The fiction of Steve Stern is arguably more suffused with traditional Jewish folklore and Judaic mysticism than all post-World War II American Jewish writers other than I.B. Singer and Cynthia Ozick. Yet Stern has said in interviews that he does not really feel himself an authentic part of that tradition, his familiarity with it being mostly second hand: "I was not born into an observant Jewish family and I really wasn’t exposed to the culture or tradition growing up, so I came into it pretty late. When I did, it began to determine the way I looked at the world and my work. Because it’s not a kind of primary experience with me—the idea of Jewish culture, tradition and heritage—I’ve had to define what that sensibility means. It’s something that I sort of wrestle with all the time" (Washington University Student Life, Nov, 21, 2008).
Few of Stern's readers could doubt that the portrayal of traditional beliefs and of a specifically Jewish milieu in his stories and novels seems thoroughly authentic. Whether the characters are rabbis or nonobservant Jews with little sense of attachment at all to tradition, they behave and speak just as one imagines such characters would behave and speak. Whether set in the Russian Pale of Settlement in the 19th century or in the Jewish quarter called the "Pinch" in 20th century Memphis, Tennessee, the stories Stern tells all seem firmly rooted in place and time, with all the attendant details we could want. And whether they are the customs of the shtetl or of the American suburbs, the way of life and beliefs of the communities depicted are represented with the same authority. Although the prevailing strategy of fabulation and fantasy in Stern's work makes it problematic to regard his narratives as "realistic," certainly the interaction of character, event, and setting produces a "world" both credibly and vividly rendered.
But that world is not one that seems reproduced directly (or indirectly) from autobiographical experience. Although there are characters in Stern's fiction who might originate in a version of a younger Steve Stern, none of their encounters with Jewish practices or Jewish lore appear to be derived from the "real life" of the author except for the sense of wonder inspired in them when they are initiated in such practices by discovering them and that must indeed reflect Stern's initiation as a young folklorist in Memphis. What is most remarkable about Stern's work is the way in which he is able to evoke a comprehensively believable world through acquired knowledge and force of vision. It is an alternate world in which Catskill monologists are inhabited by the dybbuks of comedians past and rabbis fall asleep and wake up a hundred years later, a world that Stern constructs from a vibrant tradition but that ultimately conforms only to the laws of storytelling and imagination. Stern is a writer of whose work one can profitably say it is both intensely real and utterly artificial, both transparently representational and a thoroughgoing, extended metafiction.
On the one hand, the world we encounter in Steve Stern's fiction has a vividness and a tangibility that surely makes us believe in it as a version of the reality inhabited by American Jews and their immediate ancestors. This feature of Stern's work is perhaps best exemplified by the story collection Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (1986), which offers nine stories of surpassing individual charm and almost flawless execution that also work together to memorably evoke the Pinch neighborhood on North Main Street in Memphis. By the time Stern began writing his stories (by the time he became aware of the existence of this downtown neighborhood in the first place), the Pinch had long since disappeared into urban facelessness, so Stern's depiction of it necessarily blends historical reconstruction with imaginative projection—by Stern's own account, largely the latter. The very first story in Lazar Malkin, "Moishe the Just," begins with its narrator noting how he and his friends spent one summer "on the roof, spying on our neighbors across the street":
We would kneel on the sticky tarpaper, our chins propped on top of a low parapet, encrusted with bird droppings. In this way we watched the clumsy progress of the courtship of Billy Rubin and the shoemaker's daughter. We saw, like a puppet play in silhouette, Old Man Crow beating his wife behind drawn shades. Through their open windows we saw the noisy family Pinkus gesticulating over their hysterical evening meal. We saw Eddie Kid Katz sparring with shadows and amply endowed Widow Taubenblatt in her bath, but even with her we got bored.
