Chick­en Soup for the Jew­ish Soul

Jack Can­field, Mark Vic­tor Hansen, and Rab­bi Dov Peretz Elkins, eds.

  • Review
By – November 7, 2011

We would have known, even if Job hadn’t told us: the good suf­fer, while the evil man is spared on the day of calami­ty” (Job 21:30). Chick­en Soup for the Jew­ish Soul, like its three dozen pre­de­ces­sors in this inspi­ra­tional series, is a col­lec­tion of brief sto­ries that offer a bet­ter grade of com­fort than Job’s friends offered him. Solic­it­ing mate­r­i­al via word of mouth and inter­net, the Edi­tors have deft­ly assem­bled a col­lec­tion of warm and warm­ing sto­ries, some writ­ten by their pro­tag­o­nists, oth­ers tak­en down by a friend, daugh­ter, employ­er, or physician.

Now that series orig­i­na­tors Jack Can­field and Mark Vic­tor Hansen serve up vol­umes of chick­en soup for very spe­cif­ic sorts of souls — nurs­es’ souls, gar­den­ers’ souls, even pris­on­ers’ souls each get their own fla­vor — one won­ders exact­ly what recipe they have fol­lowed for the Jew­ish soul. 

Clear­ly one cru­cial ingre­di­ent is their co-edi­tor, Rab­bi Dov Peretz Elkins, whose gift for find­ing suc­cinct but impos­ing nar­ra­tives serves this vol­ume very well. Oth­er ingre­di­ents are added to please Jew­ish tastes: the cher­ished bonds of fam­i­ly and home, the val­ues of spir­i­tu­al endurance and faith, and the cel­e­bra­tion of life. If these are ingre­di­ents that would please many oth­er types of souls as well, here they are stirred with an extra mea­sure of tears, for in so many of these sto­ries we encounter the cen­tral Jew­ish ordeal of the last cen­tu­ry: the Holocaust. 

Though var­i­ous in their set­tings — Berlin, Poland, New York, Tel Aviv — these Holo­caust sto­ries com­prise a cou­ple of per­sis­tent themes. One is the notion that loss and rup­ture can be answered, if not healed, by unfore­seen, remark­able reunions. In the open­ing sto­ry, Sonya, a trau­ma­tized refugee in New York, reluc­tant­ly agrees to take in two orphaned chil­dren, only to dis­cov­er that they are her own niece and nephew. In The Rimon­im,” a gallery own­er in Jaf­fa agrees to buy a sin­gle rimon — a sil­ver Torah orna­ment— from a man who res­cued it from his syn­a­gogue dur­ing Kristall­nacht. When, years lat­er, a woman enters his shop with an iden­ti­cal rimon, he reunites two sib­lings sep­a­rat­ed by years of war and dis­place­ment. In The Last Four Dig­its,” an Amer­i­can-born Israeli tour guide notices that the num­ber tat­tooed on a tourist’s arm is one dig­it dif­fer­ent from that on the arm of a car­pen­ter he had known years before on a kib­butz; word­less­ly, he dri­ves all the way to Afu­la to bring broth­er to broth­er. (How had he remem­bered the carpenter’s num­ber? By a strange coin­ci­dence, it matched his own child­hood phone num­ber, which by a coin­ci­dence just as strange, matched his social secu­ri­ty num­ber.) In still anoth­er sto­ry, a fam­i­ly of poor refugees in Seat­tle pre­pares to use a pota­to for a Chan­nukah meno­rah when the door­bell rings; mirac­u­lous­ly, the mail­man deliv­ers a pack­age con­tain­ing the sil­ver meno­rah they had left behind in Vien­na, along with a let­ter trac­ing its jour­ney from Vien­na to Pales­tine and on to Amer­i­ca; a spe­cial deliv­ery indeed. The cumu­la­tive force of these sto­ries is to move the read­er beyond coin­ci­dence to the realm of what is bash­ert; that is, to reveal the shad­ow of a divine hand in the lives of Jews. A few sto­ries speak to us more force­ful­ly for their sin­gu­lar­i­ty. Tom Veres’s The Sto­ry of Raoul Wal­len­berg” gives us a rare first-hand account of this brave Swedish archi­tect who, like the fire­fight­ers who ran toward, not away from, the World Trade Cen­ter, head­ed for the heart of dark­ness and nev­er returned. Nor­man Jaffe’s refresh­ing The Day Hitler Touched Me” cap­tures the con­fu­sion, lone­li­ness and ambiva­lence with which a young Jew­ish teenag­er watch­es his peers catch the fever of Hitler Youth — with the most unex­pect­ed of consequences. 

Anoth­er impor­tant theme of the Holo­caust sto­ries is the right­eous­ness of gen­tiles, some of whom risked their lives to save Jews. A young Pol­ish priest declines to bap­tize a Jew­ish child tak­en in by a gen­tile fam­i­ly until an attempt is made to locate Jew­ish rel­a­tives; that priest, it turns out, is now Pope John Paul II. In sev­er­al sto­ries, a Jew reunit­ed after decade with his gen­tile Fra­nia or Verut­ka, attempts to repay the price­less debt of life itself. In fact, Our Com­mon Human­i­ty” is the rubric under which this theme of the right­eous gen­tile is extend­ed well beyond the Holo­caust. We glimpse such right­eous­ness not only in wartorn Sara­je­vo and Lithua­nia, but also in Billings, Mon­tana, where res­i­dents protest an anti­se­mit­ic hate crime by past­ing meno­rahs in their win­dows; in Oxford, Eng­land, where stu­dents orga­nize to wrest from a Sovi­et offi­cial a visa for a young Russ­ian refusenik; in Sacra­men­to, where near­ly 5000 peo­ple of diverse eth­nic­i­ties and reli­gions gath­ered to protest the fire­bomb­ing of a synagogue.

If there is a more insis­tent theme in this book than those of divine suc­cor and hero­ic human right­eous­ness, it is the impor­tance of small-scale, home­grown, unno­ticed acts of lov­ingkindess— gemi­lut chasadim. Typ­i­cal­ly, we learn about these acts sec­ond-hand, for noth­ing inspires like a sto­ry of some­one else’s inspi­ra­tion. Whether it is a young woman, inspired by a doctor’s fatal hero­ism, vow­ing to become a doc­tor her­self; a child who watch­es a rare book deal­er giv­ing a poor pret­zel lady” an exor­bi­tant sum for worth­less books; or a long-dis­tance jog­ger return­ing— lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly — to his neglect­ed wife, our capac­i­ty to be inspired is itself awak­ened by these sto­ries. The vol­ume bears an arrest­ing ded­i­ca­tion: to all those who have kept the Jew­ish peo­ple alive for four thou­sand years by telling sto­ries.” What we wouldn’t give to have those four thou­sand years of sto­ries in our hands. 


Esther Schor is the author of the biog­ra­phy Emma Lazarus, Bear­ing the Dead, the mem­oir My Last J‑Date, and the poet­ry col­lec­tion The Hills of Hol­land. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment, and The For­ward, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. A pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, Schor lives in Prince­ton, NJ.

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