Jewish Short Stories: Reflections & Recommendations

Held for the first time entirely online, the recent Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) conference featured an array of superlative sessions. In one, during which veteran librarians shared tips for leading book clubs and similar groups, the subject of Jewish short stories came up.

For reasons that I cannot understand, some readers resist short stories. Happily, some groups and leaders nonetheless may select an entire collection for discussion. Others focus on a single story by one author for one session and move on to something that someone else wrote the next time.

To source their reading, plenty of book clubs routinely turn to the late, great Big Names: Grace Paley, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer. But recently, librarians and other facilitators/instructors—and I include myself here—have introduced selections from or entire short-fiction collections by a new generation: Molly Antopol, David Bezmozgis, Rachel Hall, Margot Singer, Ayelet Tsabari, and many superbly talented others.

Some of this short-story conference discussion popped up anew last week on Facebook. Thanks to my own work as a writer, I’m aware that a great deal of excellent short fiction lives—temporarily or forever— uncollected in book form. Even better, if you’re seeking stories that you can share with your group/students via a simple link, much of this work exists online, in freely accessible form.

So I offered to compile for my librarian friends a list of Jewish short stories which, if they depend on book recommendations from library/publishing trade publications, they might not routinely encounter. And I’m sharing this with everyone.

I’ll begin by highlighting a few places where you’ll find an abundance of Jewish short stories gathered:

  • Every month, Haim Watzman publishes a new story in The Times of Israel. You can check out a full archive on this site. (One of my recent favorites, “Tikun,” would be especially appropriate around the Shavuot holiday.)
  • Some (but unfortunately, not all) of the stories that the short fiction contest administered by Moment magazine and the Karma Foundation have recognized are archived on the magazine’s website. (You’ll discover a couple of samples below.)
  • You’ll also find an ample supply of short fiction over on JewishFiction.net (technically, some of the selections here are standalone excerpts from longer works). New issues appear several times during the year.

And below you’ll find 10 more Jewish short stories that I’ll share with you. It’s an idiosyncratic list, to be sure: These are all stories that I’ve enjoyed reading, teaching, and/or sharing. Again, I’m focusing here on stories that, to my knowledge, are a) not published in a full-length collection and b) currently available online.

  • [Kathrine] Kressmann Taylor, “Address Unknown.” Call it a short story. Call it a novella. Whatever you do, read it. I am so grateful that, early in this spring’s lockdown, I learned about librarian Lisa Silverman’s online discussion of this story for the American Jewish University’s B’Yachad Together “Keep Calm and Read On” programming. It’s a stunning work of political fiction, first published by Story magazine in September 1938.
  • Joan Leegant, “Beautiful Souls.” This story won the 2011 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction from Colorado Review. Here’s its opening line: “They were two American girls, Abby and Jennifer, best friends, sixteen and not entirely naïve, wandering in the Arab shuk in Jerusalem’s Old City.” Leegant’s short-story collection, An Hour in Paradise, was published in 2003, and her novel Wherever You Go appeared in 2010.
  • Shula Rosen, “The Invisible Chassidishe Maidel” (The Invisible Chassidic Girl). Published by Kenyon Review Online in 2013.
  • Sam Apple, “The Butcher of Desire; or Imagining Philip Roth.” I read this one when it was published in Tablet magazine in 2015, and I shared some thoughts about it at the time.
  • Dalia Betolin-Sherman, “Circle of Friends” (trans. Ilana Kurshan). In Israel, Betolin-Sherman’s work is widely recognized, but until a book is available in English, I’m limited to this translation, which appeared in 2015 in The Ilanot Review. Through its child-narrator perspective, the story depicts experiences of schoolchildren who, like Betolin-Sherman, are immigrants from Ethiopia.
  • Jason K. Friedman, “Vanished Jews of Hetta.” Published after the release of Friedman’s debut collection (which I’ve also read), this story took second place in the Moment magazine-Karma Foundation contest in 2015; the magazine teases that in this story “a Manhattan publicist returns to his sleepy Southern hometown and attempts to revitalize its Jewish life.” (The publicist also happens to be gay; if you’re looking for a story that embodies some “intersectional” content, this may be an especially good choice.)
  • Steven Volynets, “Turboatom.” With a Chernobyl backdrop, this story won the Moment magazine-Karma Foundation contest in 2016. An interview with the (then-Soviet) Ukraine-born author accompanies the story.
  • Zeeva Bukai, “The Abandoning.” This story won the 2017 December magazine’s Curt Johnson Prose Award in Fiction. It served as my introduction to Bukai’s stories (thankfully, there are many!).
  • Elizabeth Edelglass, “Neighboring Parts of This Planet.” This one, published by New Haven Review in 2018, is a little tricky to access: You need to go to the “issues” page of journal’s website, scroll down to Issue 22, and download the issue. You will find the story within. It’s worth the effort. (Edelglass, too, has published many stories—but I can’t seem to find them listed in one place. May I suggest that you turn to Google?)
  • Omer Friedlander, “Operation Tamar.” I’ve only just discovered Friedlander’s work, but I’ve quickly become a fan. Set during the Six-Day War, “Operation Tamar” was published by The Common earlier this year. Friedlander is another writer who has published numerous short stories.