One can't help but feel an initial alignment between the boys taking in the activities of the Pinch from their rooftop and the author of Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, identifying not so much with the lived experience of the people on the streets and in their homes but with the perspective from above, from outside that experience and attempting to find a purchase on it. But, like the boys, Stern's imagination won't settle for just the boring stuff, the ordinary cruelties and indiscretions. Although anchored in the ordinary, his fiction discovers the potential for transcendence and a place for wonder, even while the sometimes marvelous events and fanciful beings from Jewish folklore it introduces are presented as if they themselves are perfectly ordinary. The enhancement of reality Stern achieves is perhaps illustrated most suggestively in the conclusion to this book's title story. Lazar Malkin has just been spirited away by the Angel of Death, and the narrator observes:
I threw up the window sash and opened my mouth to shout. But I never found my tongue. Because that was when, before the door slammed behind them, I got a glimpse of kingdom come.
It looked exactly like the yard in back of the shop, only--how should I explain it--sensitive. It was the same brick wall with glass embedded on top, the same ashes and rusty tin cans, but they were tender and ticklish to look at. Intimate like (excuse me) flesh beneath underwear. For the split second that the door stayed open, I felt I was turned inside-out, and what I saw was glowing under my skin in place of my kishkes and heart.
The fictional world rendered in Stern's fiction is "tender and ticklish," although it does resemble the ordinary world in its external features. But ultimately Stern is more interested in the eternal than the external, even if the external view from the rooftop is where the story must begin.
Stern's characteristic use of fabulation and allegory to emphasize fundamental human experiences (however much they are represented through specifically Jewish images and devices) is perhaps most tellingly exemplified in "The Ghost and Saul Bozoff." This story (perhaps more appropriately called a novella) not only relates allegorically the story of Jewish immigration to America, but as well Stern's own rediscovery of his Jewish heritage and its transformation into the fiction to be found in Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven. Saul Bozoff—in this story at any rate, as he makes a reappearance as a younger man in The Angel of Forgetfulness—is a "novelist of modest renown, hailed at his debut by one reviewer as 'a brave new chronicler of failure,' he had failed to fulfill his initial promise. He had, in the twenty or so years of his so-called career, written himself into ever diminishing circles of confinement." On a retreat at a writer's colony, Saul comes across a collection of stories written by one Leah Rosenthal who, he discovers, was an immigrant from the Ukraine who had died at the age of 27. Dipping into the book, he finds the stories unlike anything he's read before: "in their communion of archaic and slapstick sensibilities, their illicit marriages of Old Testament and pagan themes, the stories were hard to pin down. They seemed, despite their situation in an undeniably authentic turn-of-the-century East Side, anchored to no particular place or time."
One night, after an evening of partying, Saul looks up from his bed to find the ghost of Leah Rosenthal staring back at him. She suggests to Saul that they "collaborate," since "I had this cruelly aborted life. . .so I never got to finish what I started to say." Under Leah's influence, Saul begins to discover his own way of writing with authority:
So what next, he wondered, rubbing his hands together, looking out the window as if for a clue. Somewhere beyond the pines the old moribund world was still rallying, he supposed, for its pyrotechnical swan song. So what else was new under that smudge of a sun? For his own material, thank you, Saul would prefer to look closer to home, where there were no end of tales to relate. Here, as beneficiary of Leah Rosenthal's invisible estate, he was heir to a prodigious fertility. Stories grew on trees! And all that Saul had to do to harvest them was to be there when they ripened and fell to earth.
If we take this final story in Lazar Malkin as a dramatization of an artistic credo of sorts, then both this book and Stern's subsequent work are the fruits of an effort to harvest those story-trees. Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground, A Plague of Dreamers, and The Wedding Jester continue to offer the kind of emblematic narratives at work in Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, most (but not all) of them set in the Pinch. Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground is in fact the further elaboration of an idea contemplated by Saul Bozoff, the story of a young Jewish boy who takes up "with the black kids on Beale Street--'like their mascot or something'" and that features a black boy, previously thought mute, who suddenly "starts to jabber" and eventually dies of his malady. This novel employs less of the magical realism found in either Lazar Malkin or the subsequently published books, and seems more an attempt to flesh out the Pinch/Memphis as Stern's fictional "territory."
