The Secret That Is Not a Secret: Ten Hereti­cal Tales

  • Review
By – January 29, 2024

This short sto­ry col­lec­tion by Jay Michael­son is, as its title sug­gests, a book of oppo­sites: char­ac­ters are here and not here,” seek­ing desire amid revul­sion; reveal­ing them­selves as they con­ceal them­selves; and dis­cov­er­ing that the pro­fane is in fact the sacred, and the sacred, the profane. 

Draw­ing on kab­bal­is­tic ideas, Michael­son explores these seem­ing con­tra­dic­tions as he cre­ates an expan­sive vision of Jew­ish life. The fam­i­ly in The Aca­cia Tree” is mod­ern reli­gious. In The Night Watch­man and the Hun­dred Thou­sand Golems,” the pro­tag­o­nist hails from a line of sec­u­lar Jews and finds solace in the order­li­ness of the laws gov­ern­ing Jew­ish mys­ti­cism. Oth­er char­ac­ters make aliyah, vis­it the mik­vah, and embark on spir­i­tu­al jour­neys. Tak­en togeth­er, these expe­ri­ences demon­strate that spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is a porous pur­suit, not bound to any one sect of Judaism.

Michael­son also touch­es on the breadth of the queer Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. In The Secrets of Naked­ness” — one of the most cap­ti­vat­ing, dia­logue-rich sto­ries — a gay man named Nathan attends a med­i­ta­tion class with a pro­gres­sive rab­bi, hop­ing that she’ll help him curb the fan­tasies he has about oth­er men dur­ing sex with his part­ner. While in class, Nathan speaks with a lacon­ic Israeli psy­chol­o­gist who even­tu­al­ly leads him back to his apart­ment, where they’ll get to the root of Nathan’s fan­tasies. An ear­li­er sto­ry, enti­tled The Verse,” describes how a num­ber of char­ac­ters respond when Leviti­cus 18:22, which is gen­er­al­ly under­stood as the bib­li­cal injunc­tion against homo­sex­u­al­i­ty,” dis­ap­pears from every Torah in exis­tence. These and oth­er sto­ries hon­or char­ac­ters as they explore the rela­tion­ship between their queer­ness and Jewishness. 

As is the way with much of Jew­ish sto­ry­telling, not all of Michaelson’s sto­ries end in per­fect res­o­lu­tion. In The Aca­cia Tree,” a wrong step leaves an Israeli teen strand­ed in the desert, dehy­drat­ed and hal­lu­ci­nat­ing. In The Ascent of Chana Riv­ka Korn­feld,” the short­est and most fast-paced sto­ry, a man’s rage­ful behav­ior and extrem­ist ideas end up cost­ing the nar­ra­tor her life. Chana’s final thoughts are as poet­ic as they are trag­ic: “ … and with that I am enveloped in this or ganuz, this radi­ant and undy­ing light, and I am dis­solved into it, and I am no longer in that place but here in this one … and I am open and dis­solved and here.”

Like any sto­ry col­lec­tion, some of the sto­ries are more affect­ing than oth­ers. A few of the nar­rat­ing voic­es are quite sim­i­lar to one anoth­er, and Michaelson’s ample use of foot­notes runs the risk of pulling read­ers out of the sto­ry world. Nev­er­the­less, The Secret That Is Not a Secret is a com­pas­sion­ate, wide-rang­ing med­i­ta­tion on desire and reli­gion. Michael­son writes with hon­esty, with heresy — and that is no secret.

Kyra Lisse is Jew­ish Book Council’s Edi­to­r­i­al Fel­low. She’s a grad­u­ate of Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege in Lan­cast­er, PA, where she stud­ied cre­ative writ­ing and Latin. Cur­rent­ly, Kyra is a sec­ond-year MFA can­di­date and grad­u­ate assis­tant at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty in Roanoke, VA, con­cen­trat­ing on cre­ative non­fic­tion. Her email is kyra@​jewishbooks.​org.

Discussion Questions