I hope that this post expands your pool of club/group readings. Please feel free to share, in comments, links to other Jewish short stories that you may have found fruitful in such settings.

image of a person standing surrounded by library shelves

13 thoughts on “Jewish Short Stories: Reflections & Recommendations

  1. Rachel Kamin says:

    WOW – this is amazing, Erika! Thank you so much! I will look into all of these and report back on what I select.

    1. Rachel Kamin says:

      Here’s what I picked for my short story discussion group this fall:
      October: “Address Unknown” by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor
      November: “The Butcher of Desire; or Imagining Philip Roth” by Sam Apple and
      “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka” by Philip Roth
      December: “Operation Tamar,” “Alte Sachen,” and “Jellyfish in Gaza” by Omer Friedlander
      Thank you so much, Erika – I never would have found these without you!

      1. Erika Dreifus says:

        Oh, my goodness. How amazing, Rachel. Thank you for sharing! (Where did you find the Roth story? I still haven’t read it.)

  2. Thank you for putting this together, Erika! I’ve read a few of these but I’m bookmarking this to read the rest…

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thanks, Julie! (Everyone, Julie happens to be one of the “talented others” with a book of linked short stories of her own. Please click her name to visit her website and learn all about it!)

  3. Annette Goldsmith says:

    Thanks so much for this list, Erika! I had not yet explored what was available in book-club-appropriate short stories so this is a real gift.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Annette, I haven’t tested all of these in book-club settings. I wanted to give a range of possibilities. Do let me know how your club(s) respond!

  4. Lisa Silverman says:

    Wow, this is such a useful list! (And thanks for the shout-out, fellow obsessive Kressman Taylor fan!) I have just bookmarked this blog post so I can come back to get the links and take my time getting to these stories.
    I also wanted to tell you that Immigrant City, by David Bezmozgis, was only published in Canada for some reason last year, so it is hard to find in the U.S. But his story “Little Rooster” was excerpted by the Jewish Book Council on their website and I used that one in a short story class discussing the immigrant experience.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Hi, Lisa. I’ve actually found a number of stories from IMMIGRANT CITY and NATASHA online (it’s helped, for teaching purposes, that I have subscriptions to a couple of magazines where some were paywalled; Tablet ran the title piece from IMMIGRANT CITY [https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/immigrant-city], but I was able to get a copy of the book from one of my local libraries). I taught a few NATASHA stories last year and we’ll be reading that collection in a group I’m running this fall. Meantime–I am going to send you an email. I want to be on your mailing list!

  5. Grace Schulman says:

    What a good idea. A wonderful list of books, and not just for librarians. Unusual, unexpected, intriguing. I can’t wait to start reading these. Thanks, Erika. Grace

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Oh, my goodness, Grace! How lovely to see your name here. Thank you so much for the generous words. I hope that you are faring well (and staying cool!).

  6. andrew paul grell says:

    Hi Erika —

    I follow all of your posts on the Calls for Submissions FB group. Ten minutes ago, I wandered into your article on Jewish short stories. (of course they’re short, they may be running to stay ahead of Pharaoh). About a third of the stories I write are Jewish or Biblically themed. The acceptance rate for these stories is maybe an eighth of what my normal acceptance rate is. I now have an embryonic 170-page book of Jewish themed stories, Yiddish Kite, which runs from Eve accidentally killing the serpent up to the discovery of the BRCA 1 & 2 mutations. I’ve submitted to open calls for short story collections and also to Jewish Lights; not even a “Thank you for your interest” did I get. I have a traditionally published novel on a biblical theme, and not even my own publisher wants anything to do with this collection. Anna Olswanger seems to be in charge of representing/publishing Jewishy stuff but the last time I communicated with her, she was only doing children’s books. If you have any ideas for me, I would be most grateful.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Andrew, this is an old post, but the advice may still hold: https://www.erikadreifus.com/2012/09/advice-for-jewish-writers/.

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