A Plague of Dreamers and The Wedding Jester more fully return to the fabular mode of Lazar Malkin. A Plague of Dreamers is an especially resonant effort in this mode, a collection of three novellas that not only incorporates the elements of fantasy and folklore introduced in Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven but also features fictions that perhaps most consistently employ a common motif in Stern's work, the underlying yearning among many of his characters to escape their confining material circumstances, to permanently inhabit the realm that is more "sensitive." The first novella, "Zelik Rifkin and the Tree of Dreams" is an especially good example of this. Zelik Rifkin, a "less than inspired grocer's assistant" in the Pinch, is chased up a tree one hot summer night as the citizens of the community are sleeping en masse in the park to escape the oppressive conditions in their homes. When he reaches the top of the tree, Rifkin finds himself literally in a dream world, one that gathers up the separate dreams of the slumberers below into a communal projection of their desires and confusions.
Rifkin soon discovers that he can intervene in the collective dreamwork of the Pinch, with the result that where before he was something of an outcast in the community, he now becomes its most celebrated member. Of course, such a state of affairs cannot last long, even in regions of the imagination. When the weather turns, Rifkin no longer has access to his dream world and is eventually returned to his previous lowly stature. The novella's conclusion, however, skips ahead one year to another heat wave and, in a gesture that reiterates the story's case for our overwhelming need for imaginative release, Stern follows Rifkin back up his tree of dreams—where his "outmoded self" apparently meets its demise and his spiritually transformed counterpart "stroll[s] off into the thick of things."
Although Zelik Rifkin's action borders on escapism—something that might perhaps be said of Stern's fiction itself—he is nonethless determined to participate, albeit only in a world beyond the treetops, rather than look on passively as others live their hopeless lives. This effort makes him a hero of sorts, able to perceive a choice between an expanded consciousness and a constricting reality. Stern's otherworldly narratives enact a similar choice, offering an expanded awareness of imaginative possibilities while redefining reality in their own terms.
More recently, Stern has to some extent expanded his own ambitions, producing two novels that span both geography and time to create multi-stranded narratives the separate strands of which contribute to a broader perspective on both Jewish and American history. Both have at their core a fantasy narrative that, as in most of Stern's short stories, unfold as if the fantastic premise is merely an odd stitch in the fabric of reality. Both offer variations on Saul Bozoff's reintegration with the Jewish past, further emphasized in The Angel of Forgetfulness by the literal return of Saul Bozoff as a character, while The Frozen Rabbi also employs a supernatural occurrence as the device that triggers the rediscovery of roots.
In The Angel of Forgetfulness, Saul is a college student in New York City, where he meets Aunt Keni, one of the few surviving residents of what was a thriving Jewish neighborhood. Saul is drawn to Keni and her stories about the old neighborhood, and she passes on to him a manuscript—The Angel of Forgetfulness—written by Nathan Hart, Keni's long-dead lover. The rest of the novel alternates between Saul's subsequent experiences on a hippie commune and as an instructor in a small New England college, a reconstruction of Nathan Hart’s life story as a recent immigrant and then a writer for the Jewish Daily Forward, and excerpts from the manuscript itself, which tells the fantastic tale of an angel named Mocky, who prefers life on earth to a less eventful existence in heaven. The Angel of Forgetfulness is thus, like "Saul Bozoff and the Ghost," a directly metafictional work, a story about storytelling and the reading of stories, even as it uses its metafictional frame to evoke the history of American Jewish settlement and struggle. These twin ambitions—to acknowledge the mediation of narrative artifice in the pursuit of an authentic rendering of historical experience—are accomplished as well and as directly in The Angel of Forgetfulness as in any other of Stern's stories or novels. The reader who would like to experience Stern's strategy of summoning the real through the free embrace of artifice would be well advised to start with this novel.
