Offering heartfelt, often painful evocations of Jewish and gay identity, this collection is a bittersweet rendering of a complex culture.
In “The Tanteh,” a writer is cursed by his great aunt for telling her tale too faithfully. Polyglot, European, a figure of faded glamour, she’s Jewish in a secular, sophisticated way that’s alien to his family’s faith, one steeped in Passover Seders and Zionist politics. He considers his writing an act of love; she reads it as betrayal. Raphael (Writing a Jewish Life: Memoirs, 2005, etc.) is expert at conveying tension; each of these 25 stories is rich in ambivalence, and the lives they chronicle are all-too-human—messy, real and fired with uneasy desire. “Betrayed by David Bowie” finds a college-kid narrator, comfortable with his homosexuality, drawn to a Franco Nero lookalike who’s ambivalent about his. Their bond is a shared passion for David Bowie, then at the height of his Ziggy Stardust persona. As the years pass, AIDS and the more prosaic post-’70s zeitgeist intervene, leaving the narrator bereft, reading interviews in which Bowie disowns his gender-bending self. In “Welcome to Beth Homo,” a Hillel student fantasizes about an all-gay synagogue while dealing with furtive self-loathing. “A New Light” features a reporter at a Jewish newspaper combating a highbrow senior writer’s contempt for Yiddish. Conflating graphic sex scenes with Holocaust memories and epiphanies of self-discovery, Raphael writes from a highly distinctive perspective: a compassionate celebrant of souls squeezed by mainstream pressures and fighting for pride.
Concerned ultimately with the struggle for love both human and divine, these are searing stories.