A first collection about the difficulties of the modern-day Promised Land—explored through contrasting mysticisms.
In “Malchyk,” a boy participates in the freedom movement at the dawn of Israel in a blend of old myth and new; “An Unwelcome Guest” finds a Jewish man awakened at night by his home’s previous Arab owners for a dreamy game of backgammon that is meant to stand for the Arab-Israeli conflict; and an aging rabbi’s back problem is the occasion for the colliding mysticisms of Jew and chiropractor in “The Art of Correcting.” Papernick’s language is ambitious, but he writes less about being Jewish than about how to be Jewish. Departures from realism meant to give the stories a magical feel are more often than not departures from logical narrative as well and can prove confusing. In “For as Long as the Lamp is Burning,” we learn that the only thing worse than a Jewish mother is an Israeli mother, and “The King of the King of Falafel” pits two purveyors of fast-food falafel against one another in a turf war that isn’t all kosher and just might bring the Messiah. Teenagers in “Lucky Eighteen” explore the temporal conundrum of modern Israel, treating it as much like Disneyland as the Holy Land. The most evolved of the stories is the title piece, about a man whose wild American life looks headed for redemption when God calls him to Israel. He becomes a shepherd—a good thing, since most of the great men of history have been shepherds. But even if the story’s tone is biblical, these are much more modern times, and ultimately only violence awaits him.
At best, Papernick’s tales are like modern Afghan rugs, tanks hidden amid the glorious patterns; at worst, they are sentimental, or simply tools to deliver hypnotic ethnic tidbits.