Making peace with the past

Jessie Neilson reviews Choose Somebody Else, by Yvonne Fein, published by Wild Dingo Press. 

Choose Somebody Else is a collection of 10 short stories and a novella, many previously published in various outlets, by prominent Jewish-Australian writer and activist Yvonne Fein.

With a family legacy drenched in persecution, torment, and mass murder at Auschwitz, Fein plots her stories around characters dealing with this history.

While this may sound extremely bleak, Fein's stories mix atmosphere, settings, and themes, so they are often upbeat.

The title refers to the Yiddish people, the Chosen Ones. Fein's stories argue it is time for the Jewish people to be spared, and somehow to come to terms with the suffering of their forebears so they are not forever submerged in victimhood.

However, as in the epigraph by George Eliot, there is ``no thorough repair''; what has happened and been endured cannot be undone.

Fein's stories are imaginative and varied. Some are set in Australia, where the first generation of non-British refugees to the country are forever branded ``New Australians'', despite being swept up eventually, to some degree, into mainstream Australia.

Individuals in following generations deal with the ever-present menace of the Holocaust with differing responses. One might react, Fein illustrates, with a feeling of personal failure: by becoming depressed and with dropping grades at school; by developing an eating disorder; or, instead, by empowering oneself through education into international law.

Yet, despite all these responses, as one daughter of an ``original, post-Holocaust suffragette'' posits, how can anything even begin to approximate the terror and passion, the beauty and obscenity, experienced by those who survived to give life to another?

These stories are powerful and affecting, and tell of the real and continuing heartbreak of Jewish people trying to recover from centuries of being the displaced, the scorned, the abused.

While most of Fein's stories have a contemporary, realist setting, a few turn far back in time, to stories from myth.

We hear a tale of two Arabic leaders from earliest times, known as Reish Laqish and Rabbi Yochanan, who were, respectively, great and learned masters of banditry and academia. Ancient times infuse this work as these two heroes verbally spar on bucolic river banks, in a piece that questions the form of storytelling itself.

In other pieces, the mythic breaks into the modern narrative of the story, as whimsical figures or symbols from lore tread upon the present and enchant or afflict those chosen by them.

The Jewish religion and belief system is always of huge import, and the sense of etiquette and respect which carries down.

The moving novella is saved for last, and tells of the ongoing repercussions of the past within families. As a lengthy work, the form allows for character and plot development.

Fein's Jewishness is the pivotal aspect of her writing and she is fully involved in Jewish organisations and educational institutes in both student and teacher roles.

Choose Somebody Else is a vivid and lively collection of stories, showing how crucial it is to make peace with the past, however tormented, in order to be able to accept oneself and have a rewarding life in the present.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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