‘Secret Anniversaries of the Heart:’ This must be the way out

In “Secret Anniversaries of the Heart,” a collection of 25 short stories by Lev Raphael, there is an aphorism from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner about the search for spirituality that sums up the thrust of these stories: “Entrances are everywhere and all the time. You don’t have to become something other than yourself, because you’re already there.”

Consciously or not, Raphael’s characters are hungry for God, but most of them kept from their promised land by the Holocaust, by anti-Semitism and homophobia.

Although his concerns are wide-ranging, Raphael’s characters fall into such neat categories that they might as well be card suits. There are Holocaust survivors who remain emotionally frozen, and those whose reserve shatters when they encounter a relative thought lost. There are the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors who decide to embrace or reject their bloody inheritance. There are gay Jewish men who find the key to their closet, and those who do not.

From story to story, Raphael shuffles these characters, deals the hand and scores the result. There’s the boy whose great aunt shuns him after he writes about her experiences in the war. A pair of gay lovers are expelled from an orthodox synagogue when they are outed. And in the title story, a bookstore writing class falls apart when the honesty needed to create compelling fiction becomes too much for the teacher.

A few of the stories even deal with murder, a reminder that Raphael has also written a number of crime novels featuring an academic as amateur detective. The contrast between stories of family conflict and crime should be jarring, but his narrative voice flows so consistently from story to story that they all seem part of a piece. There’s love and there’s hate, expressions of atheism and piety, mass murder, so why not murder?

These are touching stories, at times tragic, but also joyful and funny. Although they embody their creator’s concerns with anti-Semitism and homophobia, the characters stand out as individual first. Their concerns and interests are so many and so deeply rooted in Jewish culture that they stir sympathy for their plights. They breath on the page, and fill their worlds, alive to the possibilities of life, eager to find whatever it is they’re looking for. They’re looking for the entrances, not the exits.