Monday, January 16, 2023

Review: Other Covenants: Alternate Histories of the Jewish People

A selection of prominent Jewish writers imagine deviations in the course of history

After an uncertain couple of years, during which it seemed at times as if this project might not be completed, the anthology Other Covenants has finally, joyfully, seen the light of day. Spanning both the strictly historical and the fanciful, Other Covenants contains an enormously varied panorama of possible fates for the Jewish civilization. Compiling, producing and publishing this collection is the result of a monumental effort of perseverance, a worthy testimony to the heroic resilience of Jews in our real timeline.

As befits a proudly bookish people, almost all the stories in this anthology are themselves about storytelling. In the opening entry, To the Promised Land by Robert Silverberg (first publication, 1989), set in a world where the Exodus was a failure and the Jews never spread out of Egypt, a scholar is recruited to write a new, more ambitious Exodus for the space age. This text is perfectly paired with the one that closes the book, Shtetl Days by Harry Turtledove (first publication, 2011), in which the story of the Jewish people maintains Jewishness alive even beyond the people itself.

Some of the metastories are presented in the form of poetry. The Golden Horde, Psalm for the First Day of Space Travel and The Green Men Learn to Read by Jane Yolen (written for this anthology) constitute a saga of interstellar exploration that its protagonists immortalize in writing. Meanwhile, Another Son, Covenant and One by Seymour Mayne (first publication, 2018) alter key episodes of Genesis, resulting in new versions of Scripture. And Miryam the Prophetess by James Goldberg (first publication, 2018) suggests a much worse end for the Pharaoh.

The holy books are also revised in prose selections: The Holy Bible of the Free People of Hasmonea by Esther Alter (written for this anthology) is a sapphic retelling of the Tanakh that results in a more egalitarian set of laws for the Jews. A Tartan of Many Colors by Allan Weiss (written for this anthology) sends baby Moses to the shores of Scotland, where a very different nation becomes the Chosen People. And in this Corner...! by D. K. Latta (written for this anthology) proposes a gentler resolution to the fight between David and Goliath. And The Bat Mitzvah Problem by Patrick A. Beaulier (written for this anthology) makes the provocative and humorous suggestion that everyday life wouldn't be all that different if the Jews had continued to worship the golden calf.

Other entries resort to the time-tested device of the tale inside a tale. Why the Bridgemasters of York Don't Pay Taxes by Gillian Polack (written for this anthology) is written in the style of a devotional manual that explains the supernatural circumstances that led to a de facto reversal of the Edict of Expulsion of 1290. Yossel the Gunslinger by Max Sparber (written for this anthology) adopts the form of an oral narration, set in a version of the Old West where cowboys wore black suits and sidelocks.

In a not unexpected but very much original fashion, some stories ask about the possible outcomes of the 20th century. The Mall: A Providential Tale by Jack Dann (written for this anthology) describes a world where the Nazis prevailed, and their lies still have the power to warp lives. In White Roses in Their Eyes by Matthew Kressel (written for this anthology), an elderly, happy and famous Anne Frank experiences visions of another world where there's a museum with her name. In The Sea of Salt by Elana Gomel (first publication, 2018), revenge on the Nazis is suddenly made possible by a dangerous form of time travel. Both The Book of Raisa by Alex Shvartsman (written for this antology) and Kaddish for Stalin by Allan Dyen-Shapiro (written for this anthology) go down the road not taken by the Soviet Jews. And Ka-Ka-Ka by C. L. McDaniel (written for this anthology) makes an unnerving parallel between American and German racism.

At the same time, some stories dare imagine Jewish joy amid the worst circumstances: These Rebellious Hussies by Rivqa Rafael (written for this anthology) is a raw scream of passion set in the penal colony of Tasmania, while The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships by Milton Verskin (written for this anthology) gives philosopher Baruch Spinoza a happier ending.

A few selections went for a spy thriller vibe: The Golem with a Thousand Faces: A Chronicle of the Second Global War by Claude Lalumière (first publication in Italian, 2021) dramatizes the multiple competing claims to Jerusalem in the character of a secret triple agent who works to save the holy city for a fourth interested party. Meanwhile, The Time-Slip Detective by Lavie Tidhar (first publication, 2014) turns the metafictional lens on itself and dreams of a more prosperous Israel obtained at a more grievous price. And Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Airplanes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum by Benjamin Rosenbaum (first publication, 2004) is a pulp adventure set in a timeline where Judaism abandoned the hope to rebuild the Temple.

Curiously, a few participants in the collection coincided in imagining a different history of the film industry, with more participation from Jewish actors, directors and producers. Nights at the Crimea by Jessica Reisman (first publication, 2009) blurs the borders of reality with soft touches that demand rereading. The Premiere by Hunter C. Eden (written for this anthology) explores what happens to characters whose lives end up following the conventions of gangster cinema. And The Golem (1933) by Gwynne Garfinkle (written for this anthology) rewrites an acting career boosted by a film that our world never got to see.

There are also stories that jump right into the fertile territory of Jewish folklore. Three Stars by Isak Bloom (written for this anthology) is a stormy romance between a not-quite-human student and his not-quite-demonic boyfriend. Rise and Walk the Land by David Nurenberg (written for this anthology) is a moral dilemma about burial laws during the zombie apocalypse. And in Strength of my Salvation by Bogi Takács (written for this anthology), divine gifts prove key to saving an entire community.

At the other extreme, we get timelines that launch Jews into space: If the Righteous Wished, They Could Create a World by Jack Nicholls (written for this anthology) is an existential parable where the image of God replicates the image of God, while A Sky and a Heaven by Eric Choi (first publication, 2022) imagines a deeply moving struggle to save the shuttle Columbia.

As I said above, most of these alternate histories contain additional stories nested inside of them. Protagonists may be tasked with creating a story, or make a pivotal choice inspired by a story, or lead lives in accordance with the conventions of storytelling. Written in the style of letters, or newspaper pieces, or diary notes, or lost manuscripts, these selections speak of a civilization that conceives of itself as playing a role scripted from eternity. Reading Other Covenants is a fitting way of understanding the people that perfected the method of apophatic reasoning: it's a series of glimpses of what it is, obtained by traversing all the ways it wasn't.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Lobel, Andrea D. and Shainblum, Mark [editors]. Other Covenants: Alternate Histories of the Jewish People [Ben Yehuda Press, 2022].