Tablet, the on-line magazine, recently published its first piece of original fiction. This is salutary, as there are not enough venues for fiction which is both (1) Jewish and (2) any good. (The same is true of poetry, but even more so.) The story itself illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of the slippery beast that is Jewish fiction.
It’s a parable, as any reader can see, since “the doctor” and “the rabbi” are referred to only that way, as archetypes. Even more, this particular parable hearkens back to an old Jewish literary trope: it’s a tale of a tzaddik confronting the skeptic. (The clever writing clues us in by winking at the tropes: the rabbi tugs not at a beard but at her braid.)
This is both the saving grace and the Achilles heel of the tale. Because it is a parable, one can forgive the predictable ending – the doctor becomes less skeptic – because it is subtly rendered with considerable eloquence. On the other hand, when characters depart hardly at all from type, we begin to chafe under the hand of stereotype: of course the rabbi is calm and wise, while the doctor is imprisoned by his realistic assumptions.
The greater disappointment – although was I expecting too much from a short story? – is that the writer, who possesses an elegant style and an active mind, chose not to dip into the exciting complications of history, where we see doctor-rabbi encounters which change both parties and question long-held assumptions. Or, if Jewish history is not the writer’s chosen inspiration, then perhaps the tales of Nachman of Bratslav, who was both famously skeptical of and a regular visitor to doctors.
In short: it’s a lovely story, but limited by the characters, who are developed only as fully as their archetypes allow. Another kind of story might look to the long, wary experience of rabbis and doctors with each other, as drawn out and multifarious as modernity and Jewish literature itself.