Jewish Gentle and Other Stories of Gay-Jewish Living – Daniel M. Jaffe (Lethe Press)

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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 of
the 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



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