The Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories

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What can I say? I can’t believe I own this book, not because it is a collection edition or it’s rare to be found, but simply because I live in Lebanon and unfortunately we live at a time where Jewish / Israeli cultural output is not possible to be found here. Even the distinction between Jewish and Israeli is no longer made here. I was able to get this at an English bookstore in Berlin, St. George’s English Bookshop. I was also lucky to buy another Hebrew anthology: 8 Great Hebrew Short Novels. Months later, somebody in Lebanon was bold enough to sell Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (in French though, L’Homme de Kiev) and I managed to snag that one too. I read them all, and hope to be posting my reviews of them quite soon.

This book features the works of 16 Jewish authors, from I L Peretz to Muriel Spark, one short story per author except for the 19th century writers who have two stories included. It’s quite small considering the number of authors, at around 350 pages.

I started reading it expecting some Jewish humor; there is a bit of that with stories like Sholom Aleichem’s Hodel, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Friend of Kafka, even The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth. That said, I was quite shocked with some of the stories and the harrowing details they include, having forgotten at one point the bloody history itself of the Jews especially in Eastern Europe.

The first of those was White Chalah by Lamed Shapiro. A story of such graphical violence that I had to escape online researching it to make sure I was reading it correctly. This is how it opens:

One day a neighbor broke the leg of a stray dog with a heavy stone, and when Vasil saw the sharp edge of the bone piercing the skin he cried. The tears streamed from his eyes, his mouth, and his nose; the towhead on his short neck shrank deeper between his shoulders; his entire face became distorted and shriveled, and he did not utter a sound. He was then about seven years old.

It is told from the point of view of a gentile, Vasil,  -exceptionally in this anthology- to whom Jews were “people who wore strange clothes, sat in stores, ate white chalah and had sold Christ”. Chalah is the braided bread that observant Jews consume on Sabbath. He is recruited in the army and for the following couple of pages we ride with army destroying and crushing villages on its way while witnessing the violent deaths of its own casualties. One day someone says that all this is the fault of the Jews and the army towards internally cleansing itself from Jewish soldiers and the marches on towards villages where Jews reside. The gruesome descriptions end in a climax of Vasil, having been days without food, consuming the flesh of a Jewish woman as if it were white chalah itself.

I thought one story about the pogroms should be enough for such a small book, but as brutal as White Chalah is, I found The Story of My Dovecot by Isaac Babel Singer more gripping and yet more heartfelt. It is longer, and so allows a bit of background to filter through. It is written in the first person narrative from the viewpoint of a boy competing for admission to middle school, and on what should have been a normal day, comes face to face (literally) with the pogroms of 1905. This feeling of safety being robbed from us is an experience I should never forget as our own Lebanese history, during the civil war, is riddled with. Naturally, in such times, the synagogue offers both worldly and spiritual safety, and throughout the stories one always notices the omnipresence of the synagogue, of its warmth and of the sense of familiarity it offers to the Jews of the Eastern European countries.

Another story that echoed quite vividly with our own, recent history, is Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld.

Spring returned to Badenheim. Bells rang in the near-by country church. The shadows of the forest drew back into the forest. The sun scattered the remaining darkness, and its light spilled out along the main street. It was a moment of transition. Soon the holidaymakers would invade the town.

You’d think that you are in for some idyllic novel, but the date in the title never leaves your mind, and you are reading with apprehension knowing that 1939 can’t bring anything good for the Jews in Europe.  Badenheim is getting ready for the yearly festival, and artists and bands and spectators are flooding the town. Amidst the normal commotion and preparations and the lives of the locals who endure the coming of the visitors, the Department of Sanitations tarts making more than usual inspections and little by little its jurisdiction grows, and the inspections become more like interrogations, and yet the people and the organizers go on with their habitual preparations; all except one Trudy who is prone to hallucinations and who senses that the faces of the people are looking paler than usual.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, I wonder whether Appelfeld wasn’t harsh on the Jews who went on with their lives not expecting or probably not giving due attention to the changes the Nazis started enforcing on their living conditions. The parallels that Badenheim 1939 presents with our own history are remarkable. In July 2006, we also were going on with our regular lives, expecting a flood of tourists for the months of July and August and barely waking up form the euphoria of the end of the World Cup of 2006, we come face to face with the shocking news that Israel is bombing the airport to retaliate for an attack perpetrated by Hizbollah on the southern border with Israel. Gradually, the dream (as it is for every Lebanese) of a busy summer start crumbling, and slowly we find ourselves under an aerial and naval embargo, with half the country in war against Israel and the other half stuck in queues trying to get gas for their cars and food from supermarkets. Of course the proportion between World War 2 and the July War is negligible and the July War only lasted 33 days, but it felt that all this was too real, and too vivid in my mind when I was going through Badenheim 1939.

