Author pho­to by Yaal Herman

Simona Zaret­sky speaks with Nora Gold on her anthol­o­gy 18: Jew­ish Sto­ries Trans­lat­ed from 18 Lan­guages, dis­cussing Gold’s Jew­ish Fic­tion .net, trans­la­tion, and the mulitlin­gual­ism of Jew­ish fic­tion itself. 

Simona Zaret­sky: Jew­ish Fic­tion .net is now in its thir­teenth year and has pub­lished over 500 pieces, that is incred­i­ble – what was your impe­tus for start­ing this journal? 

Nora Gold: This may sound strange because dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing is now such a nor­mal part of our lives, but when it began, it caused shock waves in the pub­lish­ing indus­try. Pub­lish­ers, sud­den­ly afraid of going under, became reluc­tant to take on new authors, espe­cial­ly those they con­sid­ered niche,” such as writ­ers of Jew­ish-themed fic­tion. Back then, I knew sev­er­al tal­ent­ed writ­ers of Jew­ish fic­tion who, because of the cri­sis in pub­lish­ing, could no longer find pub­lish­ers for their work, and I didn’t want all this fine lit­er­a­ture to get lost. So I start­ed Jew­ish Fic­tion .net, which was then, and still is, the only Eng­lish-lan­guage jour­nal (either print or online) devot­ed exclu­sive­ly to Jew­ish fic­tion. From the out­set, we pub­lished sto­ries by both emerg­ing writ­ers and well-estab­lished ones, and we wel­comed fic­tion either writ­ten in Eng­lish or trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish but nev­er before pub­lished in Eng­lish. All of us were, and still are, vol­un­teers. At present, almost a third of the sto­ries in Jew­ish Fic­tion .net are trans­lat­ed works, and we have read­ers in 140 countries. 

SZ: How do you decide what a Jew­ish piece is for your jour­nal? What draws you to a story?

NG: There are many def­i­n­i­tions of Jew­ish fic­tion, and although this issue has been exten­sive­ly writ­ten about and debat­ed over, a con­sen­sus has nev­er been reached. The def­i­n­i­tion of Jew­ish fic­tion that I con­sid­er most com­pre­hen­sive and per­sua­sive is Ruth Wisse’s in The Mod­ern Jew­ish Canon. Wisse’s def­i­n­i­tion, like any, has its lim­i­ta­tions, but I agree with her asser­tion that a Jew­ish sto­ry is one that is cen­tral­ly Jew­ish” (a phrase orig­i­nal­ly coined by Cyn­thia Ozick that Wisse bor­rows). To Wisse, cen­tral­ly Jew­ish” means reflec­tive in some way of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, Jew­ish con­scious­ness, or the Jew­ish con­di­tion. Of course, what it means for a work of fic­tion to reflect Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, Jew­ish con­scious­ness, or the Jew­ish con­di­tion can be com­plex to define. To me, a sto­ry that is Jew­ish express­es Jew­ish iden­ti­ty on either a reli­gious or cul­tur­al dimen­sion, and it relates in a fun­da­men­tal way to Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, whether in the past, present, or future. In this kind of sto­ry, the Jew­ish con­tent is inex­tri­ca­ble. Unlike sto­ries that pur­port to be Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture sim­ply because they con­tain a bagel or a char­ac­ter with a Jew­ish name, with authen­tic Jew­ish fic­tion you can’t extract the Jew­ish ele­ment of the work and still leave the sto­ry standing. 

An addi­tion­al aspect of Wisse’s def­i­n­i­tion is that in Jew­ish fic­tion, the authors or char­ac­ters know, and let the read­er know, that they are Jews.” There is a choice offered here between author and char­ac­ter, and to me this means that it is suf­fi­cient for the char­ac­ter in a sto­ry to ful­fill this role. It need not be the author, and there­fore the author need not be Jew­ish. Over the years I have encoun­tered, and pub­lished, some first-rate Jew­ish-themed fic­tion writ­ten by non-Jews, and an excel­lent exam­ple of this is in my book 18 with the nov­el excerpt Golem,” trans­lat­ed from Polish.

You ask what draws me to a sto­ry. For me, a sto­ry has to feel alive. It can have an inter­nal focus, an exter­nal focus, or a mix of the two, but it needs to move (in the sense of for­ward move­ment) and it needs to move me. I also love word­play; rich, allu­sive use of lan­guage; and lan­guage that is stretched like an elas­tic in ser­vice of the sto­ry being told, not in order to show off. 

SZ18 is such a wide-rang­ing col­lec­tion of sto­ries, from the lan­guage they are writ­ten in, to the set­tings, sto­ries, and char­ac­ters them­selves. How did you choose eigh­teen sto­ries from the wealth of pieces you’ve pub­lished online? 

