Jonathan Papernick’s short story collection revolves around the trials and tribulations of “an unlucky persecuted tribe.”
As much as I enjoyed reading Jonathan Papernick’s latest short story collection, There Is No Other, I worried, at first, that I wasn’t the right person to review it. Most of Papernick’s characters are Jews, concerned with questions of Jewish theology and philosophy—and I am, to put it delicately, a recovering Catholic. What do I know about being part of “an unlucky persecuted tribe,” as one of Papernick’s narrators calls it?
But the “Jewish questions” of these stories aren’t so unlike the questions anyone with a religious background must ask in the face of a relentlessly secular culture: Is it possible for a thinking person to align herself with organized religion when religious sentiment in our public discourse seems to be more about choosing sides than about spiritual potential? If so, how do we decide what part of our faith is meaningless ritual and what part has relevance to our actual lives?
In Papernick’s best stories, the spiritual and the mundane overlap in a kind of mythical realism. “The Miracle Birth” actually contains two unlikely labors: that of Shira Bavli, a middle-aged woman living in Kibbutz Yizhar, who has had to endure watching her neighbors “pushing forth an heir and a spare in rapid succession,” while she remains infertile until just shy of her fortieth birthday; and that of her unlikely daughter, Vered, who seems to have been born pregnant, but who won’t actually give birth until she’s a teenager. This story plays with the myth of the “Sabbath Bride,” the idea that every generation of Jews contains a virgin who will give birth to a potential messiah. And while it’s the mystery of Vered’s pregnancy—and her mother’s skepticism about its origins— that drive the plot, what’s most impressive is how Papernick grounds the story in the grittiness of everyday life on the kibbutz. Alongside divine births and questions of metaphysical time, we get asides about the gossipy “henna-rinsed bitches” who laugh at Shira when she slips in “mud and shit and yolk” after collecting eggs in the chicken house. But a story that takes on such mythical subject matter can’t stay grounded forever, and “The Miracle Birth” slowly, inexorably takes flight until birth and death become indistinguishable, the circle of life revealed in a way that feels both impossible and true.
Although “A Kiss for Mrs. Fisch” begins, literally, with a plane lifting off the earth, this story is even more grounded in everyday life. Gesh has just turned forty, and his parents have decided to pack him off to Israel after selling the family business and moving from New York City to Florida. “Maybe you’ll marry a nice Jewish girl,” his mother says. Once ensconced at his cousin Marty’s house in Jerusalem, Gesh refuses to leave his room for three days—his bed is too small, and “the tap water tasted funny, of rusted metal or worse, but he refused the bottled water that was offered him, thinking, God forbid I ever get that fancy.” Gesh is bewildered by the Israelis, who seem “so confident, so willful, as they spoke their gibberish.”
When Marty finally shames Gesh into visiting the Wailing Wall (“It’s your heritage, schmuck, your history”), he can’t even admit to himself that he’s praying: he’s just “asking a favor.” Gesh winds up finding his way into the weirdest brothel you’ll ever encounter on the page, and later passing through the Jaffa Gate into the “new city.” Once out there, he seems to be leaving behind all that a Jew “should” be, finding his way into the arms of a mother who lost her only son years ago.
If all this talk of mothers and sons and virgin births begins to sound, well, Catholic, Papernick is well aware of this overlap, addressing it in “The Madonna of Temple Beth Elohim,” in which a vision of the Virgin Mother appears in a temple to a young, Christian Iraq-war vet. Private First Class Jimmy Mahoney is a true believer who thinks he was saved in Fallujah from the fate of his three best friends only by “the grace of god.” And yet, over the course of the story, he must contemplate what it means to believe in sacred totems, from the Virgin Mother to the Purple Heart.
“My Darling Sweetheart Baby,” the tale of a down-and-out, blue collar worker who romances a local prostitute, doesn’t overtly concern itself with religious questions at all. But its characters are still searching for something—be it love, sex or money—that can save them. Papernick is at his best when he avoids didacticism. The weakest stories follow a formula: a young Jew resists ritual, only to encounter some kind of violence at the hands of a nasty Christian, thus affirming the need for tradition. But the essential questions asked in There Is No Other transcend religious affiliation: What is eternal in us, and what fades away? And how can we all—religious and secular alike—feel less alone?