I didn’t mean to fall in love with a fictional place. It was a Wednesday morning in January 1992, and I was the editor of Rhode Island’s last for-profit weekly Jewish newspaper. A reporter blew a deadline, so we had a hole in the paper. Thirty years ago it wasn’t so easy to steal from the Internet, so I sat down and wrote my first story in what would become “Izzy Abrahmson’s The Village Life Series.”
The words came quickly. A traveling cantor comes to the village (because the place is so small, they can’t afford a full time singer), but he loses his voice. All the villagers search to no avail. Finally, as the Shabbat Shira service begins, a bird starts singing outside the window, and all is right in the world.
Jewish newspapers are multigenerational, which meant that the story had to amuse children, adults, and curious teens. A few weeks later, while working on the newspaper’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah supplement, I wrote another Village story. And then one for Passover.
When I left the paper, the stories kept coming:
On the edge of the Black Forest, somewhere between Russia and Poland (and occasionally Germany) there was a small Jewish village with more chickens than people.
But from the beginning, the people of the village were the stars. Although the speechless cantor never reappeared, Reb Stein the Baker, Reb Gold the Cobbler, and Reb Cantor the Merchant became regulars. (Reb is the Yiddish honorific for Mr.)
Rabbi Kibbitz was the village’s official leader, but Mrs. Chaipul— the caterer who ran the only Jewish restaurant in town— held as much sway, if not more.
Some of the village life stories are about festivals and life rituals, others told about ordinary days that became extraordinary.
While the village, like many shetls, was overtly a patriarchy, the women regularly met in secret to set the agenda, and everyone knew that young Rachel Cohen was as smart as Rabbi Kibbitz… if not smarter.
Twenty years ago, there were many Jewish newspapers across the United States and around the world, and they paid money for articles. Soon the stories were appearing in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Houston.
When I realized that one paper, The Houston Jewish Herald Voice, was buying every story I wrote, I pitched Vicki Samuels — their editor— with the idea of writing a serialized novel in the tradition of Dickens and Sholom Aleichem.
She said yes, but I don’t think she realized that it was going to run for 100 weekly installments.
With a few words and gestures the audience vanishes, the storyteller vanishes, and all that is left is the tale — floating in the shared space of the room.
Serialization is a serious business. You have to hook your reader with the first sentence and first paragraph of every episode. Then, at the end of that episode you have to either resolve something or leave them with a cliffhanger so they always want more.
Every Monday morning I’d take my laptop (with a spiffy built-in trackball!) to a nearby coffee shop and draft the installment. The next day I’d read it aloud and begin editing. Seven weeks later it appeared in the paper, which gave me time to tweak and correct mistakes.
The Village Twins, which is being reissued in January 2022, is the story of Abraham and Adam. These boys are so identical that their parents, teachers, and their wives can’t tell them apart. But because it’s a story about village life, it is also about their friends, their sister, and even the robbers who eventually threaten the entire community.
I’ve found that these stories mirror real life . Motives are often simple. Adam falls in love with Rivka, but she hates him, and so he swaps names with Abraham. It’s the decision of a moment, but it has consequences that last for years. For his part, Abraham is in love with a Roma princess, so he doesn’t mind the trade. Boris Krabot, the robber, is a beast of a man, but when you learn his backstory you begin to understand the compassion that the villagers eventually show.
Because of the village I also became a professional storyteller. An acquaintance invited me to a story swap that met on Tuesday nights. At first I read excerpts from the serial, but after a while these professional storytellers suggested, “Why don’t you try telling a story.” Feh. I didn’t know the difference between reading from a text and setting aside the papers.
If you’ve never participated in a live storytelling, I recommend it — it can be magical. With a few words and gestures the audience vanishes, the storyteller vanishes, and all that is left is the tale— floating in the shared space of the room. I spent the next twenty years crossing the country (and the Atlantic) telling stories of the village (and many others ) to listeners of all ages and backgrounds.
How remarkable a privilege to share the same story of “Why the Bride and Groom are On the Wedding Cake” (first published in Hadassah) with Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chabad, Unaffiliated, Secular, Catholic and Protestant listeners. These audiences weren’t always in the same room, but sometimes the Yiddish Book Center gets a pretty good cross section.
When I’d collected enough Chanukah stories, we published them as Winter Blessings, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for family literature. It took ten years for The Village Twinsto find its first publisher, but they didn’t like the romance between Abraham and Rosa, so that edition was abridged. The forthcoming version has been fully restored and revised.
Along the way, I realized that Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul had gotten married, but she’d kept her own name. As I began to compile the stories of their relationship, I discovered the moment she asserted her identity as I wrote the story, “What’s in a Name?” You can find that tale in A Village Romance, a book that is literally short and sweet.
For me, writing Jewish fiction is easy. Selling Jewish fiction is hard. Some people think it’s too Jewish, and others think it’s not Jewish enough . Some people think the stories are childish, while others think they’re too complex for children.
Still, I persisted , and, when the pandemic broke my live performance tour calendar, my publisher and I began to dig and re-edit, record, and reissue all of my many tales. There will be four volumes out by February of 2022, with a fifth already written and planned for fall of 2022. And a podcast too, called Izzy Abrahmson’s Village Life. My pseudonym, Izzy Abrahmson is based on my Hebrew name Isaac, and my father’s Hebrew name of Abraham.
Right now I have one request. Take a moment and read, or listen, to one of the stories. Share it with your friends and family— or even your enemies! Come back, and read some more.
Visiting The Village is like going on a brief vacation to a place that never existed, but should have. You don’t need a passport, a reservation, or a health test to visit. And for the price of a few dollars (or euros), you can return again and again.
I hope to meet you there.
Izzy Abrahmson is a professional storyteller, and the award-winning author of The Village Life series of books. He has toured the world delighting readers and listeners of all ages with his stories interspersed with his unique klezmer harmonica sounds.