NG: In a few cas­es, choos­ing which sto­ry to include was easy because we had pub­lished in Jew­ish Fic­tion .net only one sto­ry trans­lat­ed from that lan­guage. Most­ly, though, this deci­sion was chal­leng­ing because we had pub­lished so many works trans­lat­ed from a par­tic­u­lar lan­guage, all of them excel­lent, and we could pick only one. For instance, we had dozens of trans­la­tions from Hebrew to choose from. When mak­ing my selec­tions for this anthol­o­gy, I con­sid­ered a num­ber of vari­ables, such as the desir­abil­i­ty of includ­ing at least a few authors whose names would be famil­iar to Eng­lish-lan­guage read­ers. But ulti­mate­ly I picked eigh­teen sto­ries that I loved.

SZ: In the intro­duc­tion, you men­tion that trans­la­tion and inter­na­tion­al reach is extreme­ly impor­tant to the over­all tapes­try of the col­lec­tion as well as your own approach to the work you pub­lish in your jour­nal. Could you speak on this?

NG: I always con­ceived of Jew­ish Fic­tion .net as an inter­na­tion­al jour­nal that pub­lish­es trans­lat­ed works, but it took sev­er­al years of doing this before I ful­ly grasped its sig­nif­i­cance. By then I’d heard from many of our read­ers whose first lan­guage was Eng­lish that until dis­cov­er­ing Jew­ish Fic­tion .net, they’d nev­er encoun­tered Jew­ish fic­tion in trans­la­tion (oth­er than, per­haps, sto­ries trans­lat­ed from Hebrew, Yid­dish, or Ladi­no). Many peo­ple whose first lan­guage is Eng­lish hear the phrase Jew­ish fic­tion” and think only of Jew­ish fic­tion writ­ten in Eng­lish, and gen­er­al­ly only Amer­i­can Jew­ish fic­tion – not Cana­di­an, British, Aus­tralian, or South African, much less what’s been writ­ten in oth­er lan­guages. This is both unfor­tu­nate and iron­ic because – relat­ed to Jews hav­ing lived for two thou­sand years among oth­er nations and writ­ing sto­ries in those nations’ lan­guages – one of the key fea­tures of Jew­ish fic­tion is its mul­ti­lin­gual­ism. Iden­ti­fy­ing this gap in knowl­edge among my read­er­ship at Jew­ish Fic­tion .net is what prompt­ed me to cre­ate 18.

Find­ing the trans­lat­ed works for Jew­ish Fic­tion .net is not always easy. Some­times these sto­ries just show up in our sub­mis­sions por­tal; oth­er times an author, trans­la­tor, or pub­lish­er writes to me ask­ing if I’ll con­sid­er a piece of their work. Usu­al­ly, though, I have to hunt for these sto­ries myself. The chal­lenge in doing this is that I’m always look­ing for fic­tion that has already been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish but not yet pub­lished in Eng­lish, and when this involves a book — a nov­el or sto­ry col­lec­tion — there is only a small win­dow between the time that a trans­la­tion is com­plet­ed and when the Eng­lish-lan­guage book comes out. Pub­lish­ers love Jew­ish Fic­tion .net because we pro­vide their books with free world­wide pub­lic­i­ty, but the only way to access these works at exact­ly the right moment is by know­ing the author, trans­la­tor, or pub­lish­er, and arrang­ing all this well in advance. For this, an exten­sive inter­na­tion­al net­work is cru­cial, and I am for­tu­nate in hav­ing devel­oped one over the past thir­teen years. Still, each new lan­guage that I begin to explore is its own world with its own unique net­work, so I have to start from scratch, seek­ing some­one who might know some­one, who might know some­one, etc. It’s a lot of work but it’s also fun, and I’ve met some won­der­ful peo­ple along the way.

And please, if you are read­ing this and have some con­tacts to sug­gest or ideas to share, get in touch with me. I am always on the look­out for trans­la­tions from lan­guages we have not yet pub­lished, as well as new trans­la­tions from the twen­ty lan­guages we’ve pub­lished so far. 

I always con­ceived of Jew­ish Fic­tion .net as an inter­na­tion­al jour­nal that pub­lish­es trans­lat­ed works, but it took sev­er­al years of doing this before I ful­ly grasped its significance.

SZ: In look­ing back over more than a decade of sto­ries and cre­at­ing this col­lec­tion, are there ele­ments or themes with­in sto­ries that remain constant?

NG: There are. In addi­tion to all the uni­ver­sal themes you’d find in any col­lec­tion of sto­ries, like love, there are cer­tain Jew­ish-rel­e­vant themes that span 18 and Jew­ish Fic­tion .net. These include: the Jew­ish fam­i­ly; anti­semitism; moral­i­ty and immoral­i­ty; out­sider iden­ti­ty; rela­tion­ships (both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive) with non-Jews; the Holo­caust; pride in, and love of, Jew­ish tra­di­tion; and cri­tique of this tra­di­tion and of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty (for exam­ple, due to its sexism). 

