Modern Jewish-American life tackled in new book

Jennifer Anne Moses’s first book of short stories – 13 of them – is a wry, unsentimental commentary on modern Jewish American life.

 ‘A SORT of Yiddish flavor permeates the stories’: Vintage Yiddish comedy poster. (photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)
‘A SORT of Yiddish flavor permeates the stories’: Vintage Yiddish comedy poster.
(photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)

Jennifer Anne Moses’s first book of short stories –  13 of them – is a wry, unsentimental commentary on modern Jewish American life. Her great skill is in conjuring up from her most fertile imagination wholly believable human beings, complete with their strengths and weaknesses, and carving out a slice of their existence for us. 

In many of her stories we enter their lives, walk with them for a certain distance, and depart. Wholly nonjudgmental, she never provides a moral for her stories, leaving the reader to draw any, if they exist. 

As a writer, Moses inhabits a wide variety of personalities – from a Holocaust survivor to a boy of nine, from a middle-aged husband to a promiscuous young woman – and each is believable because each has been imagined so fully. One such character that will stick in the memory is the uninhibited, sharp-tongued, sex-obsessed old woman, Yetta, from the final story in this collection, “Sol’s Visit” – a fully-rounded portrait painted with deadpan humor of a mother loved and hated in equal measure.

Sometimes Moses provides us with a plot. The seventh story in the book, the one from which she draws the title of the volume, is one such. In a mixed marriage, the terminally ill Jewish wife discovers Jesus and insists on being buried as a Christian, while her non-religious Christian husband, hit by the revelation that Jesus was a Jew, decides that he is Jewish. Another tale with a plot-line is “I’m Getting Married Tomorrow” in which the anti-hero havers and wavers between two young women, and ends up the unhappy victim of his own personality.

In “The Holy Messiah,” a secular Israeli loses his son twice, first to ultra-Orthodoxy and then to war. In “The Fire” a nine-year-old boy’s tall story, dreamed-up to impress a girl, lands his father in jail. “You aren’t still sleeping with men you meet in bookshops, are you?” This question, addressed to the protagonist in “My Cousin’s Heart,” about sums up the theme of the story, which dips into the unhappy life of a libidinous young woman in modern New York.

“Skipped” explores the lifelong and profound psychological effects on two sisters of the younger being considered clever enough to skip a grade in junior school. “Do This Together” paints an unsentimental picture of an assimilated modern Jewish-American family at the time of the mother’s death. “The Uncircumcised” is a sad little tale of a man who survived the Holocaust because his radical parents had refused to have him circumcised, but who loses his sister Esther twice over – once in reality, and once when he is given a dog that he is convinced is her reincarnation, and it is run over in the street.

What of our author?

“I was born in 1959,” writes Moses, “and grew up in the idealized suburban Virginia of the 1960s. I wanted to be a writer. To that end, I read a lot, and had a lot of very bad boyfriends. Eventually I married and had three children. Then we moved from Washington DC to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the stories – both comic and tragic – just fall out of the sky. I write both fiction and non-fiction.”

There is something about writing that she wants to share. “It’s something that I myself just recently became aware of, even though I’d been practicing it, on and off, for years. And it’s this: allow the story that you are supposed to be writing to flow through you and out your hands in the form of typed, written words. Chances are that if you struggle, over-think, ruminate, and lose sleep over a project, it’s not really meant to be.”

“The Man Who Loved His Wife” certainly was meant to be. It provides the reader with a series of vibrant cameos that capture something of the essence of the Jewish spirit. A sort of Yiddish flavor permeates the stories, evoking a feeling of empathy in any reader who may have something of the sort in their own background.

Yet there is also a universality in the themes that Moses explores and the characters she creates. She understands the human condition, and she presents her people and their circumstances without judging them. Reading Jennifer Anne Moses is especially rewarding. She expands our understanding of human beings, their motives and their behavior.

This collection of short stories is certain to provide a great deal of pleasure to anyone interested in people and what makes them tick. It is highly recommended.  

 The Man Who Loved His Wife by Jennifer Anne Moses (credit: Courtesy) The Man Who Loved His Wife by Jennifer Anne Moses (credit: Courtesy)

The Man Who Loved His WifeBy Jennifer Anne MosesMayapple Press 172 pages; 20.95