There Is No Other
The nine short stories in Jonathan Papernick’s new collection veer from startling to crass to surprisingly poignant. Papernick has a dark knack for creating unusual and uncomfortable situations for his protagonists.
The title story features a stand-down between a Jewish day school teacher and a precocious and pugnacious half-Jewish student who dresses up on Purim as an Arab terrorist, asking hard questions of Judaism and threatening to blow up his teacher and fellow students. The story is tense and funny and quite disturbing. It seems a conscious updating of Phillip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews” wherein an adolescent boy with similarly tough questions about Judaism that his Rabbi can’t answer also pulls a hyper-dramatic attention- grabbing caper, demanding answers.
In “The Madonna of Temple Beth Elohim” an Iraq war veteran hired to do maintenance for a Reform Temple before the High Holidays sees a vision of the Madonna in the temple. Christians begin making pilgrimages over Rosh Hashana, and the Temple’s Rabbi tries to deal with the debacle and fears having to cancel Yom Kippur services. Much of the humor stems from the initial improbability of the situation, but Papernick tells the story masterfully, and the ending is unexpectedly lovely.
Papernick’s other stories range from that of a miracle birth on a kibbutz of a girl who is born pregnant and remains so until she’s 16; a down and out guy gets a break and makes a play for the streetwalker he has long loved; and a tale of a multi-millionaire who dreams of solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by creating a Palestinian baseball league.
The book also contains two pieces of short-short fiction: one about a Jewish teenage girl’s unexpected discomfort at ‘hooking up’ with a non-Jewish boy, and the other about a Jewish skinhead who regrets his Nazi tattoos. Most of Papernick’s characters are like these two: confused, often angry, often hurt outsiders: lonely adolescents or lonely middle-aged men who experience cruelty and sometimes perpetuate cruelty on others. A few of the pieces contain sexually graphic elements. Although on the surface some of Papernick’s stories seem contrived to shock for shock’s sake, there are moments of empathy, tenderness, and hope that shine through even some of the darker stories, and in most instances the tensions and torments he highlights are worth dramatizing, for he’s giving voice to the voiceless.
From the author: http://jonpapernick.com/files/TINO_ReadersGuide_proofed.pdf
1. How does the title of the collection relate to the characters in the book?
2. When the protagonist of "Skin for Skin," notices the crucifix for the first time, its appearance "... marked the end of a lifelong dream." What do you think is meant by 'lifelong dream'?
3. While reading the title story "There Is No Other," did you foresee the ending? If so, did this diminish or enhance your reading of the story? Who is to blame for the explosive ending: Junius, Needle, the Jewish community at large, or a post 9/11 culture of fear and paranoia?
4. "Skin for Skin," and "The Miracle Birth," are told from a female point of view, while "My Darling Sweetheart Baby," and "What Is It Then, Between Us?" feature strong female characters. Is the author successful in portraying womanhood in an honest light? What techniques does the author use to tell the stories in this way?
5. If the story "My Darling Sweetheart Baby" were to continue for another page or two, what do you think would happen next between Schultz and Jeannie?
6. Which character in "The Madonna of Temple Beth Elohim," do you sympathize with more: Jimmy, or Rabbi Kaminski? Explain your answer with support from the text.
7. The stories in There Is No Other are for the most part about longing and desire. What is more prevalent in this collection, the longing for a connection with God, or the satisfaction of physical desire? At what point do these two yearnings intersect most sharply in the collection?
8. Do you think Hershlag will regret his latest decision at the end of "The Engines of Sodom," or will he be vindicated for his earlier actions? How is Hershlag similar to the unnamed female protagonist of "Skin for Skin"?
9. Is "A Kiss for Mrs. Fisch," a love story? Explain why or why not?
10. In "The Last Five-Year Plan," Irving Blumenfield ultimately does not succeed in achieving tikkun olam, healing the world. Do you think that his efforts were futile, or has he earned his place in the world to come?
11. If you had three questions for any character in this book, what would they be? And how might you expect your questions to be answered?
12. Do you think readers' perspectives on the collection of stories differs depending on their religion and whether the reader identifies personally with Jewish religion and culture?
13. The short story is a literary form that relies on epiphany. Which stories had the most memorable epiphanies and why?