There Is No Otherby Jonathan Papernick
From the streets of modern Israel to the barrooms of Brooklyn to a suburban New England synagogue, the characters in these 10 stories search for love and acceptance in a world scarred by loss and loneliness. In “The Madonna of Temple Beth Elohim,” an Iraq war veteran sees a vision of the Virgin Mary on the eve of the Jewish high holidays. In &ldquo… See more details below
From the streets of modern Israel to the barrooms of Brooklyn to a suburban New England synagogue, the characters in these 10 stories search for love and acceptance in a world scarred by loss and loneliness. In “The Madonna of Temple Beth Elohim,” an Iraq war veteran sees a vision of the Virgin Mary on the eve of the Jewish high holidays. In “My Darling Sweetheart Baby,” a working-class drunk waits on his stoop for his disability check and the courage to proclaim his love to a local prostitute. And in the title story “There Is No Other,” a rage-filled Jewish boy, tormented by his African lineage, arrives at a school Purim party dressed as the prophet Mohammed. Magical, erotic, spiritually penetrating and terrifyingly realistic, these provocative tales continue the storytelling tradition of Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Nathan Englander.
"Papernick’s penetrating, clear-sighted stories ring true." New York Times Book Review
"It is Papernick’s sense of the surreal, his dark humor and his consciousness of the deep roots of Jewish and Muslim culture that distinguish this collection." Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
"An utterly original writerone who doesn't rely on gimmicks, but rather on amazingly real characters and consistently page-turning plots." Dara Horn, author, In the Image
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There Is No Other
By Jonathan Papernick
Exile EditionsCopyright © 2010 Jonathan Papernick ~ Electronic version
All rights reserved.
Skin for Skin
Her parents were four hours up the Interstate celebrating her baby cousin's bris in Albany, and the new boy from English class, who quoted Nietzsche to the impertinent Miss Meade, sat shirtless on the orange rec room couch. Breath laced with cooking sherry and Marlboros, he was irresistible. His pale, concave chest scored with angry red pimples spoke of punk rock and wild abandon; his lithe body, a knife ready to spring. They made out in the darkness, side one of Astral Weeks spinning on the turntable. He pressed closer and touched her cheek tenderly, the throbbing vein in her neck, the gently curved clavicle she broke in a fall from her first bicycle. He wasn't a spastic mauler like the rest of the mediocrities at her high school, not a clueless virgin impersonating the porn stars the other boys watched on their parents' VCRs.
She whispered his name, halting his progression.
His voice was entirely changed. "You want to do it?"
He took his time flipping the hair from his eyes in a gesture meant to seem casual, and removed his wallet from his jeans' pocket, lightly fingering the raised circular impression to assure her that he had come prepared.
She felt the cool bite of his necklace against her skin, the pendant swinging around back as her fingers blindly explored his body, and she imagined a tiny motorcycle or pistol, something fearless strung at the end of the chain. And now, as he reset the pendant to its proper position dangling at his solar plexus, she realized that the constriction in her throat was entirely involuntary, and that the delirious moments before its appearance marked the end of a lifelong dream. Even in the basement's gloom she could see it clearly, iridescent, glowing dangerously between them, like something aflame.
"Take it off," she said, reaching for the gold crucifix at his neck. It was heavy; the miniature corpse reproduced in minute detail weighed something like two thousand years in her trembling hands.
"Why? Are you Jewish?"
"My parents are."
"That's cool." He laughed and dipped in for another kiss, but she wasn't having it.
She told him to take it off or forget the whole thing. He hesitated, not sure she was serious, then fumbled with the crucifix before lifting it over his head with great difficulty, as if he were bearing the True Cross on his narrow shoulders, then tossed it across the floor.
"Now what are you going to take off?"
"I'm done," she said.
He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "What's your problem?"
He told her he had come all this way by bus and she owed him something. She knew what happened to girls who went back on the unspoken contract that was made when they invited boys over with their parents out of town. She had always thought a cocktease was worse than a whore, and now she faced the sickening prospect that everyone in her school would know what she was.
She had been with non-Jewish boys before, one or two had even worn simple crosses, but nobody so bold as to parade a gory crucifix before her eyes.
She had naturally turned away from being part of an unlucky, persecuted tribe. The way she saw it, there was no gain in membership, only grief. "I'm not Jewish," she had told her parents hundreds of times. "I'm a secular humanist and I believe in self-determination." She thought ritual circumcision was barbaric. But now, as he slid his hand around her waist, she wished that she were with her parents and aunts and uncles celebrating her eight-day-old cousin's covenant with God and the Jewish people. That was where she belonged, not here in a darkened basement with a nasty, crude boy determined to have his way.
