L’Chaim and Lamentations: Stories by Craig Darch. NewSouth Books. 160 pages. Hardcover $24.95.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of writing about Richard Slotkin’s short story collection titled Greenhorns. I take the same pleasure in sharing Craig Darch’s somewhat similar collection. Darch, a professor at Auburn University, has crafted a compact, resonant memorial to the Jewish ethos as it existed in New York City for many decades.
Though there are few time markers, the ambiance seems to suggest the 1920s through the 1950s. These decades have faded away, with their various tones of hope and disappointment. They are almost forgotten, but the author brings them back through the sensibilities of people who themselves are on a point of balance between forgetting and remembering – as well as being forgotten.
Many live lonely lives, many have fallen upon – or always had – hard times. Many have a special kind of dignity and even courage. Darch’s nostalgic heart has made their ordinariness extraordinary.
These are people surviving inside their loneliness. The world they once fully inhabited has changed around them. The corner delicatessens run by hardworking neighbor- owners have vanished or been transformed.
Darch’s seven stories are seven gems.
“Sadie’s Prayer” offers two aged roommates, Sadie and Esther. They are a kind of odd couple. Esther’s temperament demands neatness and convention. She can’t understand why the good lord has given her such an annoying partner and how the Jewish housing agency brought them together. Esther cannot adjust to Sadie’ smoking, to her Communist leanings, to her messiness. Esther looks backward; her memories of life with her deceased husband are a kind of anchor. She seems to talk to him, and Sadie is crass enough to point out that “Max is reading the newspaper and having his bagels someplace else this morning.”
Esther voices her wish that she had perished with her husband, and Sadie chides her for her silliness.
Knowing that they are each guilty of making each other’s lives much more miserable than they need to be, they agree – at Sadie’s suggestion – that the each treat the other with civility. Fat chance of that happening – at least not yet. They are wired differently and most likely it is too late for them to change.
While the women’s bickering dialogue is quite humorous, and perhaps will seem familiar to many readers. We all know people like this. They are our relatives, if not necessarily our friends.
They compete about who suffers the most, who prays the most, and who taste is superior.
In a sense, one can’t live without the other, and the conclusion makes clear that Sadie knows it and knows that even in the afterlife, Esther will need a friend like Sadie.
In “Kaddish for Two” we enter the lives of Zev Abramovitch and his thirty-three-year old unmarried son, Aharon. For Zev, it’s very important that his son continue the family line and experience its joys in the traditional manner. Readers will suspect the reason for Aharon’s resistance to such conversations long before Aharon ends the useless fencing back and forth by announcing that he is gay. Darch’s credible and powerful handling of this situation, the horrors of moral blindness and disappointment that overwhelm both men, is stunning. The premise, that a Jewish man needs a son to guarantee that there is someone to say Kaddish for him, resonates both in comfortable and uncomfortable ways.
“Who’s the Old Crone” raises the issue of Jewish continuity in a different way. Three old friends are chatting and noshing at a restaurant, Schwartzman’s Nosh, run by Sybil. They see a woman they haven’t seen there before who looks down and out. She seems at once pitiful and imposing. But who are they to judge? They are the remnants of the Romanian synagogue “bankrupt and boarded up years ago.”
Indeed, they are its last rabbi, last sexton, and last cantor. They are learned and somewhat cantankerous. The sexton, Eisenberg, “could kvetch fluently in seven languages.” Nachman, the cantor, who had lost his once-glorious voice, magically gets it back. Rabbi Fiddleman holds the group together. They have nothing to do except appraise the dishwasher and overhear a (beautifully rendered) mother-daughter confrontation.
An incident in the Nosh leads the three men, each in his own way, to contemplate death. The rabbi explains that “the Torah makes no definitive statement about an afterlife.” A year passes, and they are still talking about the old crone and muttering about how after coming to Schwartzman’s for ten years, there is “never a waitress when you need one.”
These tales, and their four companions, are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes consoling, always luminously true.
This review appears in the January 2020 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)