Archives for posts with tag: fiction

I have been translating the prose poetry/symbolic fiction pieces of Avrom Sutzkever, and a new translation of mine, “The Cleaver’s Daughter,” appears today on the Yiddish Book Center’s website. Here’s a taste. Enjoy!

She was my first love, the pockmarked redhead with cute freckles on her pert nose, like a poppy seed topping. I even allowed myself to imagine that she had as many freckles as she was years old, a freckle every year for good luck.

When I made her acquaintance, I counted nine of those presents on her nose. The street where we both grew up panted its way uphill, starting from the Green Bridge over the clay banks of the Vilia, ascending as far as the Sheskin Mountains, where the street became a trail going all the way to Vilkomir. Most kids from my street and even a number of adults called the girl the Cleaver’s Daughter.

Why did she get that name? Why was an orphan labeled that way?

In recent months, two stories of mine, both having to do with medicine, healing, and Baltimore, have appeared in two literary journals.683788737

In “A Letter for You,” appearing in Gravel, a white doctor tries to orient himself with regard to his African-American patients.

In the first issue of Dryland, a new litmag from LA, you can read my story “Pain and the Machine,” in which a floor buffer chases a janitor down the hall.

I’d love to hear your reactions to these.

What is the difference between a mere anecdote and a story? Can stories ever heal, and can a story with a naturally happy ending be as effective as a literary tragedy which seems to end in the middle, with purposeful suddenness? And what happens when the narrator is not a disembodied voice, but someone who has to deal with the people behind the tales they tell, who is supposed to help those behind the story when the book is shut?

A doctor is a healing storyteller, as Louise Aronson points out from many different angles in her beautiful and thoughtful A History of the Present Illness. Being a doctor means hearing stories that you can never share in all their specificity, and sharing in joys that others are not privy to. The doctor-writer is thus tempted to tell all her stories from a doctor’s-eye view. Aronson does not make this mistake, but broadens her Chekhovian vision to encompass the multifarious San Francisco of her birth and professional life as a geriatrician: as a writer in that world, she portrays doctors and patients alike, the young and old, in every hue of skin and character.

She weaves together the stories in this book to portray not just people with illness and those who care for them, but a grand beautiful city, one of the great metropolises of contemporary medicine, which is slowly falling apart: its poor uncared for, its hospitals bursting. At the same time, she shows the psychic price that doctors pay, the wounded healers many of us are. 

In her academic life, Aronson is an advocate for public medical communication. This book meets just that need, but communication is too cold a word: it is a cry from a feeling heart in a language that any mortal person can understand. As someone who treats patients and tries to tell their stories, I admire Aronson’s eye and heart, and recommend this book unreservedly.

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.