Drawn by Antoine Berjon from the Har­ris Bris­bane Dick Fund, 1928

From the time I could read, I was read­ing Jew­ish sto­ries. I grew up in an obser­vant Con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish home in Mia­mi, where Jew­ish learn­ing was strong­ly encour­aged. I attend­ed a Jew­ish day school and belonged to a young, tight-knit syn­a­gogue with a dynam­ic rab­bi, whom I admired. My high school job was help­ing kids pre­pare for their Bar Mitz­vahs. In the sum­mers I attend­ed Camp Ramah, which is the camp­ing arm of the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment. There, I eager­ly took part in Jew­ish prac­tice and study. Nat­u­ral­ly, these child­hood expe­ri­ences played an impor­tant role in form­ing my world view.

Many of the char­ac­ters in my debut sto­ry col­lec­tion, The Usu­al Uncer­tain­ties, are iden­ti­fi­ably Jew­ish. In the first sto­ry, The White Spot,” the two main char­ac­ters, a doc­tor and his son, are the off­spring of Hun­gar­i­an-Jew­ish Holo­caust sur­vivors. In the third sto­ry, Roger’s Square Dance Bar Mitz­vah,” a 13-year-old boy embarks on a path toward becom­ing a reli­gious Jew while his fam­i­ly mem­bers are mys­ti­fied by his lev­el of obser­vance. In the fourth sto­ry, Apples and Oranges,” which takes place in 1952, a small-time Jew­ish Amer­i­can busi­ness­man finds unwant­ed Gen­tile babies in the coun­try­side out­side of Philadel­phia and locates Jew­ish homes for them in the city, thus replen­ish­ing, to a tiny degree, the world’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion after the Holocaust.

There are sto­ries in the col­lec­tion in which none of the char­ac­ters is iden­ti­fied as Jew­ish. That doesn’t mean that these char­ac­ters are not Jew­ish. It just means that I didn’t think the mat­ter was sig­nif­i­cant enough to men­tion. “[Before she left, she gave him]” is such a sto­ry. This one-page sto­ry, excerpt­ed below, focus­es on a cou­ple. The woman is an artist, who peri­od­i­cal­ly takes leave of the man, who is not. Our sense is that her voca­tion is mak­ing work. His voca­tion, on the oth­er hand, is, to a great extent, her.” What mat­ters about the two of them is their rela­tion­ship to one anoth­er, which the sto­ry maps in high­ly com­pressed fashion.

I have noticed over the years that I have a dif­fer­ent response to Jew­ish sto­ries than I do to oth­er kinds of sto­ries. It’s not that I always pre­fer them, although I do read a lot of them. But it’s as if a famil­iar, ances­tral lan­guage is being used, a lan­guage that I grew up speak­ing and am pleased to speak to this day. Here I am talk­ing about explic­it­ly Jew­ish sto­ries, as well as sto­ries in which the writer doesn’t men­tion that his char­ac­ters are Jew­ish, or in which there aren’t any Jew­ish char­ac­ters, and even sto­ries in which the writer doesn’t iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish her­self but is. It seems to me that there is a var­ied, shared world view that comes with being Jew­ish, even if the writer repu­di­ates Jew­ish iden­ti­ty altogether.

My own feel­ings of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty are strong. I scru­ti­nize them often. When I invent a char­ac­ter — Jew­ish, not Jew­ish, or not named — I do so because some­thing in me is deeply inter­est­ed in that char­ac­ter. I don’t set out to cre­ate Jew­ish char­ac­ters. I just find, over and again, that I want to.

[Before she left, she gave him]

Before she left, she gave him three lit­tle yel­low wild ros­es. Where’d you get these?” he asked, and she said, Found them in a field. Behind the San­dovals’ prop­er­ty.” Now the petals had dried out but they weren’t so dry that they didn’t stick to every­thing in their house — the desk, the rug, the han­dle of the sauté pan, the kitchen counter, the fur­nace. She dealt with the sep­a­ra­tions bet­ter than he did. Of course, she was always the one leav­ing. Sep­a­rat­ing was almost her nature. And yet he, who craved fre­quent phys­i­cal touch, had always liked this about her. How iso­lat­ed she could make her­self. What it was to yearn for her, to long. For days after she left, he could feel the touch of his fin­gers on her back­bone, the sen­sa­tion of her hair brush­ing his cheek.

He peeled all the petals off of every­thing they had stuck to and put them in a small bowl in the kitchen win­dow. This was the dig­ging in. It was going to be email now and phone cards for a long while. They weren’t mar­ried, and he doesn’t know what she would say if he asked her. He’s not going to ask her.

He has friends in town, which helps. Unlike her, he has no voca­tion. His voca­tion, to a great extent, is her. He has helped build a stu­dio behind the house where she can do her work. He per­forms the tasks she prefers not to do her­self. He takes pride in her. He no longer wor­ries, as he did when they first met, that she does not regard him as an equal. Nor does he wor­ry that if his ill­ness returns, she will aban­don him. She makes him won­der­ful, sim­ple gifts. She always comes back. Things have nev­er been better.

Jonathan Blum is the author of two books of fic­tion: LAST WORD (Res­cue Press, 2013), a novel­la, and THE USU­AL UNCER­TAIN­TIES: STO­RIES (Res­cue Press, 2019), a sto­ry col­lec­tion. Blum grew up in Mia­mi and grad­u­at­ed from UCLA and the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop. His short sto­ries have appeared in Angels Flight-lit­er­ary west, The Car­oli­na Quar­ter­ly, Gulf Coast, Keny­on Review, Play­boy, Sono­ra Review, Shanxi Lit­er­a­ture, among oth­ers. He has taught fic­tion writ­ing at The Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa, Drew Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Iowa Sum­mer Writ­ing Fes­ti­val, and is the recip­i­ent of a Mich­en­er-Coper­ni­cus Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca Award, a Hawthorn­den fel­low­ship in Scot­land, and a grant from the Helene Wurl­itzer Foun­da­tion. He has also been a guest writer at the Tian­jin Bin­hai New Area Inter­na­tion­al Writ­ing Pro­gram in Chi­na. He lives in Los Angeles.