CNF: Simple Question

by Jennifer Lang


Do you have any brothers or sisters? someone might ask him as polite Shabbat dinner table conversation.

She can imagine him saying, I had a sister, but she’s dead to me, a 17th-century Polish shtetl response when a father shunned a daughter for marrying a goy or worse, getting pregnant out of wedlock.

Or, maybe he’d say, not really. I consider myself an only child, in his arrogant, older brother and better than her, his once-upon-a-time-little-sister way.

Maybe she has it all wrong. Maybe he does speak honestly with others, the way someone who has chosen the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, striving to adhere to the 613 mitzvot relating to religious and moral conduct of Jews, saying I do, but we don’t talk, without elaborating, which is that they live halfway across the world from their northern California roots and one hour away from each other—he in the holy, contested, hotbed city of Jerusalem, where he settled in the mid-80s after college graduation, and she in hipster Tel Aviv after she and her husband returned to the country where they met and married three decades earlier.

But were someone to probe deeper and her brother were willing to open up, it might sound like I have a sister, three years younger, and we used to be friends—well, kind of—but she’s jealous that our parents and grandparents paid more attention to me, making her feel slighted, so we aren’t on speaking terms anymore.

Except that version of truth doesn’t make her eyes well, lips tremble, or throat catch like other truer truths do, which she told him, explaining the only love she ever questioned in their family was his.

If her brother were willing to divulge more, which she doubts he ever would, he could say something along the lines of our father cheated on our mother for a quarter of a century and, years later, when we sat around a table discussing it even though our father could no longer remember because of Alzheimer’s, my sister mentioned telling her kids, but I strictly forbade it since I cannot tell mine or they would cut off all ties with their grandfather, and she said it was her decision and, regardless, she writes about it.

Which she did.

But this is all the superficial he-said-she-said situation. It’s not the Vivian Gornick below-the-surface story. It’s not about how one sibling thinks he can continue to lord his power over another, both in their fifties, and why.

Maybe, someday, perhaps next spring when her brother turns 60, he’ll experience a reckoning and realize that maybe he chose this extreme lifestyle in his twenties to prevent him from acknowledging his authentic self, which everyone, including his young adult children, suspects—he prefers men—and he hides behind a black-and-white uniform and rigid rules with zero tolerance for homosexuality, making him feel trapped, lashing out at and Xing out of his life anyone who threatens him, thus far his ex-wife, oldest daughter, and her.

But if someone asks her if she has any brothers or sisters, she always says one, but he didn’t even say mazel tov at her son’s wedding this summer, and it’s partly her fault.

Maybe. Maybe not.


Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and hunts for a special home for her unconventional memoir-in-vignettes. Her chapbook “Crossroads: neither here nor there” is a finalist in Chestnut Review’s prose competition. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. When not at her desk, she’s often on her yoga mat: practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Simple Question”?

I learned about the gift of perhaps from Rebecca McClanahan at Hudson Valley Writers Center some 15 years ago; I’ve taught the gift of perhaps many, many times since. But this piece flowed out of me in response to a prompt on perhapsing on the third and last day of a flash memoir class with Kathy Fish. Initially I wrote it in first person, but a trusted reader-friend suggested changing it to third person, which gave me much-needed distance from he/him and she/her (I)—and perspective.


Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

Matter Press is now offering private flash fiction workshops and critiques of flash fiction collections here.


Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now closed. The reading period for standard submissions opens again March 15, 2023. Submit here.


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