The Frozen Rabbi (2010), is also a typical blend of authentic detail and fabulation, but the specifically metafictional element in it is less pronounced (and less effective). Structured through alternating third-person accounts of Bernie Karp, a boy living in Memphis, and the history of his family's migration from Eastern Europe to the United States, the novel does interpolate a memoir written by one member of the family, but the device is mostly used simply to move the story along, and ultimately very little emphasis is placed on the power of storytelling to transform a colorless reality. This is not in itself a flaw in the novel, but it does put more of a burden on the decontextualized fantasy device with which the novel begins, as Bernie discovers a literal frozen rabbi stowed away in a basement freezer. It turns out that the rabbi has been in this state for over a century.
The rabbi's presence immediately exerts a great influence on Bernie Karp, who begins to familiarize himself with the mystical tradition the rabbi represents and of which Bernie knows nothing. (He is barely aware of himself as a Jew.) Otherwise, the fact that a cryogenically preserved Hasidic rabbi has suddenly appeared is not much noted. It is not unusual in Stern's fiction that wondrous events manifest themselves as if they are part of the natural course of things, but in The Frozen Rabbi the rather swift way in which the Rabbi adjusts himself to his new circumstances and Bernie regards him as simply his potential teacher creates a curiously flat effect—curious because Stern's fiction is usually nothing if not lively in its narrative momentum. In what seems like no time—with detours to the second narrative—Bernie Karp has become something of an adept at Kabbalah and Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr has succumbed to the temptations of American consumer culture, eventually refashioning himself as a kind of New Age spiritual leader and opening up his own House of Enlightenment.
Perhaps what makes this two-fold conversion seem thinly dramatized is not so much the rapidity with which it occurs but the fairly obvious satirical purpose to which it is put. Satire is not really a mode much pursued in Stern's previous work, which is comic but does not engage in mockery for the purpose of social correction or criticism. Stern's comedy is vaudevillian, schtick-laden. While Rabbi Eliezer's metamorphosis into a religious huckster is humorous enough, the accompanying "commentary" implicit in his transformation—America has become a place where true spiritual values are lost to greed and self-obsession—overrides the pleasure we might take in the sheer silliness of it. Since Eliezer's decline is paralleled with Bernie Karp's ascent (literally, as it turns out) into spiritual awareness, the contrast between the spiritual journeys undertaken by each becomes overly schematic. In his review of The Frozen Rabbi, Mark Athitakis correctly notes that Stern's comedy here "is to a purpose," that "Stern is drawing a bright line between religious commitment in the past and commitment in the present," but that line seems too bright to me. It obscures Stern's more discreet skills of subtlety and suggestion.
Thus the comedy in The Frozen Rabbi struggles for expression in the shadow of the novel’s earnest attempts to expose the misplaced values of American society and to document the hardships of Jewish history. This attenuated humor (at least in comparison to Stern's previous work) is perhaps a direct consequence of the novel's very attempt to provide an historical saga, however fragmented it is by the dual narrative strategy Stern employs. The prose style of The Frozen Rabbi seems to me more reliant on extended exposition and overt psychologizing than The Angel of Forgetfulness, which also provides an historical frame but is not preoccupied with moving the story forward, or Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground, which settles for evoking one particular time and place (and which is a first-person narrative anyway). This is not to say that The Frozen Rabbi always fails to offer Stern's comedic riffs and trenchant prose, as can be seen in this description of Rabbi Eliezer's place of business:
The New House of Enlightenment was situated in a stadium-size structure surrounded by crepe myrtle and lilac, atop a knoll carpeted in shaggy grass slabs like an igloo made of turf. Originally a Baptist tabernacle whose pastor had fallen from grace in a sex-for-prayer scandal, the hulking, flying-saucer shaped building had undergone few alterations since changing hands. Coming upon the place through the humid morning haze, Bernie found himself transposing it in his mind to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, with the rabbi's followers dragging trussed and bleating animals up its steps for sacrifice. There was a big sign out front of the type that ordinarily proclaimed Jesus as Lord, its changeable letters now declaring Live Already Like The Day Is Here!
Passages like this make Steve Stern's fiction a great joy to read, and if The Frozen Rabbi perhaps features somewhat fewer of them (or if its structure and scope dilutes their impact), it is still a more dynamic and imaginative work of fiction than most of what is currently made available by American publishers.