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Steve Stern: Memory Man of the American Jewish South

WRITING ABOUT THE past is tricky business. In contemporary Jewish fiction, in particular, there is the risk of slipping into a kind of sentimentality—for the lost world of the shtetl and the immigrant experience—that Irving Howe once called “memory tourism,” or a “nostalgia for the nostalgia of other people.” So how is a Jewish novelist, raised in an assimilated household in the South, who learned about Judaism in the library but nonetheless finds himself writing almost exclusively on Jewish themes, supposed to navigate this complicated terrain?

Steve Stern’s fiction draws on Jewish folklore in the tradition of great Yiddish writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer to evoke a magical world populated by flying rabbis and disembodied souls, voyeuristic prophets, and lascivious angels. Filled with pathos and humor, the stories assembled in The Book of Mischief, his latest collection, tell of ecstatic intercourse that transports lovers to Paradise (they “shtupped their way to heaven”) and of those who try to avoid death, only to be taken alive, kicking and screaming. There are allusions to S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk in several stories, and it is especially prominent in the “The Wedding Jester,” which tells of a bride who is possessed by the vagrant soul of a borscht-belt comedian as she stands beneath her wedding canopy.

The twist here is that Stern found his way to Judaism almost by accident: the author grew up in Memphis and discovered his Jewish roots while working at a local folklore center, where his job included researching a neighborhood called the Pinch, a historical Jewish immigrant district in Memphis. Intrigued by his findings, Stern deepened his research, interviewing elderly Jews who had grown up in Pinch and amassing a wealth of historical information about the ghetto. But rather than simply turning the rich materials that he uncovered into ethnic shtick for his work (much of it set in a fictional Pinch), he presents a closely studied portrait of his subject—the immigrant Jew and his East European predecessor—that suggests a deep acquaintance not only with Jewish history, but also with Yiddish literature, folklore, and mysticism. This is what sets Stern’s work apart from—and, I would argue, a notch above—much of the literature being churned out by contemporary Jewish writers, many of whom wallow in what Stern has called a “sepia sentimentality” about their ancestral background.

Although his primary form is the short story—and, to a lesser degree, the novella—Stern has also published several novels, including The Angel of Forgetfulness, a bildungsroman that centers around the author’s alter-ego Saul Bozoff, (a recurring character in Stern’s work); and, more recently, The Frozen Rabbi, about a contemporary Memphis teenager who discovers a Polish rabbi encased in a block of ice inside the family’s garage freezer.

But while Stern has accumulated knowledge and absorbed some of the themes of his literary forbearers, his portrayals of Jewish life, including those in the latest collection, lack the depth that often characterizes the works of his literary antecedents. In “The Wedding Jester,” Saul—the alter ego figure—observes that the wedding’s mixed clientele “in this kosher-style establishment was the equivalent of mingling dairy with meat.” But what is being mingled here are metaphors, and the comparison falls flat. Stern’s evocation of the classic Jewish anti-hero, the ne’er do well, relies on cliché, as when, in the same story, Saul blames his mother for his feeling that “at fifty-three, he was not even successful at failure.” In “Aaron Makes a Match” a description of the spinster-aunt (a recurring character in Jewish folklore) feels too ornate to resonate: “Her mottled scalp was visible beneath the sparseness of her iron-gray hair; the pouches beneath her eyes were marsupial in depth and blue veins embroidered her shins. Her chest was concave. She was a comprehensive catalogue of the symptoms of desiccation for want of a man.” Compare that to a description of another spinster, this one in I.B. Singer’s “Spinoza of Market Street,” which is sparse, but so much more telling: “Dobbe was tall and lean, and as black as a baker’s shovel. She had a broken nose and there was a mustache on her upper lip. She spoke with the hoarse voice of a man and she wore men’s shoes.” Stern makes excessive use of adjectives to evoke what Singer captures in just a few strokes; but there may no be getting around this for an author whose focus is a time and place that no longer exists except in his imagination.

What one is left with, at times, is what Stern once astutely described as a sense that he is “pirating a tradition (i.e., Yiddishkeit) that was never my birthright,” one he “appropriated by plundering books rather than experience.” It is ironic, though not surprising, that the author’s literary models—among them I.L. Peretz and Isaac Babel—so brilliantly captured Jewish characters and culture even as they themselves sought to redefine (in the case of Peretz) or hide (in the case of Babel) their Jewish identities, while Stern must struggle to evoke a world he cannot fully claim as his own.

But then Stern has said he never really thought of himself as a Jewish writer, and has wondered how he got into “this Jewish racket.” To explain his predicament Stern once pointed to Bernard Malamud’s story “Man in a Drawer,” in which a thoroughly assimilated Russian writer finds himself writing stories that are all about Jews. As the character puts it in his broken English: “When I write about Jews comes out stories.” The same, it appears, is true for Stern: Jewishness is the engine that gets his storytelling going, a particular path through which he accesses the universal.

Indeed, Stern is at his most eloquent when he addresses universal themes and his portrayals of people caught at the threshold, between past and present, life and death, are especially moving. That liminal space is movingly evoked in a story included in The Book of Mischief, “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer,” which tells of an orphaned child—the offspring of an incestuous relationship—who, after enduring a life of misery, finally hangs himself, only to find that death is “even lonelier than life.” When he happens upon a curtain and peers through, he sees a performance in progress whose content bears a marked resemblance to his own life. A helpless observer, Momzer (his name means “bastard”) wishes he could “step onto the stage and slip into” the hero’s skin, in the hopes of somehow altering his fate. He paws at the curtain frantically, in search of a place “worn thin enough to be torn,” and, locating it, grips the scrim “with trembling fingers” then rips “open the membranes between one world and another.” This is Stern at his finest—using the lens of Jewish mythology about the afterlife—to reflect on universal themes.

There is truth to what the novelist Joshua Cohen once observed of Stern: he “writes a century too late, and in the wrong language.” As Stern has himself noted, there is a cost involved in chasing stories “as far as the lost continent of the past,” that is, “the peril of never finding my way back again.” And yet, at its most poignant, Stern’s writing transcends these limitations to peel away at the membranes that divide the present from the past.

Shoshana Olidort is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Chronicle and Tablet among other publications.