Craig Darch’s L’Chaim and Lamentations (NewSouth Books, 2019) is a bittersweet collection of seven short stories. Most of the characters in his first foray into fiction are older Ashkenazi Jews whose pasts are almost characters themselves. Yet, as strong as are their memories, these Jews are doing their most to live in the present, and to even assure the future.
Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University, in Alabama, where he has taught for 37 years. He has lived several places in the United States, but New York City and Poland are the locations of import in these stories. At least one – “Who’s the Old Crone?” – was inspired by his birthplace, Chicago.
Having moved to South Bend, Indiana, with his family when he was 6 years old, Darch shares in an article on the Auburn website, “We attended synagogue in South Bend and continued to travel to Chicago to see my grandparents, where we frequented the famous Jewish deli called Ashkenazi. I remember always seeing the same three old men in there. I wondered about them, about their lives. Now, through fiction, I can give them names and their own story.”
In the humorous tale Darch has imagined, Rabbi Fiddleman, “held court each day in Schwartzman’s with his two followers – Pincus Eisenberg and Mendel Nachman.” As described by another customer at the deli, the “group of three old men, the only other customers in the place, huddled together with covered heads at a booth in the far corner, all remnants from the Romanian synagogue, bankrupt and boarded up years ago. Now, with no place for them to go, the octogenarians arrived early each morning and stayed for several hours – sipping tea, noshing on the cheapest fare, and kibbitzing about spiritualism and life after death, debates that frequently drifted into polemical arguments concerning the metaphysics of Spinoza and Kant. Though generous with their opinions, when it came to money each one was more frugal than the next, and each had a knack for consuming great quantities of Schwartzman’s tea while nibbling a single bagel over the course of several hours.”
Darch’s characters are recognizable people with whom readers will feel loneliness and friendship (“Sadie’s Prayer”), fear (“Wasserman’s Ride Home”), heartache and bewilderment (“Kaddish for Two”), justice tinged with bitterness (“Leonard Saperstein & Company”), mystery and hope (“The Last Jew in Krotoszyn”), joy and possibility (“Who’s the Old Crone?”), acceptance and perseverance (“Miss Bargman”).
The young people in these stories represent both forces of change and the need for new traditions, as in the emotional story “Kaddish for Two,” in which a son finally gets the courage to tell his Orthodox parents that he is gay, and as preservers of the past, as in the somehow cheering “The Last Jew in Krotoszyn,” in which Magda, a 13-year-old non-Jewish girl, befriends Ruta, the story title’s last Jew.
“Ruta watched Magda run out the cemetery gate, heading toward home,” writes Darch. “Then Ruta shuffled slowly away, each step more difficult than the last. She stopped for just a moment to catch her breath. Bone tired, she rested her hands on her hips. She understood such fatigue was just one more signal, a tweak from the Almighty himself; her time in this world was coming to an end. But strangely, she had no fear of dying. She had faith that Magda would tend the cemetery and pass on the stories, the truth of Krotoszyn.”
Human connections – positive, negative and in between – are at the foundation of every story in L’Chaim and Lamentations. Enjoy.