Reading Stories with Rabbi Portnoy

By Robin Jacobson 

I had heard about the famous Rabbi Mindy Portnoy for many years before I met her. She is a trailblazer, one of the first women rabbis. She is an author of children’s books, including the breakthrough Ima on the Bima aBinocularVisionCVR_highresnd the sensitive Where Do People Go When They Die, which has helped countless families talk about death. She is a synagogue leader, serving the prominent local Temple Sinai for 25 years before retiring last year. But until this past fall, I didn’t know that Rabbi Portnoy is a talented teacher of literature; she sees literary characters from the unique perspective of a rabbi who has counseled congregants through countless challenges. In a Scolnic Institute Jewish literature class, Rabbi Portnoy introduced my classmates and me to a remarkable short-story writer, Edith Pearlman.

Pearlman’s award-winning stories encompass secrets, disappointed expectations, relationships we don’t choose voluntarily (e.g., in-laws, neighbors) – all difficulties that find their way to a rabbi’s office. For those of you who missed Rabbi Portnoy’s sessions on Edith Pearlman, below are some highlights. But don’t miss the next opportunity to hear Rabbi Portnoy share insights from a lifetime of reading and writing – she is the featured speaker at the Daniel Mann Literary Luminary Event on Sunday, January 25, at 10:00 am (see ad, page XX).

Who Is Edith Pearlman?

With her usual understated wit, Edith Pearlman describes herself as a “New Englander by birth and preference.” Born in 1936, she grew up in Providence, R. I., and is a longtime resident of Brookline, Mass. This “Bard of Brookline” has published more than 250 works of fiction and non-fiction; her fourth and most recent story collection is Binocular Vision (2011). Often asked why she writes short stories rather than novels, Pearlman has various answers – she’s a miniaturist, she’s never had an idea for a novel – but surely her most endearing answer is “My mother told me not to take up too much of people’s time.”

Reviewers praise the rich craftsmanship and human depth of Pearlman’s stories. One reviewer compared the stories to ships in a bottle – “each meticulously made” and “miraculously precise,” full of the “complexity of individual lives.” A common lament among reviewers is that Pearlman is not as famous as her talent warrants. Calling Pearlman a “national treasure,” author Ann Patchett quipped that Pearlman’s relative anonymity is on that “great list of human mysteries which includes the construction of the pyramids and the persistent use of Styrofoam as a packing material.”

What Are Pearlman’s Stories About?

Many of Pearlman’s stories are set in a Boston suburb that resembles Brookline; other stories are set in Latin America, Europe, and Israel. Often, her characters are sophisticated and literate Jews:  they read, they travel, they go to museums and concerts – Rabbi Portnoy says they remind her of members of Beth El!

In class, Rabbi Portnoy opened with Pearlman’s The Story, a short, powerful piece set in a restaurant. Two couples dine there together; they meet only once a year, despite the fact that their children are married to each other. Rabbi Portnoy noted that Pearlman subtly reveals facets of these characters even as they react to the breadsticks on the table: “Paprika breadsticks! . . . Judith took none; Justin took one but didn’t bite; Lucienne took one and began to munch; Harry took one and then parked another behind his ear.”

For more Edith Pearlman, borrow Binocular Vision from our library; for more Rabbi Portnoy, come to the Daniel Mann Literary Luminary Event on January 25.