From the cover of “Jerusalem Beach: Stories” by Iddo Gefen
From the cover of “Jerusalem Beach: Stories” by Iddo Gefen

New short story collections: Imaginative fairy tales and affecting Israeli tales

It’s always rewarding when a story collection feels like more than the sum of its parts, as is the case with two compelling new debut releases.

Veronica Schanoes is a professor of English at Queens College in New York City whose academic research has included a focus on fairy tales. And, with particular attention to labor history and Jewish history, her inventive short story collection “Burning Girls and Other Stories” often turns to fairy tales as a framework for exploration.

cover of “Burning Girls and Other Stories” by Veronica SchanoesThe volume’s opening story, “Among the Thorns,” is, in fact, a response to the Brothers Grimm tale “The Jew Among Thorns,” which concludes with the implicitly endorsed execution of a Jewish man. Schanoes offers a continuation of the tale from the perspective of the Jew’s daughter, recasting the events of the original tale as an expression of vicious European antisemitism. And rather than accepting the injustice of her father’s death, the daughter seeks revenge, eventually benefiting from some particularly Jewish supernatural assistance.

“Emma Goldman Takes Tea with the Baba Yaga” talks initially of how anarchist icon Goldman came to find herself in the Soviet Union after being expelled from the United States in 1919, and how she became deeply disillusioned upon witnessing the results of the Bolshevik revolution she had once avidly supported. Schanoes then drops Goldman into a fable in which she encounters Baba Yaga, a fearsome witchlike figure in Russian folklore, in the woods. Welcoming Goldman’s return to the land of her birth, Baba Yaga seeks to take advantage of the revolutionary’s dejected state of mind and offers her an alternative destiny that puts her values to the test.

In the title story, which won a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for best novella, a young woman who has been trained in Jewish folk magic by her grandmother moves with her sister from Poland to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the aftermath of the slaughter of the rest of their family in a pogrom. But the promise of the New World cannot shake off the (literal) demons of the past, and America carries new dangers in the form of cruel working conditions for immigrant workers. And fit into this saga is a subplot echoing the tale of Rumpelstiltskin.

Not all of these stories have a Jewish dimension. For example, “Phosphorus,” set in late 19th-century London, focuses on a young Irish immigrant who is able to join her fellow factory laborers as they go on strike, even as she is dying a terrible death as a result of exposure to white phosphorus while manufacturing matches. And there are more modern, gritty tales soaked in punk culture, although these spoke less to me.

The prevalence of female protagonists reminded me that fairy tales have often given more prominence and agency to female characters — perhaps in part because women often have been responsible for their transmission. Schanoes incorporates the form in multiple ways, including as a fitting way to reframe history that has too often placed men at the center.

Mining fairy tales further, occasionally a story’s narrator will address the reader to challenge assumptions about the relationship of popular fantasy to reality. One story includes a preamble titled “History is a fairy tale,” in which the same set of circumstances is related first in the language of fairy tales and then retold in a dry factual summary. Asserting that “truth can be told in any number of ways,” the narrator then startles the reader by noting, “I have not lied about anything yet.” We grasp better that our understanding of the world is based on narratives that have been shaped — whether according to someone else’s agenda, our own hopes, or simply our desire for a good story.

Wonderfully translated by Daniella Zamir, Iddo Gefen’s “Jerusalem Beach: Stories” is a deeply affecting collection. Gefen, who is still in his 20s, is a neu­rocog­ni­tive researcher at the Sagol Brain Insti­tute in Tel Aviv, where, according to his bio, “he leads an inno­v­a­tive study to diag­nose aspects of Parkin­son’s dis­ease using sto­ry­telling and aug­ment­ed real­i­ty.” While that is beyond my comprehension, it is absolutely consistent with these stories, which are driven by insights into the characters’ psychology.

Cover art for “Jerusalem Beach: Stories” by Iddo GefenThe poignant title story follows an aging married couple. The woman has advanced dementia, and, just before her husband is to consign her to a residential facility, he has brought her to Jerusalem for one final experience: to search together for the beach in Jerusalem that she claims as her earliest childhood memory. Anyone familiar with Israel’s geography recognizes the very low probability of fulfilling that quest. But the husband approaches the situation with great tenderness as he sadly prepares to bring the chapters of a life lived together to a close.

While Gefen’s stories feel very universal in theme, the setting is pronouncedly Israeli. For example, military service features prominently in three of the stories, including both the affecting opening story about an octogenarian who enlists in an elite infantry brigade, and the devastating final tale narrated from the perspective of a soldier’s younger brother.

A number of the stories border on science fiction, and technology plays a significant role — be it in the form of an old radio that can broadcast other people’s thoughts or a business charged with generating people’s nightmares. But where the stories resonate most is in compassionately showing the characters’ great need for connection and wholeness in a world of fear and loss.

“Burning Girls and Other Stories” by Veronica Schanoes (Tordotcom, 336 pages)

“Jerusalem Beach: Stories” by Iddo Gefen (Astra House, 304 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.