By Deborah Kalb
August 4th, 2022
Q&A with Kenneth Wishnia
Kenneth Wishnia is the editor, with Chantelle Aimee Osman, of the new book Jewish Noir II: Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds. His other books include Jewish Noir. He is a professor of English at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, Long Island.
Q: What inspired you to edit this second volume of Jewish Noir–and how would you define “Jewish Noir”?
A: Authors began asking me about a second volume of Jewish Noir as soon as the first volume appeared, and the publisher liked the idea as well, so the seed was already planted. Then Chantelle came along and offered to co-edit the volume, which made it a lot easier to say yes.
As for a definition of “Jewish Noir,” one story in the first volume, “Your Judaism” by Tasha Kaminsky, includes the following line: “I’m opening myself to the idea that maybe the universe isn’t indifferent and it’s actively against me,” which is as close to a definition of “Jewish Noir” as you can fit into a single sentence.
But of course I’ll take it further: According to Catholic doctrine, Adam and Eve brought death into the world, but Jesus gave us the gift of eternal life. So thanks to Jesus, everyone gets a shot at living happily ever after.
Traditional rabbinic Judaism says: Don’t ask what’s above and below. Judaism is a religion of this world, and this world is hopelessly messed up, and it’s our job to fix it—even though that’s impossible. And you are not free to walk away from the impossible task of healing the world.
It’s a fundamentally different view of human agency, and it’s pretty darn noir.
A famous example instructs us that if you’re planting a tree and someone announces that the Messiah has arrived, finish planting your tree first, then go meet this Messiah guy. It’s hard to imagine a Christian responding to such news in this manner. (Source: 1st century CE Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, cited in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan 31b, compiled c. 700–900 CE.)
Q: How did you choose the stories to include, and how did you decide on the order in which they’d appear in the book?
A: Chantelle brought a bunch of literary authors to the project, and with a solid base of crime writers on board, I was free to seek out authors who were not the “usual suspects” as well, like Gabriela Alemán of Ecuador, whose story I translated from Spanish.
Our editorial collaboration was positive, fruitful and respectful, and there were only a handful of instances where I basically said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea, but we’re doing it my way.”
The order of the stories was one of those instances. Chantelle suggested dividing the stories into three main sections, representing three central tenets of Judaism: “First, that there is one God, incorporeal and eternal. Second, that people are to act with justice and mercy. And last, but perhaps most importantly, that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
I liked her idea enough to use two of the divisions, which we called “The God of Mercy” and “The God of Vengeance,” but there was such a variety of stories that we went with six divisions, and Chantelle was nice enough to let me get away with that.
Q: The writer Jesse Kellerman said of the book, “Jewish Noir II is a fun, eclectic, globetrotting collection unified by its embrace of classic Jewish themes; love of language, passion for justice, and the irresistible charm of a good story.” What do you think of that description?
A: I’ll respond in classic presidential debate style by answering a different question. Crime writer Lawrence Block, a living legend who has won the Edgar Allan Poe Award four times in addition to numerous other prestigious awards, has kept to an ironclad policy of not giving out blurbs, period.
Somehow Chantelle convinced him to write the Foreword for Jewish Noir II, in which he describes the book as “a rich collection of wonderful tales wonderfully told.” So we got our blurb from Lawrence Block! It’s just inside on page xiv, instead of the front cover.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the collection?
A: That you don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish Noir. (But it helps.)
One constant in the collection is that violence rarely solves anything. A couple of tales feature arguably justifiable homicide, but they are the exception.
There’s a common misconception about crime and punishment in the Bible, based on passages about “an eye for an eye” (Deut. 19:21), when no such case of legally sanctioned mutilation is recorded in the Bible.
The standard rabbinic interpretation is that these passages refer to monetary compensation, “the value of an eye for the loss of an eye; the value of a limb for its loss” (Plaut 263).
There is little evidence that the many offenses requiring the death penalty listed in the Torah (like the one for disobeying your parents) ever led to judicial executions during the Hellenic and Roman eras of late antiquity.
In fact, in the Mishnah (compiled c. 200 CE), Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says a court that imposes the death penalty “once in seventy years” may be considered “murderous.”
Two other rabbis add that if they were on the high court, “no one would ever be put to death,” prompting a fourth rabbi to note that their actions would lead to an increase in murders (Neusner 612), thus demonstrating that the death penalty remains controversial after more than 18 centuries.
Instead of a literal eye for an eye, the Israelites are instructed: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” (Deut. 16:20). In my own story, “Bride of Torches,” one aim is to show how the legacy of violence in ancient Israel, especially during the time of the Judges, does not necessarily lead to lasting peace.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Finally, a question about me! (ha ha) I just completed a Jewish-themed historical novel set in Iron Age Israel and modern day NYC. It’s a radical revision of a biblical story featuring my favorite type of protagonist: a seriously kickass woman whose abilities are undervalued by society.
I first got the idea in graduate school in the early 1990s, while working as a teaching assistant for a prominent feminist Hebrew Bible scholar. I’m hoping it will be out within a year or so. I’ll just leave you with that teaser.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Although you don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish Noir, some expertise was required.
One author’s submission included the line, “she lit and blessed the candles, and he sang the psalm Eyshet khayil praising a woman of valor.” Something didn’t sound right about that, and I confirmed that the passage in question is not a psalm, but a 22-line poem in the book of Proverbs (31: 10-31).
I also had to correct the transliteration of some of the Yiddish (e.g., nisht gefeyle, which should be nisht geferlekh), and, in the final stage of page proofs, I was the only member of the production team to spot an error in the printing of two phrases in Hebrew.
So it was nice to know my expertise had some value and I can’t be replaced by a machine just yet.
Jacob Neusner. The Mishnah: A New Translation. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
W. Gunter Plaut. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Vol II. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1983.
–Interview with Deborah Kalb