There Is No Other

By – September 26, 2011

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.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Jonathan Papernick

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?