Off the Shelf: Three reprints and one new novel

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A short Yiddish novel reappears

No one seems sure why Sholem Aleichem’s short novel “Moshkeleh the Thief: A Rediscovered Novel” (The Jewish Publication Society), which was serialized in 1903 and first released in book form in 1913, was never translated into English. That mistake has been rectified in a translation by Curt Leviant. The title character is part of an underclass of Jews many would like to pretend never existed. The story is definitely episodic in nature, but that doesn’t distract from the fun.

When tavern owner Chaim Chosid’s daughter, Tsireleh, runs away to a monastery because she’s fallen in love with a non-Jew, the family is devastated. Although they regret having to do so, they contact Moshkeleh, whom everyone one knows is a thief, to steal their daughter from the monastery and return her to them. He agrees to do so, but, of course, things don’t go exactly the way Chaim expects. As with many Yiddish stories, much of the plot is revealed indirectly and the ending leaves readers to fill in some details about what actually occurred. However, the story is a delightful and welcome addition to Aleichem’s works in English.

A novella is republished

What do you do when the ending of a story is improbable, but wonderful? That is a decision readers will have to make about “Address Unknown” by Katherine Kressman Taylor (Ecco). The novella originally appeared in 1938 and in some ways is prophetic about what was happening to the Jews in Germany. But the tale itself is simple: the work consists of letters written over the course of two years (1932-34) between two friends, Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse. The two were business partners in San Francisco, although Max (who is Jewish) remained in the U.S. while the non-Jewish Martin returned to Germany.
To write much about the plot would ruin the surprises, but one thing comes as no surprise: watching Martin be seduced by the Nazi cause. Oh, he thinks Hitler is a buffoon, but that the man also has some good ideas. Then a specific event permanently changes the relationship between the two men. This brilliant short work is really wish fulfillment, but few readers will be able to resist its ending.

A short novel ahead of its time

Mental illness has often been misunderstood, even in 2003 when “A Mouthful of Air” by Amy Koppelman (Two Dollar Radio) was originally published. Julie Davis has returned to her husband and baby son after attempting to take her own life. She clearly suffers from depression, for which she is on medication, but she also worries that she will never be a good enough mother to her son. Her feelings are not helped by her continuing issues with body image (she is a diet fanatic and can never be thin enough) and the fact her divorced parents had no understanding of her needs when growing up. Julie’s illness now means that she needs help caring for her son and someone else to do the housekeeping, which only makes her feel more incompetent. When a new issue arises that will upset the delicate nature of the household, the question becomes whether Julie will be able to cope with the change.

“A Mouthful of Air” was very well done, but difficult to read due to the nature of the material. It’s not clear how much of Julie’s illness is physical (although that aspect of it is real: therapy alone will not solve her problems) and how much is compounded by societal expectations. Readers may feel that Julie’s life is a train wreck waiting to happen, one that Julie and her family are unable to stop. This short work offers a great deal for readers to ponder and discuss. 

A new work looks back at a life

By the time he’s 12 years old, Sheldon Horowitz has faced more sorrow than many people do in a lifetime. While still recovering from the tragic death of his mother a year before, he is in an automobile accident that kills his father. And that’s only the first chapter of Derek B. Miller’s “How to Find Your Way in the Dark” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Sheldon is sure that his father’s car crash was deliberate and his search for answers informs a great deal of the plot. However, his relationship with his best friend Lenny, whom he leaves behind in Massachusetts when he moves to live with his uncle in Connecticut, and his connection to his cousins, Abe and Mirabelle, helps set him on an unexpected course. 

The novel takes place at the end of the 1930s and follows Sheldon’s life for two years. He is greatly influenced by his cousin Abe, who is obsessed with the news from Germany. The cousins’ discussions about how Jews are thought about and treated in America (which are interesting) don’t deflect from the action that includes arson, a hurricane, petty larceny, mafia hit men and Catskill comedians. What does stand out is Sheldon’s belief in the possibilities America offers and that includes those for its Jewish citizens. The novel’s conclusion, which takes place in 1947, ties the work together and offers a glimpse of Sheldon’s future. One quibble is that Sheldon is far cleverer and diabolical than one might think possible for someone his age. However, while that may make some of the action unbelievable, it also makes the novel extremely satisfying.