearns to understand the hidden story of her ancestors, but her mother, Hannah, refuses to talk about her late mother, Syl, or grandmother, Mira. Even being asked about them visibly upsets Hannah, but Shiva feels she needs answers before she can find her true life path, especially now that her father – the person who held her family together – just passed away. In fact, Shiva is mourning two loves: her first girlfriend has suggested they take time apart, but Shiva worries that means the relationship is really over. To learn more about her family’s past, Shiva leaves her job and starts graduate studies in Jewish folklore. That gives her an opportunity to travel to Poland where she hopes to visit the small town of Ropshitz, the place she feels holds the key to her family’s history.

Although Hannah loves her daughter, she feels bound by the restrictions placed on her by prior generations – strict rules about what can and cannot be said or done. Aimless after her husband’s death, Hannah tries to create meaning and structure in her life, but finds herself haunted by the past. It’s only when she is befriended by a woman who runs a funeral home that Hannah begins to look closer at her own life, leaving her to decide if she will finally reveal the real story of her mother and grandmother to Shiva. 

Both Shiva and Hannah are haunted by a green-eyed figure who has played an important role in almost six generations of their family. This mystical stranger also takes a narrative turn, writing about life in Ropshitz and the effects of its appearance on Mira and Syl. Readers are left to wonder what role the stranger will finally play in the lives of both living main characters.

Although “City of Laughter” opened with a brilliant section that places the following action partially in context, the rest of the novel was unable to sustain that momentum. Shiva’s story was far more compelling than that of Hannah, whose life seemed plodding, even with the advent of the supernatural. There was a disconnection between the chapters, whose focus on different characters gave far too few clues for readers trying to piece together the puzzle of Syl and Mira’s history. Although the novel’s ending tied the stories together in a fairly satisfying way, the novel never soared after its opening section. However, at least according to the reviews on Goodreads, my opinion is in the minority. Fruchter definitely has talent, but I had expected to like this work far more than I did. 

While “City of Laughter” centers on the history of one family, the stories in “The Secret That Is Not a Secret” offers glimpses of a wide variety of characters from the Orthodox world. Michaelson’s first book of fiction, though, focuses on the outliers, those searching for something beyond their ordinary lives. For example, in “The Beard,” while Sara Duberman is generally satisfied with her life, she’s come to loathe the long beard her husband wears as part of his religious practice. It not only interferes with her enjoyment of their sex life, but it has a cumulative negative effect on her life as she daydreams of ways to rid her husband of his facial hair. “The Acacia Tree” tells of teenage Yonit’s desire to connect with God, a connection that seems to elude her. An elaborate plan to make this connection through nature goes awry, while offering Yonit some very different experiences. Exactly how the tale ends is cleverly left to the readers’ imagination.

Many of the stories focus on gay characters, or particularly those who see their gay impulses as inconsistent with an Orthodox lifestyles. The unnamed narrator in “The Mikva of Ben Sira’s Transmigration” uses the ritual bath before Shabbat as a way of ridding himself of the sin of being gay. Yet, an unexpected encounter there shows him a different possibility. “The Verse” is a wonderful fantasy, during which the verse in Leviticus against homosexuality disappears from every written scroll of the Torah. Even more amazing is that its removal leaves no space in the written text. The narrator struggles with exactly what this miracle means. In “The Sabbatean of Central Park,” another unnamed narrator is confused about whether his behavior is sinful or if he is actually redeeming sinful impulses by his actions and making them holy. 

The lives of all the characters in “The Secret That Is Not a Secret” reverberate with mystical possibilities. I enjoyed the more-down-to-earth aspects of the stories, but the mysticism – the flights of fantasy and the descriptions of the different aspects of Kabbalah – did not resonate with me. However, the stories are beautifully written and offer some wonderful plots. Lovers of mysticism may be better able to appreciate the other aspects of the tales and perhaps discover even deeper meaning in them.