Speaking over lively klezmer music in a Krakow café, Canadian author and freelance journalist Menachem Kaiser wonders if Jewish readers are comfortable with the term “Jewish fiction.”
Kaiser is a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship in Lithuania, where he teaches creative writing. His story, Din, was recently published alongside several prominent authors in a new online journal, JewishFiction.net.
Din is a sensitive account of the personal guilt and private anguish of “genetic incompatibility” faced by a young Jewish couple, each a carrier of lethal Tay Sachs disease. Although Kaiser admits that his Jewish background strongly influences his work, and that “highly Jewish” themes often rise to the surface and become his focus, he is reluctant to narrowly define the genre that he and fellow Jewish writers produce.
“Are we writing in a closed language?” he tells JNS.org, warning against typifying Jewish motifs. “We’re not exactly an endangered species, and it’s not an emerging market. In many ways it is actually a dominant voice.”
If not dominant, Jewish voices have always been impacted by the cultural and political realities that surround the faith. Always at the center of modern public dialogue and debate, Israel is the source of strongly emotional and disparate views among readers. For Dr. Nora Gold, the founder and editor of JewishFiction.net, publishing Jewish stories from around the world has highlighted and linked unique perspectives. “I see this journal as a means to bring together in one place first-rate Jewish fiction from many different countries, thus allowing us all to experience simultaneously the rich diversity that exists within Jewish culture and the core elements that unite us,” she writes in the “About” section of the journal. “I am also committed to trying to build a bridge, and a dialogue, between Jewish writers in Israel and the Diaspora.”
Since débuting in September 2010, the JewishFiction.net site —which can be read free of charge—has attracted readers in 95 different countries. Registered as a non-profit in Canada, the site is the only online or print publication in the world devoted solely to Jewish fiction. Gold actively solicits and receives submissions and translations of works by distinguished authors—including Elie Wiesel, Ann Birstein, Chava Rosenfarb, Yorem Kaniuk, and others—lending the publication real prestige. To achieve broad appeal, every issue reserves space for bright, energized, up-and-coming new writers. Gold’s team of reviewers is swamped with submissions and blessed with an abundance of young talent. Gold herself won a Canadian Jewish Book Award for Marrow and Other Stories.
As editor-in-chief, Gold pays particular attention not only to gender balance, but also to the language mix represented on the site. Every installment includes at least two or three Hebrew works translated into English. Stories have also been translated from Spanish, French, Russian, Rumanian, Serbian, Turkish, Croatian, and Yiddish.
Gold recalls founding JewishFiction.net in part because she worried that upheaval in the publishing industry might limit opportunities for Jewish voices to be heard. The global nature of the Internet allows her to portray a vivid perspective of Jewish communities previously isolated by language barriers, but also provides a vehicle for spotlighting quality storytelling otherwise rejected by mainstream publishers due to its Jewish content.
Ostracizing Jewish writers is a serious charge. Yet, several writers in Gold’s circle readily recount rejection because their work focused on Jewish themes unfamiliar to general audiences. Indeed, many also worry that hints of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment influence modern media practices.
Author Leora Skolkin, whose novel Edges is currently being adapted for film and whose story, A Tape of Helen Gilderstein Speaking, was published in the December 2011 issue of JewishFiction.net, observes a narrowing of publishable Jewish perspectives, especially in journalism. “When I talk to Jewish Americans they expect there to be one ideology or sensibility applicable to Israel,” she tells JNS.org. “This is not the case. For example, Israel is now less a by-product of the holocaust in Europe than it once was. In fact it is an authentic Middle Eastern country and this viewpoint is almost never heard.”
Skolkin’s fiction focuses primarily on her relationship with her mother, a character whose lineage in the Levant dates back to the 16th century. Skolkin’s mother represents the heroine who once concealed munitions during a daring mission to supply Haganah soldiers fighting for Israel’s independence, but she also is a symbol of the country’s historical diversity. Through this character, Skolkin is able to conjure a time when borders were porous, Israel was not surrounded by hostile Arab states, and Jewish relations with Palestinian Arabs were not as tense.
“My mother always said: once you talk about certain things, you ruin them,” Skolkin writes in A Tape of Helen Gilderstein Speaking. The quotation is a reference to a Kabbalah ritual that her mother strictly observed. “In silence you are preserving the dignity of experience,” Skolkin further explains the quote. She openly wonders if this method of dealing with traumatic events like the Holocaust might have saved Jewish people today from having to deal with a backlash in public opinion.
“Prior to the 1967 war there was still post-Holocaust sympathy for the plight of the Jews, but we forgot to be humble after victories and now we are seen as ‘occupiers,’” Skolkin says. She refuses to accept the title of “occupiers” given her family’s presence in Israel long before the conception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ultimately, Skolkin sees a unique opportunity for writers submitting their work to JewishFiction.net rather than to mainstream publications like the New Yorker, The New York Times, or even popular Jewish sites like Tablet. “I thirst for the world to be more open to a comprehensive history of Israel,” she explains. “At JewishFiction.net there is real diversity you can’t get anywhere else. What Dr. Gold and JewishFiction.net gave me was a sense of affirmation.”
As new and acclaimed voices in fiction join JewishFiction.net, it is clear that Gold is fulfilling her ambition: highlighting the rich diversity of Jewish culture. Whether or not the publication represents the emerging genre of “Jewish fiction,” the term Kaiser worries is overbearing, ultimately will be determined by the publication’s readership. Gold is pleased to report that JewishFiction.net engages a large Jewish audience as well as a growing number of enthusiastic non-Jewish readers.
Kaiser, meanwhile, remains focused on his writing and distances himself from being labeled a Jewish Author. “You get a nugget of an idea and something happens,” he advises creative writers, “whether or not the story fits with a publication’s mission shouldn’t matter.”