When we first meet Jeremiah Gerstler, he is a mischievous 11-year-old who sees no harm in releasing spotted frogs on his family’s seder table during the recitation of the Ten Plagues. But Jeremiah is certainly not the delinquent his school’s headmaster claims he is. He’s a boy after all. Although his parents would love to make him a mensch, Jeremiah will find his own way in life.
When we next meet Jeremiah, nearly 70 years have passed. An essay collection on the subject of the international political economy is being published in honor of his 80th birthday. The dedications in the book praise him, not for the academic achievements of his long career, but for the fact that he “does not tolerate academic laziness.”
“‘These you call dedications?’” Jeremiah fumes. The underlying message, he realizes, is that he is being called out for his “mercurial, volatile, and impulsive” nature. When we hear Jeremiah’s remarks at a celebratory gathering, we tend to believe that this description may be totally on the mark.
In the short stories of The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman (Press 53, May 2019) we learn a lot more about Jeremiah Gerstler, about his family and career, about his triumphs and failures. The highly entertaining stories form a cohesive narrative that not only brings the protagonist to life, but also into our lives, similar to a reacquaintance with a long-lost family relative.
What makes the book unique, though, is the order in which the stories are presented. After meeting Jeremiah as a boy, and then again as a retired, not always respected professor, we join him at an interview when he is applying for a position with the CIA in 1952. In the aptly titled ‘Clandestiny’ we learn that Jeremiah’s dream is to turn a master’s thesis on US foreign policy into something more than an academic interest. But, as in real life, dreams do not always come true.
Later, but actually earlier in time, we hear the voice of Lenny, Jeremiah’s older brother. In the story ‘Three Strikes,’ Lenny prefers to listen to the Yankees-Cubs World Series game on the radio than to hear the Rosh Hashanah shofar. Lenny sneaks off to a neighborhood pharmacy with Jeremiah in tow and much to Lenny’s chagrin, Jeremiah goes missing. The older boy repents for leading his brother astray, but Jeremiah sees the outing as fulfillment of the adventure he was promised.
In ‘Transcendental’, which takes place in 1983, we see things from Jeremiah’s son’s viewpoint. As father and son argue, Stuart lashes out, “Why is it that you don’t feel any emotional ties with me?” Stuart feels that his father is a “hard case” but later realizes that “the old man could teach him a thing or two. Share some of his life experience and talk on a man-to-man level.” As in most of the other stories in the book, things turn out alright in the end.
Set in 1999, ‘The Dutiful Daughter’ follows daughter Hannah and her parents on a trip to Israel. “Hannah longed to relax after a long day of sightseeing, but Jeremiah, in his one-track mind, insisted on talking about work, rambling on about some colleague’s research on labor economics.” Impulsively, Jeremiah sneaks off to meet a Palestinian professor in Ramallah instead of traveling with his wife to meet relatives in Haifa. Hannah realizes that “her father’s persistence, his sheer will to get things done, had served him well in his career.” Although Hannah admits that this can be “an admirable quality,” his “tiresome verbal barrage … made her want to shoot him.” As readers we are occasionally angered by Jeremiah’s antics as well, but like the distant relative that Jeremiah Gerstler has become, we accept him despite his faults.
You could read the stories included in The Book of Jeremiah in linear order but in retrospect, the order in which they are presented is very satisfying. In ‘Mixmaster’, the last in the collection, Jeremiah finds himself alone in 2009 and taking, of all things, a cooking class. According to the author’s note, after writing this story she “worked backwards (and, at times, forwards) to unravel Jeremiah’s life.” For readers, this bittersweet story, which perfectly ties together everything we’ve learned about Jeremiah Gerstler, is a very appropriate conclusion to a very enjoyable book.
Julie Zuckerman‘s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including The SFWP Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Salt Hill, Sixfold, The Coil, Ellipsis, MoonPark Review, Crab Orchard Review and others. The Book of Jeremiah was the runner-up for the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. A native of Connecticut, she lives in Modiin, Israel.