Tales of Moral Seriousness: On Nora Gold’s “18”

David Wolpe reviews Nora Gold’s “18: Jewish Stories Translated from 18 Languages.”

Tales of Moral Seriousness: On Nora Gold’s “18”

18: Jewish Stories Translated from 18 Languages by Nora Gold. Cherry Orchard Books. 300 pages.

TO WRITE A full history of the Jewish people, one would need to speak most of the languages that exist on Earth. So protean have been the wanderings of this dispersed nation, from Shanghai to Senegal to San Francisco, that an account of its people’s trials, joys, and cultural contributions can hardly feel adequate, much less comprehensive. Throughout those wanderings, however, one characteristic remains stubbornly consistent: the Jews are a hyperliterate people who have left behind a polyglot trail of tales.

Writer, editor, and former professor Nora Gold’s recently published collection, 18: Jewish Stories Translated from 18 Languages, traces several key steps along this trail. As the first translated anthology of multilingual Jewish fiction in 25 years, it offers readers a rare taste of Jewish creativity across the world. The collection includes many wonderful stories ranging from the early 20th century to the opening years of the 21st. The span of subjects is vast, from the political to the personal, touching on matters local and universe-shaping, and—crucially—restoring women’s voices, from rabbis’ wives to Amy Winehouse. Such thematic oscillation hearkens back to Genesis, where both families and historical events played central roles. In the space of 300 pages, Gold’s volume amasses narratives featuring romance, family, futurity, nostalgia, and tragedy, all with a certain animating wit that vitally leavens the proceedings.

The diverse assembly of authors further delights, from venerable, acknowledged masters to a cast of illuminating newcomers. Among the former is Shmuel Yosef Agnon (commonly published in English as S. Y. Agnon), an Austro-Hungarian–born Israeli novelist, poet, and short story writer, and the winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature. Typically, Agnon’s works feature a surface story that hides substantial depths, and Gold’s selection is no exception. Here, Agnon sketches an ostensibly simple portrait of faith and the myriad stresses of debt and ownership. Of course, beneath this straightforward-seeming narrative lurk questions of love, duty, and providence, as well as an interrogation of the often porous border between prosperity and penury. For Agnon, even the noblest of aspirations can beget humility and defeat, and the writer speaks tragedies with a sad smile; for him, the presence or absence of God is never far from mind, albeit often with a sardonic twist: “Alas,” his narrator laments, “when it pleases God to subvert a man’s ways, good fortune swiftly takes wing, and the Omnipresent has many emissaries to fling a man down upon a dunghill of need.” A dunghill of need—this final, poignant image lingers as a symbol for so much of human interaction.

Agnon shares the page with other familiar names such as the Romanian American Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel (his thrilling piece “Hostage,” the first in the collection, is excerpted from his 2010 novel of the same name), and Isaac Babel, the “Jewish Chekhov” (here, Babel’s triptych of brief stories is brilliantly retranslated by former LARB editor-in-chief Boris Dralyuk). In some ways, this trio—Wiesel, Babel, and Agnon—defines a wide swath of 20th-century Jewish literature outside of the United States. Babel typifies the Eastern European writer who never left; killed in 1940 in one of Stalin’s purges, this brilliant, left-behind boy—the man who once wrote that to be Jewish was to have “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart”—in many ways serves as the spokesperson for millions who perished in the camps and gulags. By contrast, Wiesel represents the survivor. Writing in French and bearing firsthand witness to the catastrophes of the century, Wiesel, heir to so much Jewish wandering, went on to become the literary conscience of his generation. For his part, Agnon manifested the redemptive hope associated with leaving the land of exile behind to become a writer in Israel. In each voice sound notes of suffering and sadness, and the three giants’ shadows loom large behind the disparate tales in Gold’s eclectic collection.

Paradigm-shaping literary celebrities aside, 18 also encourages suggestive discoveries. Prior to picking up Gold’s volume, for instance, readers may never have encountered the Danish writer Birte Kont, whose masterful story, “A Place Nowhere,” features a student who boasts an impressive knowledge of Jewish history yet fails to engage with her own family history in any sustained or incisive manner. The interplay between this student’s recitation of the one and her uncovering of the other drives the narrative, replete with grand events and personal details, forward.

Similarly, readers may have never previously wondered about the tradition of Jewish writing in Albanian. But Albanian writer Entela Kasi’s “Frozen Spring—Jerusalem Returning,” which, over the course of a short, everyday jaunt in Jerusalem, explores the protagonist Hannah’s mixed background and her connection to the Balkan conflict, poignantly evokes the filaments of Jewish concern that run through so many settings. Many of these are, ostensibly, unconnected. Yet an Albanian Jew’s visit to Jerusalem powerfully illustrates how history never forms in isolation. What occurs in one place both affects and provides insight, language, and imagery for goings-on in other parts of the world. In such a world, the crack of a dropped cup evokes more cataclysmic events, for the trigger of memory and association is always primed. In this way, Jewish memory is like a mobile: touch it in one place, and other places tremble in response.

It feels invidious to pick a “favorite” from riches in so many languages, including Turkish, Czech, Greek, and Danish. Still, Polish literary critic and essayist Lily Berger’s Yiddish offering, “The Rebbetzin’s Sense of Justice,” is undoubtedly among the collection’s most enjoyable stories. Reading it, one can’t help but wonder: in a world in which women’s voices were kept from the public square, how did a brilliant, passionate, supremely competent woman such as the Rebbetzin manage her affairs? In Berger’s narrative, the Rebbetzin remonstrates with both a bully and her enabling mother—with none of the normal diplomacy that people expect from clergy. Instead, the tale suggests that the small stage of domestic (and school) life provides ample space for a certain roaring type of spirit. The Rebbetzin manages everything from the deft retrieval of her husband’s glasses from his own pocket to meting out justice among school children and their often obtuse parents. She is more a hammer of justice than a comforter of souls, and her exploits exhibit a characteristic Yiddish mix of wry humor and underlying seriousness.

Of course, 18 raises the question applicable to—and perhaps inevitable in approaching—any collection: what, exactly, ties these works of literature together? How does one place side by side Luize Valente’s charged narrative in Portuguese, riddled as it is with silences and the secrets of a Nazi past, and Gábor T. Szántó’s marvelous Hungarian tale, wherein a family deliberates over the question of getting a Christmas tree?

One seemingly consistent thread is that, despite a lightness of tone in many stories, these are all ultimately tales of moral seriousness. Even when the issue seems trivial—as in Croatian author Jasminka Domaš’s “Purimspiel,” where the confusion surrounding a woman’s disappearance and subsequent, unexplained reappearance at the other end of the world is caused by a drunken angel—the brilliant final line gestures toward questions, connections, and issues far beyond the scope of a seemingly sweet slice of fantasy. Implicitly, the author asks: Are we the same person in different settings? Who might we be if we were transported to an alternate situation or time in history?

The stories Gold has chosen are almost uniformly gripping. Not only do their plots compel and the skill of their respective translators astonish; they also move the reader to reflect on the multifarious moral dilemmas that have faced the Jewish people, both as Jews and simply as human beings, in all the lands of their dispersion and at all phases of their history. Unsurprisingly, World War II haunts many of the narratives, seeping into stories whether directly or by implication. Even so, the collection’s pervasive gravitas does not read as the result of any one tragedy but rather as the legacy of a people who have seen so much, endured so long, and thought so deeply about their experiences.

There is variety and delight in these stories, whose provenance circles the globe. Deeper still is their reflection on the soul of an ancient people spinning dizzily in a modern world.

LARB Contributor

Rabbi David Wolpe is a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School and Max Webb Emeritus Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.


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