The Thoughtful Story


Photo courtesy of, by Evgeni Dinev

Dara Horn, author of the beautiful novel The World to Come, wrote a fascinating article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review last week about Jewish fiction writers, and why there seem to be so many of them. Though I don’t write fiction about Jewish topics or for specifically Jewish audiences, I did find her essay intriguing, because in it she talked about Jewish culture’s fascination with memory, with reliving the past through ritual, and the Jewish tendency to live life soaked in the past, keenly aware of history. As this fascination with preserving memory and freezing life is also the novelist’s task, there tend to be quite a few Jewish fiction writers.

As Horn says:

“Writers and believers live their lives haunted by the same question: What happens to our days once they disappear? The objective fact is that each day that passes is lost forever, as forbidden to us as the dead. But prayer and fiction offer a different answer. Those lost days still live among us, written in each person’s hand, turned into stories.”

I was thinking along the same lines last week, when I wrote about Ursula LeGuin’s carrier-bag theory of storytelling. She describes the Hero of traditional stories as a look-at-me-as-I-kill-and-vanquish protagonist. He’s the one who always made her feel defective as a human being, unbent on murder. And yet thinking about what she said, it occurred to me that while that killer-hero story is very prominent in the classics – clearly the Greek myths come to mind – I have another heritage, that of the Jewish history story. Jewish history has its share of conquering heroes. But it also features a different kind of hero, especially post-exile, when the Jewish people found themselves in the Diaspora. This is the rabbi, the thinker, the teacher as hero. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, makes this point in some of his writing. Jewish history has a wide range of heroic figures – warriors, martyrs, thinkers, prophets, mystics, judges, even particularly tender or self-sacrificing parents and children, who people legends of survival amid persecution. These varied characters fit well into LeGuin’s carrier-bag, and maybe that’s why I like the theory so much. I like stories about thinkers, perhaps because my cultural story – the story of Jewish history – told me that thinkers are heroes as much as anyone. And they didn’t have to kill something to earn the title, either.

 To read Horn’s full essay:

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