Max Apple continues tradition of strong Jewish storytellers


I do not believe the conventional wisdom that the short story, like the novel, is in decline. Certainly not the short stories of Max Apple because they share with the finest Jewish storytellers — Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashiva Singer — heart, moral struggle and lyricism.

The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories is the first collection in twenty years from Apple. Thirteen stories sneak under your skin as you read them; and with humor and warmth and always with surprise, they delight. My favorite one has an unpleasant title: “Adventures in Dementia.”

The title’s failed rhyme is perfect preparation for this story that settles on the awkward relationship of a son and his mother “who remembered her only child, Sidney, but not her husband.”

Sidney tries everything to shake his mother’s memory of her husband. He shows her photographs; he tells her stories; he even models his father’s dark green sport coat. But he is troubled at yahrzeit because the memorial prayer gives him pause when he reads the translation “Our loved ones live on in our memory.” Not!

In a stroke of genius, he decides to consult a retired Las Vegas hypnotist who prefers working with dogs but agrees to work with Sidney. What ensues is both hilarious and sad. The final paragraph, like the endings of most of the stories in this volume, is brilliant like the goodbye of a distant relative whose heartfelt hug makes it impossible to ever forget him.

In the title story, “The Jew of Home Depot,” an Orthodox rabbi and his family agree to move from Brooklyn to Marshall, Texas, at the request of an old Jewish Texan named Jerome Baumgarten who wrote to the Chabad organization that, “I’m eighty-five and dying, and I’m surrounded by Gentiles. If you can send me a bunch of real Jews, I’ll pay their way and make it worth their while.”

So Reb Avram Hirsch and his family of eight daughters and one son move into a large Victorian house on fraternity row, the only house without Greek letters in the front. “I can’t believe it’s all for us,” Malka said. “In Brooklyn five families could live in a house like this.” They entered slowly, the children speaking in whispers as if they were in a library or museum….The girls and their parents took the five bedrooms, Chaim had to himself the entire third floor. And it was there, while looking through a window in the attic of Mr. Baumgarten’s house on his first night in Marshall, Texas, that Chaim saw the forbidden.”

What has he seen? A shiksa! “With a man in the Phi Kappa Delta house. As he pulled the window closed, he heard her name, Laura…. Revulsion filled his soul, but as she played the harlot, Chaim watched.”

First thing in the morning he begs his father to let him return home explaining that he is not comfortable.

“You’re not comfortable for a day or two, but think of Mr. Baumgarten who has not been comfortable for eighty-some years, who has never had a minyan, or kosher food, or any Jewish learning. Think of him and maybe you’ll become comfortable.”

It is, of course, inevitable that Chaim and Laura meet, but by that time she will have changed his life forever. And, in a characteristic cadence of Max Apple’s storytelling, the story closes with a shocking, heart-touching sentence.

Max Apple, author of “The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press, will speak on Monday, Nov. 12 at 1 p.m.

Admission: $12 or free with festival series ticket.