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Marrow and Other Stories

Marrow and Other Stories
by Nora Gold
Warwick Publishing, $16.95

This is the debut collection of a writer whose perceptions are so clear, and whose writing is so gripping and understated, that I felt relieved to have my seat belt fastened—literally—when I read Marrow on an airplane trip. These extraordinarily powerful stories (one of which, “Yosepha,” appeared in LILITH some years ago) take us where no Jewish women’s fiction has gone before. The protagonists—women who lead prayers, stake out their own desires in the face of spousal opposition, construct uncommon lives and suffer the consequences—are, for the most part, women we’d be honored to invite into our most interesting conversations.

In her best pieces, Gold cuts to the quick of emotion-ridden (and -riven) experiences, and stays with them (as in “Prayer”) until we’re right there, transported, living them through with the actor in each case. We have Bible tales retold, the intifada in Israel, a grim miscarriage, a sexually abusive rabbi, a schizoid girl cousin—all rendered with a realism so focused that the reader (this one, at any rate) can’t pull away. We’re touched to the bone. Marrow is the perfect title for this collection, which just won the Canadian Jewish Book Award. And the title story—about an American woman who has a miscarriage in Jerusalem during the intifada—is so physical in its images and its dread that Gold was right to label it as the nexus of all that nerve tissue.

In “Prayer,” a young woman leads the Yom Kippur services the season after her adored husband dies. She feels detached from the other congregants, detached from the liturgy, which she has chanted routinely (not in her fantasies; she really has been asked to lead the core of the service for years now). But when she dons her white kittel and climbs the steps to the bima, the sacred words launch her into sacred space despite herself. Gold’s spare detail and her feminist take on holiness let this woman explore her feelings about her dead husband and his best friend (now her lover) and at the same time feel utterly at home as the congregation’s representative before God. We are given the privilege of being up there on the bima with her, completely comfortable with the prayers. Her role as Yom Kippur prayer leader is so customary that the shul-goers standing near her even know at what point in the services she gets weakened by the effort and needs to be helped down from the bima—just like the male hazzans of old.

Paced quite differently, “Rabbi” is a slowly developing picture of a girl whose father cools toward her as she enters adolescence, whose mother is icy and removed, who lives in a house “stinking with hatred and anger.” A skeptic, the teenager hears a sermon by a charismatic Orthodox rabbi and draws near, spiritually, intellectually (the rabbi lets her shine in a classroom of bored boys), then physically (she moves in with him, his kids and his hip wife). The reader’s stomach knots. Gold continues the story subtly, painfully, ominously. The girl is attracted, repelled, confused. She has “nightmares” and a sour smell that washes off in the morning. “Rabbi” seems to get horrifying ambiguity just right.

Gold, a professor of social work in her day job, knows a great deal about human behavior, psychopathology, relationships. Marrow is testimony to her considerable gifts in transmogrifying this knowledge into terrific fiction.