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The man who loved his wife, by Jennifer Anne Moses

 

In fiction writing, the short story form has gone in and out of fashion. During the 20th century, Jewish fiction had Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, but at the moment, short stories are not receiving much attention. Jennifer Moses has crafted some entertaining and thought-provoking stories that owe something to the tradition of the Chassidic tale. 

“The man who loved his wife” is a collection of thirteen short stories, each touching on some sort of Jewish theme. The plots and characters are not related between stories, so they can be read in any order because each one is complete in twenty or fewer pages. The stories are not about Judaism per se, but feature Jewish people living their often eccentric lives, with the beliefs, history, or hopes of Judaism influencing how they manage. Unlike the sweeping themes possible in a novel, the short stories examine the smaller details of everyday life such as family conflicts, a crisis of faith, or modern romance.

In the title story, Julia, a Jewish woman who has a terminal brain tumor, sees a vision of Jesus wearing tallit. Her husband Martin is not Jewish, and he tries to ease her anxieties by helping her explore Christian spirituality. Julia asks to be taken to see a nun who is known for healing people, and she asks for a Black minister to come to their house to talk to her. Eventually she asks that she have a Christian burial, and Martin promises this to her. As her condition deteriorates, he tries to stay with her as much as possible, but one evening she insists that he should go out and walk the dog, and she dies while he is away from the house. Julia’s family is outraged when they hear about the Christian burial idea, and Martin eventually agrees to have both a minister and rabbi at the ceremony. It is during both families’ efforts to reconcile with each other that they come to the belief that since Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, in some way all Christians are still Jews, and they feel like they have found some common ground in the end.

“The story of my socks” concerns a family that moves to London for a year because the father has a teaching sabbatical there. While exploring their flat, the young son finds a copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” reads it, and develops an interest in the Holocaust. Up until that time, the only thing his parents told him was that their family emigrated to the United States before that time, and they had not been personally affected. His mother encourages the boy’s interest, but his father is annoyed by it. When the family travels to the parts of Eastern Europe where their grandparents lived, a random incident regarding a pair of socks brings the family conflict to a head.

In “The teacher,” all of the girls have a crush on Mr. Boyce, the cute history teacher, who is even more appealing because he tells stories about his years at Harvard. The girls vie for his attention, but the two Jewish sisters in the class know in advance that with their frizzy hair and ethnic looks, they will never be the ones noticed. There were occasional rumors about Mr. Boyce being seen with students after school hours, but nothing seemed to be of great concern. It is not until all of the students are adults, when, through the modern resource of social media, multiple classmates comment on how they were molested by Boyce, and, one of the Jewish sisters actually had an extended affair with him. 

Plot twists in the other stories include an elderly Jewish man who survived the Holocaust because his parents didn’t believe in circumcision. Most of the family did die in the Holocaust, and now in late life, when someone gives him a dog as a pet, he comes to believe that the dog is his sister reincarnated. In another story, a family living on a secular kibbutz has to deal with a son who is inspired by life in Israel and becomes orthodox. Other themes include the difficult decision of putting a parent in a nursing home, and the guilt of wishing that an elderly mother with dementia would die rather than continue living in such a diminished state. 

This is the author’s seventh book, but the first collection of short stories. As a Jewish woman born and raised in Virginia, she has received recognition as a Southern writer for her previous works. In interviews, she has talked about her privileged upbringing in the world of people who play tennis and own horses. It was not until college that she began to develop an interest in the Jewish part of her heritage. In her sixties now, she has continued to explore that and how it intersects with the attitudes towards Jews in the southern states.

Moses’s stories have been compared to those of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Cynthia Ozick, or Philip Roth. I would add Flannery O’Connor – what O’Connor was able to show about the interior lives of southern Catholics in the 20th century, Moses often does for Jews in the 21st. If you enjoy quirky characters, and a story that captures an event or mood that can be read in one sitting, you will enjoy “The man who loved his wife.”

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