The Book of Mis­chief: New and Select­ed Stories

  • Review
By – August 28, 2012

Using the works of the great mas­ters of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture as a spring­board, Steve Stern’s sto­ries in The Book of Mis­chief soar and float as far as imag­i­na­tion can fly. Real­i­ty becomes Dream­land, and then back again, as in Zelig Rifkin and the Tree of Dreams.” When Zelig climbs his tree, he can see his neigh­bors’ dreams, pro­vid­ing him with insight into their mun­dane lives. He can then use what he learns to make their world bet­ter, or to ful­fill his own yearn­ings. But there is a price to pay, as his new­found suc­cess­es dis­solve. In Avig­dor of the Apes,” the acro­bat­ic antics of the title char­ac­ter win him his heart’s desire, only to have every­thing come crash­ing down when he can no longer leap from rooftop to rooftop.

Some­times dream becomes night­mare, as in The Bal­lad of Mushie Momz­er,” where Mushie, said to be the prod­uct of incest, is a mal­formed crea­ture whose life becomes increas­ing­ly bizarre; and Yid­dish Twi­light,” bor­rowed from Russ­ian folk­lore, where a schol­ar is enthralled to a suc­cubus; and Leg­end of the Lost,” where Mendy los­es his soul and becomes the Mas­ter of Death. 

There is play­ful­ness and irrev­er­ence, as Stern ridicules arranged mar­riages, ques­tions the exis­tence of God, and por­trays the prophet Eli­jah as a med­dling voyeur. Some­times the author him­self swoops down into the sto­ry, pro­vid­ing anoth­er lev­el of real­i­ty, as in The Wed­ding Jester,” a mod­ern fable. This last tale is a strong, sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion to the mer­ry romps, satire, par­o­dy, and sharp insights of The Book of Mis­chief. Stern writes with a sure, firm hand, mak­ing the out­ra­geous seem prob­a­ble, enter­tain­ing, and thought pro­vok­ing. The Book of Mis­chief, col­lect­ed over twen­ty five years, show­cas­es his ver­sa­til­i­ty. Glos­sary of Yid­dish words included.

Read Steve Stern’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Find­ing a Tra­di­tion of His Own: A South­ern Outsider

by Beth Kissileff

Steve Stern’s most recent col­lec­tion, The Book of Mis­chief, was pub­lished in Sep­tem­ber 2012 by Gray­wolf Press.

Steve Stern is, in my opin­ion, the best under-rec­og­nized Amer­i­can Jew­ish writer cur­rent­ly writ­ing. Many, many review­ers hoped that his most recent nov­el, the won­der­ful, lyri­cal­ly writ­ten, and hys­ter­i­cal­ly fun­ny The Frozen Rab­bi, would do much to bring him the larg­er read­er­ship his writ­ing deserves. And now, with the pub­li­ca­tion of his tenth book, new and select­ed sto­ries with the spot-on title, The Book of Mis­chief, his lit­er­ary admir­ers can keep hop­ing those who have not yet read him will run to their book­store or elec­tron­ic read­er and do so. I first came across his work in 1999 when The Wed­ding Jester was pub­lished. Some­thing in the review I read of it made me want to run out to buy the book; when I did I spent the next week neglect­ing my aca­d­e­m­ic work and read­ing to devour the col­lec­tion. At the start of a sum­mer sup­posed to be ded­i­cat­ed to aca­d­e­m­ic arti­cles, I real­ized that this was what I want­ed to do, write sto­ries not arti­cles — I lay the blame for my cur­rent writ­ing life square­ly with Stern. Since then I have read every­thing by Stern that I can to access his world of acro­bats and jesters, Catskills hang­ers on, and rab­bis resus­ci­tat­ed from the Old World come to remake the New.

Stern’s oeu­vre is unique­ly con­nect­ed to place, from the Pinch neigh­bor­hood of Mem­phis of his birth to sto­ries set in both the Low­er East Side and the Catskills as well as the Europe of a past imag­ined by the author. I had the plea­sure of meet­ing him to dis­cuss the writ­ing life and his new book at a café near where he makes his home in Brook­lyn, when he is not teach­ing at Skid­more Col­lege in Sarato­ga Springs, NY. On the day we were to meet, I took the sub­way but was unsure if I had the right stop and had to take anoth­er bus to a stop clos­er to where we were meet­ing, and then con­tin­u­al­ly ask a num­ber of peo­ple direc­tions to the Qathra cof­fee bar. The day seemed grim and I was late so I was sure the author would have giv­en up and aban­doned his post at the front of the cof­fee bar, hard­cov­er in hand. How­ev­er, some kind of mag­ic worked and he was there, the sun came out and our con­ver­sa­tion was a won­der­ful lit­er­ary expe­ri­ence, trans­port­ing beyond the sur­round­ings, as is fit­ting for a writer fas­ci­nat­ed by flight and trapeze artists.

