Tova Reich’s short stories have rattled readers with their biting satire since the mid-nineties. She finds absurdity in certain Jewish practices and events, a humor that riffs on shared understandings within the diaspora.
Using long sentences with strings of commas, Reich mercilessly skewers the principal of an all-girls yeshiva in “The Lost Girl.” When one girl goes missing after a Lag B’Omer outing, the principal dismisses her as a nobody to a Times reporter. He also reveals his disgust for the physicality of high school girls. Meanwhile, Reich tenderly shows the missing student holding her own in the woods as she gets her first period.
A significant number of these stories focus on dark aspects of post-Holocaust life. The titular story carries Orthodox religious fervor to the extreme in a real Haight-Ashbury religious commune of the sixties; a young rabbi starves himself to death to become holier. During a Gobi sandstorm in Beijing, a rabbi dubbed the Zaddik of Sin brings the unwanted Chinese girls and babies he is trafficking for American adoption to pray in the Forbidden City. Gilguli, a young Christian who identifies as the transmigrated soul, or gilgul, of a Jewish man killed in the Belzec mass extermination camp, ends up aiding the construction of a controversial memorial there. A Polish pianist screams stock antisemitic phrases at an Israeli audience, while his Jewish page-turner stands shocked and silent by his side.
Dependent on knowledge of a common culture, but not necessarily on shared opinions, Reich’s work will be best appreciated within the Jewish community.
Sharon Elswit, author of The Jewish Story Finder, now resides in San Francisco, where she has been helping students visiting 826 Valencia locations around the city to write stories and poems and getting adults up and retelling Jewish folktales to share with their own spin.