He stood naked before her, wearing only a pair of white gym socks that smelled like they hadn't been washed in a very long time. "Your turn," he said.
Now in the dim light she saw it clearly against his livid thigh and it shocked her more than the appearance of the crucifix, like the emergence of a sea monster from a bathtub.
"No. I can't." She had never seen anything like it before, but had heard somewhere that uncircumcised men were likely to give their partners greater pleasure. She could not believe that.
He didn't seem fazed by her reaction at all, as if no were simply a prelude.
"Come on. It's getting late." And then, "I can ruin you."
She thought of all the combinations of what might happen if he shot his mouth off around school, and she determined that she would be better off doing it with him to avoid a public shaming.
There was just one small thing.
"I'll be right back," she said, climbing off the couch and heading for the stairs.
She returned a few minutes later with a sharp Japanese paring knife that her mother used for salads in the summer, a bag of cotton balls and a bottle of witch hazel. "Okay, I'll do it," she said. "But first you have to let me fix something."CHAPTER 2
There Is No Other
Jenny Kagan, dressed in her shimmering Wonder Woman outfit, was already waiting outside the classroom door when Aaron Needle arrived at 7:15 a.m. to prepare for the coming school day. Needle, dressed in his customary checked blazer and slacks, a small frayed-at-the-edges knit kippa covering most of the bald patch on the top of his head, could barely mutter, "Good morning." He wished he had downed his first coffee on the train in from Midwood, but he had inadvertently dumped it on the subway platform when someone had asked him the time. His sacred sense of mission rarely kicked in before his third cup, and now he found himself staring bleary-eyed into the face of one of his charges.
"Is it really a good morning, Mr. Needle?" She smiled as she tossed a silken yellow cord over his narrow shoulder. "This is the Lasso of Truth made from the Goddess Gaia's golden girdle."
"Alliteration. Clever," he said, sliding out from under the lasso. "Isn't it a bit early?"
"My mother has a breakfast meeting. In the city," she said, rolling her eyes. She jammed a wilted cardboard box into his hands. "Hamantashens."
Next to arrive was Avi Dorfman, the only six-and-a-half-foot-tall seventh grader Needle had seen in all his years of teaching, dressed as a wan, stoop-shouldered Derek Jeter. Sarah Sherman was dressed as Amelia Earhart, Max Rosenbaum as Nosferatu, and four-eyed Max Carp as a FDNY captain. By 8:30, the room was crowded with miniature facsimiles of Jedi Knights clashing lightsabers by the craft closet, a Harry Potter, a cross-dressing Hermione and Lord Voldemort himself. More disturbingly, there were two Britney Spears in blond wigs and suggestive outfits, and one less than virginal-looking Madonna. As he scanned the room, Needle saw not one single Queen Esther, or Mordecai, or even King Achashverosh, and he shook his head sadly. These were his children, after all.
The year of Needle's Bar Mitzvah, his neighbor Morton Gass had been publicly scolded by their teacher for doing his part to destroy Jewish heritage simply because he came to school dressed as the great Sandy Koufax.
It happened so subtly that it had almost escaped Needle's notice. The festival of Purim had slowly morphed into little more than an empty pageant, a Jewish Halloween. Nonetheless, Needle was surprised every year.
He noticed Dorfman's Derek Jeter trade a crudely autographed baseball with Leslie Maslow's Madonna in exchange for a kabbalistic red string that was supposed to ward off bad luck and the evil eye. He stared in amazement for a moment, because Dorfman, seemingly emboldened by his chosen alter ego, was speaking to a girl for the first time since he had slumped into class last September.
Needle believed the aphorism: The world itself rests upon the breath of the children in the schoolhouse. And he saw this as a teaching opportunity.
"I know you're all excited about the celebration of the Book of Esther," Needle said. "But let's quieten down a moment."
After the students had taken their seats, Needle gestured to a red-faced Avi Dorfman, who was having difficulty tying the string around his thin wrist.
"Where did you get that string, Mr. Dorfman?"
"Um," he replied.
"And Ms. Maslow, I see that you possess an autographed baseball. I trust that you're not going to eat it."
"No," she barely whispered, covering her silver braces with the palm of her hand.
"Who can tell me the meaning of mishloach manot?" He let the question hang in the air for a full two minutes of sadistic silence. There had been a time when every Jew that he knew engaged in the practice of sending gifts, food mostly, to family, friends and neighbors to celebrate the holiday of Purim.
"Jenny?" Needle said after a moment, pointing to Wonder Woman shrinking in the first row. "You brought hamantashen today. Please tell me that you know why."
