I think of myself as someone who doesn’t like short stories. When I want to scratch the itch to read fiction, I am more likely to pick up a novel by an unknown author than a collection of stories by one I like. After reading Daniel M. Jaffe’s recent collection, Jewish Gentle, however, I realize this is not an accurate self-perception. (I’ll add it to the list.) It isn’t short stories I dislike, but poorly crafted ones. And Jaffe’s tales are a far cry from the latter.
Jaffe’s collection of stories exploring “gay-Jewish living” covers a wide range of events—from coming out to hooking up, to meeting lovers, to mourning them. His narrators span a wide range of identities—across age, sexual orientation, gender and, in one less successful tale, species. What is most striking about Jaffe’s writing is his capacity to take the most time-worn tableaux and breathe new life into them. With only one or two exceptions was I surprised by where one of his stories went or how it ended; in most cases, by the third or fourth paragraph, I was fairly clear how each narrative was going to unfold. But Jaffe’s gift with language, with voice, with temporality, with suspense, with humor, with character, with mood made each of his tales utterly engaging. Never has the familiar felt as fresh as it does in Jaffe’s stories.
To my eyes, Jaffe’s most successful stories were those that wove together Jewish and gay identity in meaningful, but not heavy-handed ways. For example, “At Blumberg & Fong’s,” my favorite in the collection, brought together the pain of coming out with the politics ofthe Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a burgeoning American-Jewish identity with religious questioning in a way that allowed each dimension of the tale to refract through all the others beautifully. Similarly—and perhaps it struck me since I teach on a college campus and often assist with LGBTQ student programming—the struggle faced by the narrator in “Finding Home” as he juggles attendance at the Hillel meeting and the queer student gathering seemed quite poignant. And, for all its specificity, the story had something universal about it, as it sketched the nervousness that accompanies one’s first public encounter with other queer-identified folk. “Strawberry Mousse” meditated on food regulations and their importance to identity in a captivating manner. And the titular “Jewish Gentle,” which explored a couple’s foray into leather play, focused attention on the complicated relations between ethnic identity and desire by troubling associations between Jewishness and submission.
Jaffe has a particular gift for capturing the complicated emotional currents swirling around coming out. While “Kaddish” seemed a bit too obvious and heavy-handed, “Telling Dad” had just the right mournful air, as well as the hint of compromise that comes with age. “Happy Birthday to . . .” showed off Jaffe’s facility with voice in a stunning fashion. Jaffe also displayed his talent for capturing affect when he evoked AIDS in his stories. Far from being too sentimental, too maudlin or too matter-of-fact, he moves with great care and a gentle touch to reveal the on-going pathos around the disease.
The only place where Jaffe strayed were the stories that seemed to have little connection to gay-Jewish living, but where Jewishness seemed forced in somehow. (As a goyim, I may have missed the subtleties of some stories. Another reader, another reviewer might have a different experience.) In two stories, for example, the circumcision of a penis marked it as Jewish, and this was the Jewish detail in the story. This was especially unsettling in “Bless the Blue Angel” and “The Four of Us,” given how well-crafted and evocative they were otherwise. These stories would have been much better if Jaffe hadn’t tried to force their relation to the collection’s subtitle. (And given the latter’s allusion to a Freud quote, he might not have needed to follow the strategy he did.) And, Jaffe certainly knew how to sprinkle details of Jewish identity without marring a tale: “That Boy This Day,” for example, my second favorite story from the collection—a beautifully rendered, perfectly voiced story about young gay desire and a widow’s attempt to make sense of his marriage to a transgendered man—refers to rabbis and religious customs quite naturally and seamlessly.
Jaffe was also quite smart to sprinkle a handful of very brief vignettes into his collection. These 1-2 page interludes were fully realized stories, but they broke up the pace of the collection as a whole and left me wanting more. And that, I suppose, is the brilliance of a well-rendered collection of short stories like Jewish Gentle. By telling such well-spun tales with such well-crafted characters, Jaffe has left me wanting more . . . but in the best way. I don’t feel cheated of the longer, fuller tale; I feel charmed by these people into whose world I’ve been invited, and wistful that I couldn’t stay longer.
Reviewed by Kent Brintnall