Of Golems, Flying Rabbis and Inflatable Jews

"With Signs and Wonders - An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction," edited by Daniel M. Jaffe, Invisible Cities Press (Montpelier, Vermont), 360 pages, $26

A few months into the current stage of the war over the Holy Land, I was given a review copy of this anthology of contemporary adult fairy tales. The book proved to be just what I needed: escape literature in the best sense of the term. After a day of oscillating between fear and shame at the unrelenting news of shootings, terror attacks, bombings and death, these stories offered refreshment for mind and spirit. Readers seeking refuge in the wilds of the imagination will find it here, where the magic and mysticism we loved as children prove they can entice at any age. Beyond that, these stories provide a comforting link with a Jewish literary tradition as old as the Bible. "With Signs and Wonders" is a collection of stories by 24 writers from 19 countries. They come from Europe, the United States, Latin America, Iran, Morocco, Russia, Central Asia, Siberia and the United States, and write in seven different languages, including Hebrew. (There seem to be no native Israelis among them, a fact that may be worthy of analysis.) Some of the authors - like Dina Rubina, a Russian author now living in Israel, Moacyr Scliar of Brazil and Steve Stern of the U.S. - have already achieved recognition, while many are just setting out on their writing careers. In these stories - most of which are published here for the first time - angels walk the streets of New York, prophets speak in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a new golem appears in Prague, and a Manhattan career woman helps her mother cast a spell originating in 12th-century Spain. "The Roussalka," by Rebecca Boroson, introduces a mythical sea creature who saves a despondent young woman from suicide. "Moonstruck Sunflowers," by Avi Shmuelian, recounts a fantastic journey through a surrealistic landscape replete with spells, flying carpets and a magic spring. "Sarah's Story," by Galina Vromen (a translator and copy editor for Ha'aretz-IHT), considers the biblical tale of the binding of Isaac from his mother's point of view, offering a new interpretation of his salvation. In "Anya's Angel," by Tehila Lieberman, a chance meeting (or is it just chance?) in an exotic country leads to the reunion of a Holocaust survivor and his granddaughter. In Steve Stern's "The Tale of a Kite," a flying rabbi tempts the children of a middle-class American community. In "Home Cooking," a servant's dead mistress passes on the secrets of her family recipes from beyond the grave. There are many dark moments as well: In "A Visitor's Guide to Berlin," a writer is caught up in terrifying images of the Holocaust. A mysterious serial killer confounds police in "Compelle Intrare." In "Sarruska and her Daughter," the writer visits Babi Yar and hears a haunting tale of a young girl's power to defeat death. There is no need to be well-versed in the Bible, the Talmud, Midrash and kabbalist [Jewish mystical] literature to appreciate these stories. The editor, Daniel M. Jaffe, a former corporate lawyer who now teaches fiction, provides a short history of Jewish fabulist writing from its origins in the miraculous tales of the Bible to 20th-century authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and Woody Allen. He also points out links to non-Jewish literary sources - including European legends and folktales, "A Thousand and One Nights," the work of Salman Rushdie, and contemporary Latin American literature. Jaffe presents one story in the anthology as a reflection of the influence of the Jewish fabulist tradition on a non-Jew. Joe Hill told Jaffe that he wrote "Pop Art" as a tribute to Malamud and Singer, both of whom have influenced his work. The story concerns the relationship between a Gentile boy and his Jewish friend, an inflatable doll named Art who lives in fear of being punctured - a tragi-comic view of the Jew as the persecuted, weak outsider who nevertheless has a lasting impact on his friend's life. As in all fables, there are lessons to be learned in these stories, as their characters confront their relationships to themselves, to the past, to God, to others and otherness. In Joan Leegant's "The Tenth," a pair of Siamese twins appear at a minyan [Jewish prayer forum], compelling the elderly rabbi to pose himself a series of halahkic questions as he struggles to understand the mysterious strangers. Who are they? Are they one or two, furnishing a ninth man for the minyan, or also the 10th? Are they a miraculous manifestation of the prophet Elijah, said to be a regular visitor on earth? Or do they represent the Angel of Death, come to take away an elderly member of the shul? Why are fables like this still being written in the 21st century? And why do they still exercise such force? Jaffe offers an answer in his introduction: "When reading about off-kilter realities, we recognize the frequent senselessness of our own and feel reassured that we're not out of our minds; we're merely somewhere within the continuum of understanding. In this tangible world where `might' often does make `right' at least our hopes can be sustained through Bible, myth, legend and story. The fabulist offers a connection to the divine and the hope of messianic redemption one day, if not now." For those who are not even that optimistic, it's still a good feeling to know that around the world, in many languages, a literary tradition thousands of years old continues to inspire fresh and enjoyable writing. Just what refugees from reality need. Carol Cook is a member of the Ha'aretz-IHT editorial staff.