He held one up before the class.
Needle heard a sudden shock of laughter, and instinctively checked to see if his fly was down.
How, when he had mentally taken attendance as his students arrived that morning, could he have forgotten Junius Barker? It was wishful thinking, for sure. But Junius had missed the previous week's classes without a word of explanation, and Needle had found a way to push him from his mind, the way he had, during his lonely teenage years, managed to forget his father's yahrzeit. Now, that raspy, cocksure voice, the biggest pain in his ass since he'd been hired to teach at the Downtown Jewish Day School, was calling him a bloodsucking infidel.
Junius always had something to say with that mouth of his, whether he was questioning the brutality of ritual circumcision and promising to show the class how he had been scarred for life, or wondering why the Jews had a claim to land in Palestine when it was Europeans who had evicted them en masse from their homes and slaughtered them for the sport of it.
He must have ridden all the way from Neptune Avenue completely beneath the notice of the blinkered commuters rushing off to work in the city, their eyes focused on the gray rain slashing against the train's tempered windows. Because, when Needle turned around, he saw something he hoped he would never see in his class: the brown-skinned Junius Barker, all five feet of him, draped in a flowing white robe, a turban wound around his head, a rough beard pasted to his cherubic cheeks, and a bandolier of what might have been dynamite strapped in the form of an X across his gamecock chest.
"Allahu Akbar! God is the greatest!" Junius shouted, and slammed the classroom door shut behind him, locking it.
The kids in the class often joked that he had been sent to the Downtown Jewish Day School to put the Jew back in Junius, and whispered that his arrival followed a year spent in juvie. But Needle knew that Junius had been homeschooled the previous year, and that his father, a Haitian immigrant who taught engineering at Polytechnic University, and mother, the sole offspring of Polish Holocaust survivors, had, despite Junius' IQ of 160, been frustrated by the heads of enrollment at more than a dozen private schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan because of Junius' wild reputation at PS 100. The DJDS, however, ascribed to a strained amalgam of squishy Liberalism and Jewish renewal, and pretty much accepted anyone who claimed to be Jewish. When the curly-haired black boy had been brought to Needle the week before classes began, he was reminded of the school's motto that a child is not an empty vessel, but a flame to be kindled, and he knew that he could light a fire under this child. But that was September and since then, six long months had passed.
"Junius. You're late. Please take your seat."
"I am the prophet Mohammed, cocksucker," Junius responded. "I will not sit at the back of the class like some second-rate prophet. I am the messenger of God."
The students laughed as the diminutive prophet began chanting a mixture of pidgin Arabic gleaned from the evening news and assorted multi-syllabic vulgarities. Needle drew a long breath, searching deep inside for the strength to face this latest challenge. The last time he had confronted Junius, he had been called an unreconstructed racist by the child, and Ms. Schulhof, the headmistress, had suggested that he be more sensitive with the school's minorities, a short roster which included three adopted Asians, named Moses, Joshua and Rebecca, as well as a half-dozen or so biracial children. The school psychologist advised that Junius was not sufficiently challenged in the classroom, but Needle thought this just another New Age excuse for laziness and bad behavior.
"All right, all right," Needle said. "Come on in and take a seat. But you need to change that outfit before the Megillah reading."
"Outfit?" Junius said. "This is no outfit."
"Mr. Needle," Dorfman called, "can I please go to the bathroom?" His voice seemed to be changing mid-sentence.
"Not now," Needle said. He turned his attention back to Junius. "I trust that is not dynamite."
"You mean dy-no-mite!" Junius said, imitating an old sitcom that he must have seen on Nickelodeon.
"It's just freakin' fireworks," Max Rosenbaum interjected, laughing his horsy laugh. "My parents took me to Graceland last summer. They sell them in supermarkets all over the South. It's just fireworks. Obviously."
"Junius, you know that I appreciate your creativity and originality, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave unless you take off that outfit right now. This is an old building and fireworks are forbidden."
"Have it your way," he said, dropping his robe to the ground.
Leslie Maslow cried out, "Oh my God," and Avi Dorfman broke into tears and called for his mother. Some of the kids had grown up in the shadows of the World Trade Center, and they sobbed quietly at their desks.
Beneath the robe, Junius wore a camouflage vest. His pockets were stuffed with white bricks of something that looked like clay. But what concerned Needle and the rest of the suddenly terrified class were the wires that ran into a small black detonator that the smiling Junius held in his hand. He unwrapped the bandolier from his chest and gestured to the bricks in his vest. "This is militarygrade C-4 explosive. Got it on the Internet. And it's going to take some of us to heaven. Hey, Jedi," he called. "Are you supposed to be Luke or Anakin Skywalker?" The student answered that he was Anakin, the future Darth Vader.