Stern spoke of grow­ing up in the South, an out­sider” as a Jew and lov­ing the South­ern writ­ing of William Faulkn­er and Eudo­ra Wel­ty but want­i­ng to find a tra­di­tion of my own” and looked to find that when he began to write. He want­ed to locate work and heroes who were attached to places” like Dickens’s Lon­don, Joyce’s Dublin and Isaac Babel’s Odessa. Jews in the South when he was grow­ing up tried to remain as invis­i­ble” as they could be, accord­ing to Stern, although Jews were a real pres­ence”; he told me of the sit­u­a­tion of Jews sell­ing sheets to Klan mem­bers, to illus­trate the com­pli­cat­ed nature of life in the South. In fact, Rab­bi James Wax of Tem­ple Israel, the Reform syn­a­gogue of Stern’s child­hood, led a del­e­ga­tion of reli­gious lead­ers to meet with Hen­ry Loeb, the may­or of Mem­phis, and encour­age him to set­tle the san­i­ta­tion work­ers strike of 1968 that cul­mi­nat­ed in the assas­si­na­tion of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. For his role in pub­lic affairs, the rab­bi was let go by his con­gre­ga­tion, not hav­ing been invis­i­ble enough. Stern lat­er met a sim­i­lar fate at the hand of Mem­phis Jewry.

Once he left Mem­phis, he left Amer­i­ca as well, liv­ing in Europe for a time. Then he went back to Mem­phis to stum­ble” into a job at a folk­lore cen­ter. The NEH grant exposed him to the tight com­mu­ni­ty” of shops and mer­chants that Stern saw as being trans­posed in whole cloth from the shtetl, an Old World cul­ture that was intact in this gen­er­a­tion.” He set his first sto­ry in this neigh­bor­hood, the Pinch and har­vest­ed mem­o­ries and reassem­bled them in my imag­i­na­tion.” The grat­i­tude he received for pub­lish­ing a sto­ry to bring to light this for­got­ten neigh­bor­hood? A law­suit from the son of a woman whose name he had used, which neces­si­tat­ed an apol­o­gy from him in the Mem­phis Hebrew Watch­man.” Yet, Stern says, it could be worse. One of his lit­er­ary heroes, Isaac Babel, was exe­cut­ed by Stal­in, so Stern says, I am aspir­ing to be executed.”

Still, he has become more accept­ed by the Mem­phis Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty since the ear­ly days of the law­suit. On his most recent vis­it, he was intro­duced to the con­gre­ga­tion at Tem­ple Israel by the rab­bi as some­one who may be a heretic, but he is our heretic.” Stern was touched by that appellation.

Many of Stern’s sto­ries con­cern the oth­er world, the yen­evelt, in the Yid­dish he invokes fre­quent­ly in his writ­ing. He is inter­est­ed in this world for the sig­nif­i­cance that the imag­i­na­tion can endow upon expe­ri­ence.” He sees his themes as being con­sis­tent­ly about the move from the ordi­nary to the extra­or­di­nary as viewed through the enter­prise of writ­ing. The trapeze that appears in a num­ber of his sto­ries is an illus­tra­tion of this theme in phys­i­cal terms.” This impulse to flight, to tran­scend­ing the world of phys­i­cal­i­ty and yet being a human with earth­bound expe­ri­ences is the strug­gle he dra­ma­tizes in his writ­ing. He says that if I don’t write every day, I don’t know who I am. I depend on that con­nec­tion for my iden­ti­ty.” Fans of Stern’s work can rejoice then that unlike Philip Roth, the writer who has stopped writ­ing, Stern will con­tin­ue work­ing his par­tic­u­lar brand of tran­scen­dent mag­ic on the page for many years to come.

Beth Kissileff is the edi­tor of Read­ing Gen­e­sis (Con­tin­u­um Books, 2013) an anthol­o­gy of aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing about Gen­e­sis. Her nov­el Ques­tion­ing Return is under con­sid­er­a­tion for pub­li­ca­tion and she is work­ing on a sec­ond nov­el and vol­ume of short sto­ries. Her fic­tion and non-fic­tion writ­ing has appeared in JewishFiction,net, Zeek, Slate, NYTimes​.com, Huff­in­g­ton Post, Wash​ing​ton​Post​.com, USATo​day​.com, Tablet, the For­ward, Moment, the NY Jew­ish Week, Hadas­sah, the Jerusalem Report, the Jerusalem Post, Women and Judaism: A Mul­ti-Dis­ci­pli­nary Approach and oth­er places. She has taught at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh, Car­leton Col­lege, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, Smith Col­lege and Mount Holyoke College.

Sydelle Shamah has been lead­ing book club dis­cus­sions for many years, and is a pub­lished sci­ence fic­tion writer. She was pres­i­dent of the Ruth Hyman Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Mon­mouth Coun­ty, NJ.

Discussion Questions