Steve Stern, interviewed by Dawn Raffel
The Book of Mischief, Steve Stern's brilliant new collection, is culled from 25 years of his stories, all deeply inspired by Jewish folklore. Set everywhere from the old Jewish quarter of Memphis (the Pinch) to the market towns of Eastern Europe, the stories are pervaded by uncanny mystery, dark wit, and the sense of the sublime entangled in the mundane. Here, he discusses his obsession with Yiddish culture and the challenge of inhabiting two worlds.
You grew up in Memphis, and as I understand it, you were not particularly immersed in Jewish tradition and culture as a child. What was it about the history of the old Jewish ghetto in Memphis, and about Yiddish folklore that was so compelling for you?
Long story short, I was born and raised in Memphis at a time when the small Jewish enclave there practiced the art of being invisible. I grew up virtually untouched by “heritage” (my joke was that I thought I was a Methodist till I was 30) and thereafter pursued the life of my generation—European wanderjahre, hippie commune, etc. When I washed up again in Memphis around 1980, bereft of resources I took a job at a folklore center. I was assigned to research the roots of the local Jewish community whose original locus was along North Main Street in a district called the Pinch. The area had long since become a blighted urban wasteland, but in seeking out the survivors of the old ghetto and harvesting their memories, I was able to reconstruct the neighborhood by degrees. It was a task in which I came to feel—forgive the hyperbole—as if I were salvaging a lost continent from its wreckage in the past.
The discovery begat curiosity, and I was moved to trace the histories of my North Main Street informants back to their origins in Eastern Europe. The Old World was a place bracketed by menace, oppression, and poverty, but it was also a culture defined by community and faith. It was an environment with a porous atmosphere, its commonplace reality pervaded by figures out of a folklore that I hadn’t previously known existed. Angels and demons remained vital and woven into the fabric of ordinary life. The more I delved into the tradition of Yiddishkeit the more I had the sense that the sanitized Reform synagogue of my youth held a secret: as if its attic housed Old Testament prophets and swarmed with dybbuks, golems, and wandering souls. Who’d have thought the dry-as-dust religion I was weaned on had within it a hidden lode of magic? Intoxicated, I wanted to mine that vein for the rest of my days.
In some ways, you are both an insider (genetically) and an outsider (in terms of the way you were raised) to the world you write about. Is that part of the attraction?
I suppose that in some ways I cherish my outsider status—it’s the vantage from which a writer can shape experience into hopefully significant designs. On the other hand, living often at a historical and geographical remove from the subject of one’s writing can leave you open to charges of inauthenticity. It’s an indictment that, given my insecurity with regard to my own hand-me-down materials, I’ve often leveled at myself. The friends of my youth still ask me: When are you going to drop the Jewish masquerade? But when I try to imagine writing fiction with no connection to the live currents I’ve hot-wired from North Main or Orchard Street or Slutsk or Jerusalem, the engine just won’t start. There’s a Malamud story in which a Russian writer with no real access to his Jewish characters writes exclusively about Jews. His explanation: “When I think Jews, comes stories.” I guess I’d have to say me too.
Is there anything particular to the Yiddish language, which you've studied, that's informed your writing?
Regarding this question I could speak volumes. The thing about Yiddish is that attached to every word is a whole comet’s tail of history and culture. Mameloshen is the wry and humble (haimesheh) language of the Jewish street, but rendered as it is in Hebrew characters, it’s cloaked as well in the sublime. Read a story by I.L Peretz or Itzhik Manger and you’ll encounter the prosteh yidn, the ordinary laborers, rabbis and wives in the pedestrian pursuit of their daily bread. But each character, thanks to the inescapable resonance of the language, seems to embody an archetype whose energies are derived from the immemorial past. Sholem Aleichem’s Mottel the Cantor’s Son echoes the lineage of classic Jewish tricksters from Hershel Ostropolier to Motke Chabad; Isaac Singer’s Gimpel, wandering in his shmattes, echoes Elijah the Prophet in disguise—and so on. Every Yiddish story echoes a folk tale that in turn echoes some ancient mystery, and often the echoes are louder than their original source. This is the quality of the language and its literature that remains most attractive to me: how through the lens of Yiddishkeit the ordinary veers naturally toward the mythical and the quotidian world is inflected by the sacred.
The Book of Mischief draws from 25 years worth of work. Is it strange revisiting your older stories?
Since the stories are organized geographically rather than chronologically, they don’t so much describe an arc as represent common themes. I guess I’m struck by the persistence of stories in which characters attempt to inhabit two worlds (the past and present, the terrestrial and celestial, etc) simultaneously, often to the detriment of both. I’m surprised, being so pathetically earthbound myself, at how many of my characters literally take flight.
You're reading with Joshua Cohen, whose Four New Messages deals with internet mayhem, the strangeness of the virtual colonizing the real. In your own ways you're each dealing with bewilderment and wonder, though perhaps that's what all artists do. What's the most bewildering and wondrous thing you've encountered?
My own face in the mirror on the day my braces were removed. I smiled for the first time in years and instantly my cheeks broke out in fiery constellations of cystic acne.
Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of several previous novels and story collections, including The Frozen Rabbi and The Wedding Jester. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York. He will discuss his new book, The Book of Mischief, in conversation with Joshua Cohen, at the Center for Fiction on September 11 at 7:00 p.m.