To conclude, this anthology is one to be considered as an introduction to Jewish literature, and it presents such a wide array of Jewish authors – it even features a South African Jewish writer I have never heard of – that the reader is sure to select one author for further consideration. It’s a pleasant read and because the editor, Emanuel Litvinoff wonders what can be considered Jewish writing and who can be considered a Jewish writer, the reader gets the chance of enjoying the variations of Jewish writing across periods and locations as well.

Other stories I would recommend are: Setting the World to Rights by Amos Oz about the disappointment or the realities of the Kibbutz life, a theme that is partially reconsidered  in The Hill of Evil Counsel (to be reviewed soon), The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth, about the blindly gulped religious indoctrination by religious institutions, and The Man in the Drawer, by Bernard Malamud (Malamud, who’s book The Fixer, L’Homme de Kiev, I will be reviewing soon as well). I think the latter story is directly inspired from Philip Roth’s smuggling of Eastern European literature in the mid 70s during Communism.

11 thoughts on “The Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories

  1. I’m a bit surprised to be honest to see Muriel Spark in this collection. Her father was Jewish but she converted to Catholicism in 1954, and had a permanent fallout with her only son Robin after he embraced Orthodox Judaism and he tried to prove his grandmother was Jewish. Muriel Spark rejected this claim as an attempt by Robin to further his artistic career and create publicity.

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  2. You are absolutely right Guy. The title of Muriel Spark’s story is The Gentile Jewess and she refers, of course, to her mother. The edition that I have is the one published in 1979, maybe the fallout with her son came later? I think they chose her story to conclude this collection, because Muriel Spark ends her mother’s story as such:
    “My mother carries everywhere in her handbag a small locket containing a picture of Christ crowned with thorns. She keeps on one table a rather fine Buddha on a lotus leaf and on another a horrible replica of Venus de Milo. One way and another all the gods are served in my mother’s household although she holds only one belief and that is in the Almighty.”

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    • I read a bio of Spark and it seemed clear that she and her son were never close (he was brought up by his grandparents). Not sure when the rift came but the will which left her son zero was written in 1998. He seems fine with it, btw. In the bio, Muriel Spark comes off as a very steely woman.

      This was published while she was alive, so I expect she knew about it (and got paid for it.)

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    • No, nothing from Hungarian Jews. I did not know Gary was Jewish. Did her ever write stories about the shtetl life or something about Israel/Palestine (immigration, return, etc..)? Because this collection seemed to me quite focused on matters specific to Jewish life and traditions.

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      • No. He tried to leave his Jewish heritage behind, except in La Promess de l’aube.
        But the more I read Jewish writers like Philip Roth, the more I understand how Gary’s prose was influenced by his Jewish origins.
        Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop.

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      • I wonder if it’s there in Les Racines du Ciel (the second Gary I must read). But that would be something to keep an eye on. The one Gary I know is Les Cerfs-Volants and I had the impression he must have been one of the die-hard french “resistants”, like he was too patriotic. It wouldn’t have come to my mind that his Jewish origins, in his book, slipped through.

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      • Oh that’s interesting… It’s beautiful actually how readers haphazardly attempt to decrypt the writers’ orientations or thoughts.
        Regarding Gros Câlin, simple matter with the Kindle. I’ll add it to my TBR list. Thank you.

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      • I will, thank you. Now that I recall it, I reread several passages of Les Cerfs-Volants more than once. I don’t normally do that but some of the passages, I simply didn’t want them to be over. Kind of like when I first read Du Cote De Chez Swan.

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