“Mischief” is indeed the operative term here, for Stern’s characters are subtle, slyly humorous and at times poignant.
Stern’s geographical range is impressive, with most of the stories unfolding in The Pinch, the Jewish section in—of all incongruous places—Memphis, Tenn. In "The Tale of a Kite," the opening story, Rabbi Shmelke is alleged to be able to fly. While this fascinates the narrator’s son Ziggy, the narrator himself is less naïve and more skeptical, especially since the rabbi has a reputation for being on the "lunatic fringe" of Judaism. In "Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven," the narrator’s father-in-law untowardly refuses to die and thus causes untold embarrassment to his family. In fact, even when an angel appears to take him up to paradise, Malkin refuses to believe that the angel is real and snorts that "there ain’t no such place." The angel becomes understandably offended but counters: "We’re even. In paradise they’ll never believe you’re for real." "Zelik Rifkin and the Tree of Dreams" features the title character who, testing his mother’s lack of attention, announces that he robbed a bank and killed a teller. " 'Just so you’re careful,' " she distractedly replies. After the first eight stories, Stern moves us out of Memphis and transports us to the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century. There, prophet Elijah the Tishbite finds that after millennia of commuting between heaven and earth, and after being "translated to Paradise in a chariot of flame while yet alive," he’s become a voyeur. After Manhattan, Stern shifts his narratives to Europe before returning to America for the final story, set in the Catskills.
Stern weaves an intricate and clever web of stories steeped in both sacred and mundane Jewish culture.