The Book of Mischief
“Shimmele Fly-by-Night” is from Steve Stern’s collection, The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories (Graywolf Press). Stern’s work has earned him the Pushcart Writers’ Choice Award, an O. Henry award, and two Pushcart Prizes. Yiddish folklore figures prominently in his stories and novels.
Nathaniel Rich, writing in the New York Times, said of the collection: “Steve Stern’s characters — Shimmele, Avi, Fagie, Morty, Mendy, Mushie — are escape artists. They want to escape doting, caviling parents, the injunctions of Mosaic law and a stifling “atmosphere where sedulous study was valued above action.” They want, in other words, to escape Judaism.”
Stern said this about his story: I’m a devotee of trickster tales. Coyote, Loki, Hermes, Puck, Pan, Ulenspiegl – there’s no culture that does not have in its folkloric arsenal a trickster figure. He’s always an outlaw, living beyond the range of ordinary morality and taking delight in turning convention – by wit and cunning – on its head. So I was delighted to discover, when I began to pay attention to such things, that Jewish tradition had its tricksters as well.
There were Mottke Chabad and Hershel Ostropolier, characters based on historical jesters of the old Hasidic courts, whose lives were translated into legends that generated whole cycles of comic tales. In one of them Hershel, joker and thief, makes his getaway from the scene of a crime by tying strings to the feet of birds who carry him aloft. The episode seized my imagination and I began looking for ways to appropriate it for one of my stories.
I had only just begun to write about the Pinch, a once thriving Jewish ghetto neighborhood along North Main Street in my hometown of Memphis. With its Old World atmosphere of Yiddish-speaking shopkeepers still clinging to the piety of the Russian Pale, the Pinch seemed a natural setting from which a free-wheeling character might want to take flight – though my hero, Shimmele, unlike his scapegrace prototype Hershel, is not so eager to abandon his familiar community.
My Shimmele is still attached to the world of his father, though his father (and here I conceived the ferocious Reb Dubrovner) is representative of all that’s unbending and oppressive about this traditional world. Ultimately, however, Shimmele is inspired with a Hershel-like ingenuity to engineer an escape from the Pinch–but not without consequence; because freedom in the New World must often be bought with the price of identity.