The Jewish Short Story Today: Marginalization, Immigration, Alie

Though neglected by the mainstream, the Jewish short story is alive and well.

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In the opening chapter of the 21st century, short fiction--Jewish and otherwise--has lost much of its stature. Conventional wisdom tells us that serious literateurs write novels. Indeed, in 2005, The Atlantic Monthly--for decades one of the premiere platforms for short stories--stopped publishing fiction regularly. Now they stick a few stories into the shtetl of an annual issue. 

But short stories were once quite important. When Saul Bellow placed his 1952 translation of "Gimpel the Fool," in The Partisan Review it drastically altered not just the life and career of Isaac Bashevis Singer, but American literary history, as well.

Yet, one might argue, that swimming out of the mainstream has helped to strengthen the genre. As short-story specialist Steve Almond once wrote: "the barrier to market is much higher for story collections [than novels], because they make so little profit. You don't get a story collection published unless the writing is vivid enough to compel several otherwise rational minds to make what is by most standards (often their standards) an irrational economic decision."

The New Immigrant's Tale

Some of the most powerful works of recent Jewish short fiction concern immigrant characters who find it strange to be living in the Land of Milk and Honey and Cable TV.

Contemporary immigrant tales return to Jewish fiction the fabled idea of otherness and a sense of displacement. This eternal anxiety of the Jew is something that I.B. Singer's stories were so good at depicting, something we were reminded of when his Collected Stories appeared in 2004 to mark the great man's centenary. As critic Mark Zanger once wrote: "His most particular stories, set in New York, are about the increasingly universal problem of exile and survival."

But exile doesn't just happen in the Big Apple. In Natasha and Other Stories, a 2004 collection by Latvian-born Canadian writer David Bezmozgis, a group of linked tales follow the fortunes of the Bermans, a Jewish immigrant family, in their struggle to establish themselves in the Great White North. The stories--some of which appeared in The New Yorker and Harper's--employ some of Bezmozgis' own personal history (he was born in Latvia in 1973 and came to Canada in 1980) but are not to be confused with memoir.

Then there is Lara Vapnyar. In 2003, she published There Are Jews in My House, a book that included the beautiful tale, "Mistress," set in the Kings Highway section of Brooklyn, in which a Russian boy named Misha unwittingly learns the word "mistress" while he happens to observe his grandfather's interactions with his paramour. The whole story sets a tone of linguistic comedy and subtle heartbreak. When asked by The New Yorker how it felt to write in her second language (Vapnyar emigrated to the United States at 23), she said, "It makes me scared, because I don't hear my stories. I don't know how they sound. On the other hand, I am not as sensitive to my imperfections as I would be if I wrote in Russian. I blame them all on the fact that I've only recently learned English."

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Ken Gordon

Ken Gordon is the editor of JBooks.com. His personal website is Kdgordon.com.