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
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, WashingtonPost.com, USAToday.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.