What binds together the 10 short stories in Daniel Shansky’s “Decalogue” (Curly’s Mojo, publisher, 2018) is that each of them is a commentary, directly or indirectly, on one of the Ten Commandments. While unified in theme, they vary widely in both literary style and setting. The volume as a whole reflects Shansky’s remarkable ability to imagine himself in a number of different – even contradictory – worlds.
“The Collector,” for example, begins in the toxic witch-burning atmosphere of Salem, Massachusetts, on April 22, 1682, flashing back to the year 1650 in the European city-state of Venice. Sadly, this tale of religious and racial intolerance anticipates the lethal bigotry reported in today’s headlines.
At the other end of the time/space continuum, “Trouble in Enol-I” unfolds in the distant future: “It was therefore not strange that by the end of the 23rd century, since the other planets in the solar system were found to be inimical to human life, that colonies of Earth People were established on every known habitable planet in other star systems to which man had been able to travel thus far.”
This narrative focuses on a robot-run industrial complex on uninhabited Enol-I, a satellite of Planet A-4, home to a colony of Earth People. The question that arises out of Shansky’s ever-fertile imagination is this: are the robots on Enol-I entitled to a 24-hour Shabbat, just as their human counterparts?
But Shansky does not need to travel to the ends of time and space to tell a compelling story. His “Honesty is the Best Policy,” set in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1970s, is a commentary on “Thou shalt not steal” in the form of a succinct police procedural, featuring two wise-cracking detectives along with a supporting cast of crime solvers straight out of Brooklyn’s central casting.
Most surprising of all is Shansky’s 10th and final story,
“The Grass is Always Greener,” which tackles the theme of transgender identity. Though the author completed “Decalogue” in 1977, he seems 40 years ahead of his time in his treatment of the profoundly conflicted Danielle, who cries out to her/his doctor: “Men behave towards me as if I were a woman, but I don’t feel like a woman! I can’t react to a man as if I were. On the other hand, I am not a lesbian either; oh, I don’t know what I am … I want to be a man! Every nerve and fiber of my being in me wants to be a man!”
Shansky envisions changing Danielle’s agony to ecstasy through a therapy that many today would consider to be unenlightened, and most definitely not “politically correct.” Nevertheless, I applaud his daring in grappling with such a complex and sensitive issue – an issue that the vast majority of people in the 1970s had never thought about.
Not only is Shansky a master storyteller, he also displays on almost every page a deep love of the English language. He seems to take great pleasure in constructing his sentences, thereby making them a pleasure to read.
In the very first sentence of the very first story, “The Atheist,” the author demonstrates his love of words as he establishes a tone of gentle irony: “If you asked him, Lenny Shifrin would reply with a bitter chuckle: ‘Yes, I’m an Atheist, thank God!’”
In a similar vein, the reader can join in Shansky’s wordsmith’s delight in the opening sentence of “The Terrible Sin of Marie Dupin”: “The rooster screamed his challenge to the incipient sun.” Indeed, the author enjoys these words so much that he chooses to conclude the story with “… just as the rooster once more screamed his daily challenge to the incipient sun.”
On the back cover of “The Decalogue,” the author’s son, Joseph Shansky, a long-time member of Barrington’s Temple Habonim, offers a hymn of praise to his father (1920-1986), who “packed a lot into his 66 years of living. He was a musician by choice and training, a teacher in the New York City school system, a role model, a composer, an author, a poet, a husband, a father, a brother and a friend.”
During his retirement, Daniel Shansky found the time and the energy to “write 2 novels, 10 short stories, and 2 fully scored operettas and cantatas for orchestra, chorus and soloists ….”
Despite his creative output, none of Daniel Shansky’s work saw publication during his lifetime. It has been Joseph’s “purpose, as his son, to share his creations now that time and technology have come together to provide the means and the opportunity to allow it to happen.”
Through his monumental effort to bring his father’s work to the world, Joseph Shansky has modeled what it means to obey the Biblical commandment to “Honor thy father.”
You may purchase a copy of “Decalogue” by visiting the publisher’s website at www.curlysmojo.com.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.