Against the backdrop of Jerusalem

An anthology of short stories mix together and show an appreciation for the quirky sides of life.

Rabbinical student Yossi Feldman tastes a ceremonial glass of wine during his wedding to Mussie Oberlander, daughter of Hungary’s leading Orthodox rabbi, in Budapest last month. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbinical student Yossi Feldman tastes a ceremonial glass of wine during his wedding to Mussie Oberlander, daughter of Hungary’s leading Orthodox rabbi, in Budapest last month.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Yael Unterman’s first book, Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar, a National Jewish Book Awards finalist, was a scholarly work. In her new book The Hidden of Things, Unterman strikes out in a new direction, moving into fiction, though the backdrop for many of her stories is still Jerusalem and Torah learning. She uses her considerable skills as an author and an actor to shine a spotlight on a group of characters who might seem familiar to many of us living in Jewish communities: mostly young, intelligent, educated, Jewishly observant single women and men.
The book, though written as short stories, is meant to be read in order, for the characters and their lives intermingle as they progress and grow. Yael enlivens these characters with rich and provocative dialogue, both thought and spoken, leading us to recognize them as people we have been or, at least, have known, and to resonate to the situations in which they find themselves. She writes with a deep appreciation for the quirky, humorous and absurd sides of life, while at the same time vividly bringing the pathos and wrenching loneliness that are part and parcel of the human condition, as she points out many of the specific difficulties encountered in living without a partner. For example, when Karin, a 30-year-old British woman doing a doctorate in Jerusalem, is dumped by beloved boyfriend Bo, he says to her: “…there’s some lonely thing in you, way beyond where I can reach”: and she immediately thinks to herself: “Super.
You’re breaking up with me because I’m lonely. That’ll help a lot, thanks.”
While this is a serious statement, with an authentic undercurrent worth thinking about, her sarcasm engenders an initial reaction of laughter, helping the reader to understand that without humor, misery is really miserable, and loneliness unbearable.
In another story we meet Shari, a religiously observant Jewish teacher of highschool girls, who keeps a detailed table of her dates, names, ages, number of times met, matchmaker’s name. Tonight Shari is going out on her 88th date. She is carefully coiffed, made up and dressed, “as before every date… Always give it your best shot. People reject on the littlest things. She knows.”
Then there is Hannah, a young woman finding her way through the maze of choices in religious observance available to thoughtful observant Jewish women today. We see her grappling with the initial implementation of these choices, as “she felt herself teetering on the edge of daunting changes, of which she herself had only a half-formed notion, knowing only that they had to do with the alarming label “feminist” that, once embraced, might change everything...” especially when juxtaposed to her need and wish to find someone with whom she can share her life. Her harrowing experience in the synagogue reflects the intensity of this ambivalence for her, both as an individual and as a member of a community.
Karin, after the break-up with Bo, finds herself collecting abandoned single gloves that she finds on the street, in a lovely and very apt metaphor for a person seeking a partner for love – clearly implying that there is one specific partner out there who just needs to be found, and yet also that this may be an impossible task.
Two others who stand in contrast to each other are Sarah, sweet and earnest, the relative newcomer to religious observance, whose past catches up to her and threatens to ruin her relationship, and Emma (also known as blogger “Katamonsta”) whose sarcasm and funny nature more or less successfully mask her deep pain and growing bitterness about the societal pressure to be in a partnered relationship.
Emma’s humor, not always understood or accepted by her peers, is a driving force in her world, and though perhaps as a defense mechanism it may not always serve her well, it certainly makes her entertaining to read. Here for example is an excerpt from her blog: “Zounds! I spend my life surrounded by whining singles. Yes, friends, the Jews can no longer claim to have a monopoly on suffering. There is a new demographic for self-pity. Jesus wept! (He was a 30-something single too, our Yoshke. But he was lucky. He was crucified before the matchmakers could get to him.)” It is in writing the many sides of their dilemmas that Yael excels. She reads the conflicting emotions and the philosophical, religious and interpersonal challenges the characters face, and writes them as dialogue, internal and external, description and interaction. The seeming paradox of having to fit in while looking for a partner who will see one as a unique individual, plays out all through the book and strikes me as one of the biggest issues at stake for its characters. How does one retain one’s identity while getting past the initial vetting process, in order to ultimately be known, wanted and loved? THOUGH MANY of the protagonists of these stories are women, several speak with a male voice, one of the most powerful being The Ged of El Al. Ged is a young man who has left his life as a full-time yeshiva student to search for himself and meaning in a world without Torah observance and learning as his guides. Ged’s dilemmas as he strives to untangle the webs of the religious and secular worlds that he inhabits resonate very strongly with the struggles of the thinking halachic Jew in the modern world. It is the exploration of Ged’s emotions as he deals with the enormous losses he incurs that really makes this one of the most compelling stories in this book.
The short introductory essay Bubble, a piece written in a different genre from most of the stories, might have benefited from another location. A very interesting, evocative and primal piece, it might have been better placed as an epilogue, as it became far more comprehensible after reading the book than before.
Overall, one of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the richness of each story. Though they are short, each gives us a deep and satisfying portrait of the characters and their realities. By writing some of the characters into the other stories, Unterman gives us a broader view of their worlds and the overlap between them. The author’s willingness to take the time to really notice and detail them for us is a gift, as if offering us twelve short novels. We leave each story satisfied. We know quite a bit about the characters, and have some ideas of how we ourselves might interact with them or perhaps act were we in their shoes.
As in all good reads, I was sad to finish reading this book, and I found that many of the characters and their stories remain with me long after I have finished reading them.
The writer is an artist and an educator. You can visit her work at