There have also been some inter­est­ing and idio­syn­crat­ic pat­terns in the sub­mis­sions we’ve received at Jew­ish Fic­tion .net. A sur­pris­ing­ly high num­ber of sub­mis­sions involv­ing the Holo­caust (sto­ries writ­ten not only by old­er authors, but younger ones, includ­ing teens), and golems. Also, in the first cou­ple of years of Jew­ish Fic­tion .net, we received six sub­mis­sions of sto­ries (of which we pub­lished only one) where a young woman com­mit­ted sui­cide in a mikveh. This was so star­tling that I wrote an arti­cle about it, which was pub­lished in The For­ward. In recent years, we have not received any sto­ries on this theme.

SZ: Was there any­thing sur­pris­ing that you came across while revis­it­ing the sto­ries in 18

NG: Yes. 18 was pub­lished and had its book launch on Octo­ber 17, ten days after the hor­ri­ble events of Octo­ber 7. Dur­ing those ten days I turned to 18 for solace. Reread­ing it, I was sur­prised by how rel­e­vant the sto­ries in it are to this ter­ri­ble moment in which we find our­selves. For exam­ple, I was stunned to reen­counter Elie’s Wiesel’s Hostage,” which, when I first accept­ed it for Jew­ish Fic­tion .net, seemed quite a far-off set­ting and sit­u­a­tion for a sto­ry, yet now has more imme­di­a­cy and res­o­nance than one would ever want (espe­cial­ly for those of us who know one of the hostages in Gaza). I almost can­celed my book launch because it seemed incon­ceiv­able to cel­e­brate any­thing at this time. But then I decid­ed to turn the launch into an event that reflect­ed on the resilience, wis­dom, and strength of the Jew­ish peo­ple, as shown in the sto­ries in 18. So that’s what I did. I spoke that night about what a book can and can­not do. 18 can­not res­cue hostages, bring the mur­dered back to life, or heal the hor­ri­bly wound­ed. But a book can still offer us some­thing. Hope, mean­ing, per­spec­tive, even solace. That evening end­ed up being a com­fort to me and to every­one there. I was sur­prised to dis­cov­er that 18 had the pow­er to do that. And I hope it does the same for every­one who reads it.

SZ: What are you read­ing and writ­ing now?

NG: These days I’m both read­ing and writ­ing novel­las. I love novel­las because they have such pow­er and range, and at the same time such inti­ma­cy and con­cise­ness. To me, they embody the best of a nov­el and the best of a short sto­ry. What I read most recent­ly was a novel­la by Thomas Mann, Chaot­ic World and Child­hood Sor­row, in a new trans­la­tion from Damion Searls’ book, Thomas Mann: New Select­ed Sto­ries. It’s an extra­or­di­nary trans­la­tion, which, after read­ing Mann all my life, makes me feel like only now have I met the real Thomas Mann. Such is the pow­er of a great translation. 

Regard­ing my own writ­ing: In just four months, on March 1, I have a book of two novel­las com­ing out—Yom Kip­pur in a Gym and In Sick­ness and In Health. In Yom Kip­pur in a Gym, five ran­dom strangers at a Yom Kip­pur ser­vice in a gym are each strug­gling with an intense per­son­al cri­sis, when a med­ical emer­gency unex­pect­ed­ly throws them togeth­er, and in one hour all their lives are changed in ways they would nev­er have believed pos­si­ble. In Sick­ness and In Health is about a woman who had epilep­sy as a child so her most cher­ished goal has always been to be nor­mal”; but just when things are going right for her (with her fam­i­ly, friends, and artis­tic career), some car­toons she drew threat­en to reveal her secret med­ical past and destroy the life she’s worked so hard to build.

Two years lat­er, in 2026, anoth­er of my novel­las will be pub­lished. Dou­bles, set in 1968 in an insti­tu­tion for trou­bled youth, is told from the per­spec­tive of a bril­liant, spunky, twelve-year-old girl who is obsessed with math. 

And guess what I am writ­ing now? Anoth­er novel­la (of course)! I am on a novel­la roll. 

Simona is the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s man­ag­ing edi­tor of dig­i­tal con­tent and mar­ket­ing. She grad­u­at­ed from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege with a con­cen­tra­tion in Eng­lish and His­to­ry and stud­ied abroad in India and Eng­land. Pri­or to the JBC she worked at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her writ­ing has been fea­tured in LilithThe Nor­mal School, Dig­ging through the Fat, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She holds an MFA in fic­tion from The New School.