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Not Quite Mainstream: Canadian Jewish Short Stories:
Edited by Norman Ravvin


246 pages,
ISBN: 0889952469


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Cars, Trains, and Standard Yiddish
by Michael Greenstein

"Vos hokst du mir a chinik," the Yiddish equivalent to Shakespeare's "brevity is the soul of wit," translates literally as "why are you banging pots," in its plea for an end to loud long-windedness. This concern for the pithy over the prolix explains the Jewish affinity for the short story in such masters as Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose shorter fictions are arguably superior to their novels. While none of the short stories in Not Quite Mainstream rises to the level of either Malamud's or Singer's, many in this anthology belong to "minor literature" (a term some critics have applied to Kafka's writing), and sit comfortably on the same keyboard as the two masters, thanks to the unfailing eye and ear of editor Norman Ravvin. Ravvin's own contribution, "A Story with Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish", has a hint of both Malamud and Singer in it.

Even Ravvin's "Introduction" has the feel of a short story, beginning with the serendipity of a gift of a Yiddish typewriter and ending with a quotation from Mavis Gallant's first published short story that she has refused to re-publish since 1944. The transition from Gallant's "Good Morning and Goodbye" to Yaacov Zipper's Yiddish story, "That First Morning", is smooth: they both highlight the immigrant's adaptation to Montreal, part of a new-found land or awakening to a new dawn. The best short stories begin with a thrust in medias res, contain some epiphany or revelation for reader or protagonist, and end with a tailing off into ambiguous resolution. Zipper's story, admirably translated from the Yiddish, begins with Uncle Chaim addressing his newly arrived nephew Shternberg: "There is no need to carry it about with you here." A mainstay of Canadian-Jewish literature, the uncle-nephew relationship in this story begins with Shternberg's passport, a necessary document in the past but less important in Canada where freedom is taken for granted. For the Jew, a passport is a means of identity as well as escape from persecution; the passport in Shternberg's breast pocket would have been replaced with a yellow star had he not left Europe.

Amidst the tumult of Montreal's Main Street, Shternberg takes in the dialect of guttural Yiddish and slurred Ukrainian, children playing, and a peddler's "niggun" or melody. A page from Zipper's Yiddish original adds further flavour to "That First Morning", a story that compares nicely with another peddler's tale¨Jack Ludwig's award-winning, much anthologized "Requiem for Bibul". Uncle Chaim's warning about the speed of urban traffic draws attention to the cover of Not Quite Mainstream with its photograph of a blurred, speeding automobile in front of a sign, "MAIN", that refers to Montreal's main street and stream¨the St. Lawrence. A number of stories in this anthology feature cars (see the editor's car at the back of the book) as if to indicate the transitional, dislocating nature of Jewish adjustment to modernism. The fading peddler's wagon at the end of Zipper's story gives way to the cars and trains featured in the rest of the anthology.

Irving Layton's "Piety" gives a sense of the same Montreal ghetto, but there is something contrived about the capitalist Grosnick stealing electricity from the neighbouring synagogue, his employee Maxie Karpal's sensitivity to Grosnick's hypocritical piety, and Mrs. Karpal's violence towards her son's refusal to attend synagogue services. Other poets such as Kenneth Sherman, Tom Wayman, Rochl Korn, Robyn Sarah, and Joe Rosenblatt weigh in with their short stories as well. Korn's Yiddish story, "Bluma Zelinger", is a tragic tale of a refugee family crossing Russia by train to escape the Nazis. While most of her family perishes, Bluma and one daughter survive and hope for a future after the war. Abraham Boyarsky, another writer of not-quite-mainstream fiction, translates the story adroitly. Chava Rosenfarb's Yiddish story, "The Greenhorn", describes the adjustment of a Polish worker to conditions in a French-Canadian factory. Mordecai Richler's "The Street" rounds out the picture of Montreal's Jewish ghetto. Of all the writers in this anthology, only Richler would be considered "mainstream."

Norman Levine's "Thin Ice" depicts his life as a writer in a spare, naturalistic Chekovian style. The narrator gets stuck in a snowstorm in the Maritimes for a couple of miserable nights until his bus is able to resume travel. In the meantime he subsists in his hotel with the barest necessities in contrast to his more successful life as a writer invited to read at a nearby university campus. Matt Cohen's "Lives of the Mind Slaves" shifts to the west coast and his 1962 Ford "Nellie" where Norman Wadkins mixes drinks, women, basketball, reality, and fantasy. Despite winning the Governor General's award, Cohen is still not considered "mainstream," and his memoir, Typing: A Life in 26 Keys, provides an explanation for this phenomenon.

If Cohen's story begins with Nellie, Cary Fagan's "Nora by the Sea" opens with a mustard-coloured Citroen pulling out of a hotel driveway in the south of France. Fagan's transatlantic theme places him in the company of Henry James and Mavis Gallant, though Fagan is not as technically sophisticated as either of these writers. Nora tries to control her family: of her four children, the greatest emphasis is placed on her elder son, Ananda, whom Nora discovers to be homosexual. Similarly, Claire Rothman's coming-of-age story, "August", uncovers a lesbian relationship when the narrator spends a summer with her youthful grandparents in rural Ontario learning how to keep bees. "It was a slow dawning. A truth I'd known somehow, but never dared to look at." Not Quite Mainstream is filled with such dawning, oblique truths, and crystalline prose.

Robyn Sarah's "A Minor Incident" deals with a teacher's off-hand remark about her Jewish students and their materialistic parents. Although the politically incorrect remark seems innocent enough in North America, the story is framed by Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, and therefore throws into question the ethics of what constitutes a "minor" indiscretion. Norman Ravvin's story opens with an uncanny vision of an airplane flying into the Empire State Building. Tom Wayman's story is filled with Yiddish phrases that invoke the murder of ancestors in Europe. Elaine Kalman Naves turns to her Hungarian past, while Irena Eisler's "Chestnuts for Kafka" examines her Czech roots in a visit to the family's graveside where Kafka is also buried. Like Rochl Korn's story, Roma Gelblum-Bross's "The Black Valises" follows the fate of Jewish refugees on a train ride through Russia during the war. Kenneth Sherman's "Fuller Brush" looks to a more recent past in Toronto and completes the collection in another coming of age story. Sherman's final sentence summarizes the mood of many of the other stories: "I experienced a sinking feeling and shifted my heavy briefcase to my left hand so that I wouldn't become too disfigured, and walked on." That parting gait and "dis-figure" on a ground characterize Canadian-Jewish short stories, beginning with Zipper's peddler "fading further and further down the empty street." Filled with nostalgia and empty streets, writers of the New World's St. Lawrence turn to the Old.

Every anthology gets criticized for what it excludes; in this case, missing are J.J. Steinfeld, Henry Kreisel, Nanm Kattan, Judith Kalman, Adele Wiseman, Jack Ludwig, Shirley Faessler, Elyse Gassco, Helen Weinzweig, and Gabriella Goliger, who also enrich the mainstream. With one foot in the east and the other firmly planted in the west, Ravvin seems destined to enter the very mainstream he challenges. The refracted realism of his modern and postmodern Yiddish recreates a past that enhances the Canadian mosaic for children and grandchildren of immigrants. ˛

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