"Perfect. Help me string this up."
The frightened child looked wide-eyed at Needle for instruction, but misread his signal to stay seated and instead bounded up to the front of the class to begin pinning the strings of dynamite to the cork boards beneath the colorful time chart of Jewish history.
Ever since the shootings at Columbine, Needle had been mentally preparing to deal with his own massacre, though he had imagined a drugged-out homeboy stumbling in from the Fulton Mall with a stolen nine millimeter in search of God-knows-what in the science lab. Needle's crisis training had taught him to ask the little maniac what he wanted.
"That's for me to know and you to find out." Junius smiled and tapped on the side of the detonator. "And call me Mohammed or don't call me at all."
"All right, Mohammed," Needle said, his voice full of fatigue. "What can I do for you?"
"What can you Jew for me?" Junius laughed. "How about telling me why Jews eat Haman's ear at Purim," he said, enunciating the more graphic Hebrew term for hamantashen, "and not Hitler's unkosher sauerkraut cock the rest of the year?"
"I think you just answered that question for yourself."
"But Hitler and Haman both tried to kill the Jews. There's no food to celebrate the Holocaust."
"All right, all right, Junius. You've tweaked the nose of everyone in this class, now why don't you take a seat —"
"It's Mohammed, goddammit."
Needle suddenly remembered that he was talking with a seventh grader whose gaps in knowledge were as wide as the East River. He had to reassert himself the only way he knew how. "Can you tell me the Five Pillars of Islam?"
"You think I don't know them?" Junius said, full of his trademark swagger.
"You do know that it's against Islam to portray the Prophet? You do know that?" Needle pressed. "Do you think there are seventy-two virgins waiting for you in heaven?"
"I don't know," Junius said. "You're supposed to be the teacher. You tell me what's waiting up in heaven."
Needle had thought often of the world to come, especially during his long train rides to and from work; he wondered whether his parents were waiting on the other side to shower him, at long last, with hugs and kisses.
"Family, friends, people from history."
"Like a big cocktail party?" Junius teased.
"No," Needle said.
"I don't know."
"Clouds and harps and angels?"
"Don't be ridiculous."
"You're the one who thinks you're going to see your parents' cancer-ridden bodies doing the tango up there in the stars, with Moses on the left and Buddha on the right."
"Stop mocking, Junius."
"I'm not mocking Junius, I'm mocking you. Now tell me, what is it like on the other side?"
"I don't know," Needle expelled after a long pause.
Excerpted from There Is No Other by Jonathan Papernick. Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Papernick ~ Electronic version. Excerpted by permission of Exile Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jonathan Papernick is a writer-in-residence at Emerson College and the author of The Ascent of Eli Israel and Who By Fire, Who By Blood. He lives in Boston.
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Kudos to Jon Papernick for expanding the very definition of contemporary Jewish writing with his latest entry, There Is No Other. Each of his nine short stories brilliantly peeks through the curtains of Jewish life and exposes various conflicted Jewish souls in search of greater meaning. With sympathetic characters and unpredictable endings, Papernick engages you in his stories to the degree that you don't even realize that he's actually teaching you about Judaism in the process. A parents note: Some of these stories contain sexual or violent theme. Stories such as Skin for Skin and There Is No Other are still suitable for most young adults; however some, such as My Darling Sweetheart Baby and What Is it Then, Between Us? contain explicit adult content that might not be suitable for all teens.
This book was captivating and held my attention the whole way through (and I'm ADD). The stories were to the point and didn't waste any words. They encapsulated modern American Judaism in an amazingly compressed fashion. Although many of the stories were Jewish-themed, I also enjoyed that there were non-Jewish related stories, especially What Is It Then, Between Us. It pulled me into the nitty gritty of Brooklyn, NY and the human aspect of the relationships between the main characters. The book felt complete and satisfying, and I was impressed by the honesty and variety of subjects covered in this short but potent book. I would recommend this book for anyone looking for a view into the many aspects of contemporary Judaism. Papernick has arrived as an important voice in short fiction. I cannot wait to read his next book.
I loved this book. My favorite story was "Skin for Skin" as it had both Jewish themes and humor. Another story I liked was "A Kiss for Mrs. Fisch" which was touching and was also funny.
This book was Amazing. The plot lines grabbed my attention and put me in to the stories. The short story collection was original and assessed interesting topics in the modern day Judaism. I would recommend this book to all young adult and adult readers. I plan on using this book for my book club, and you should seriously consider it too!