Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia
Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people. So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes. (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)
The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner. A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan. The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed. The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.
Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not. “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English. It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged. Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.
As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust. “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer. But the crocodile gets greedy.
There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories. Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors. Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.
“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories. A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.
The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch. (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.) No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.
It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.
Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.