Short Story Review: The Oxford Book of Hebrew Short Stories

Oxford Hebrew Short Stories

When I originally conceived of the idea for this post, my intention was to write about the short story Cold Spring by Aaron Appelfeld. In fact, I took out The Oxford Book of Hebrew Short Stories (edited by Glenda Abramson) from the library because the book contained a story I had read in high school (mind you, this was in the 1970’s) called “Cold Spring.” We had read it in the original Hebrew, and at the time the style of writing must have made at least a bit of an impression on me. “Cold Spring” takes place directly after World War II has ended. In Appelfeld’s typical style, the story does not talk directly about the Holocaust. It merely alludes to the tragedy the characters have left behind. Appelfeld paints a picture for the reader, but like a realist who only accentuates certain details, we must guess what the full story might be.

However, as I read through the other short stories, I decided I couldn’t write a post without mentioning some of those that had an effect on me. Several authors were women that I had never heard of. I noted that the book is called Hebrew Short Stories as opposed to Israeli Short Stories – some were written well before the founding of the modern State of Israel.

One of the stories that made me change my mind and write about more than one short story was “Sunbeams” by Dvora Baron. I told the synopsis of the story to my daughter and her friend: a young orphan in an Eastern European village is handed from household to household, grows up this way and learns not to depend for affection on any one human, is finally happy when working in a bakery, gets married (not so happy a marriage), her husband dies, she goes back to her shed and bakery. Then she dies. My daughter and her friend declare: that is *SO* depressing, how could you like such a story. I really enjoyed this well-told story. There’s a cow that’s a central player (I think the main character’s affection goes to this cow). The main character learned to be content, even if her life was difficult.

Want to know what *I* thought was depressing? “Cut Off” by Yitzhak Dov Berkowitz is a tale of an elderly woman who travels to New York to be with her only living son – her other children died in childhood and her husband more recently. She discovers her son has changed his name from Rabinowitz to Robbins, and all he seems to care about is showing her how much money he has made and how American her family is. She hands her grandsons prayer books she brought with her from Europe. They clearly have no idea what to do with them. The older one puts his back, while the younger son at least wraps his in yellow paper to protect it. At least he wants to show his grandmother some appreciation.

The last two stories in the book, “Morning in the Park with Nannies” by Savyon Liebrecht and “Dora’s Secret” by Ruth Almog both have Holocaust themes. Both stories have unique methods of using post-Holocaust, modern life settings (a park with nannies and a home in St. Cloud, France) to relay Holocaust tragedies. I own a copy of Savyon Liebrecht’s book It’s All Greek to Me in Hebrew that I bought in 1991. Maybe I should try reading it again.

The book has a wonderful introduction to the history of modern Hebrew literature. All of the modern Hebrew authors I know are included in the volume with the exception of the masterful S.Y. Agnon (the noble prize winner in literature), as they could not get permission to print the short story of his they wanted. If you do read any of the stories in this collection, I would be curious to hear which made an impact on you.

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Do you like reading short stories? Have any made a lasting impression on you? Any that you read back in high school?

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11 thoughts on “Short Story Review: The Oxford Book of Hebrew Short Stories

  • This sounds like a book with stories leaving one to ponder varied issues. The story “Cut Off”does sound depressing.

    I will have to look into this book due to your review.

  • Short stories! Now we’re taking. My list goes on and on, but the story that best represents what I look for in a short story is Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where are you going? Where have you been?” A great short story must effectively allow the reader inside the head space of the main characters, it must also not waste words. Novel can go on and on, but short stories cannot, which is the beauty and challenge of the form. Right now as I’m reading submissions for the literary journal I’m interning for, it’s allowing me to put my thoughts on what makes a good short story into a more cohesive perspective than ever before.

    • Jeri, I should go back and read Joyce Carol Oates. The one you mention sounds like a classic.

      Many of the short stories in this anthology did just that, got the reader into the main character’s heads and had just enough words to describe the setting, plot, characters.

  • Short stories, who reads short stories… Crazy talk.

    One of my favorites from high school (I even read it again recently and it is still great) was Roller Ball Murder. A look at what the world could become with our penchant for sports and sports figures and our need for greater and greater massacre on the field.

    Good for you for stepping into the world of the short. When done well, they can whisk you into new worlds leaving you breathless. Of course they isn’t much wiggle room to play with as the worlds are created. Which also leads you to another benefit. You can finish an entire story in a single sitting unlike a novel that require hours and days (sometimes weeks) of your time.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jon! I’ve enjoyed short stories for many years, but I do find it is sometimes difficult to absorb myself in the next one, especially in an anthology where lots of authors present different styles, not all of them easy to follow.

      In college, I took creative writing and wrote one short story. But then I gave up. Oh, well.

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