The question of what it means to be a Jewish American writer has as many answers as it does authors. Consider Isaac Bashevis Singer, then Cynthia Ozick; Bernard Malamud juxtaposed with Philip Roth; or Rebecca Goldstein and Allegra Goodman: magisterial, demotic, irreverent, earnest, schticky, obsessed, feminist (you can decide who’s what). But all their stories are shadowed by a history that goes back millennia, with a lot of bittersweet humor. If being the chosen people means exile and suffering, runs a complaint to God in an old joke, “Maybe you could choose someone else for a change?” In the twentieth century and beyond, the issue is complicated by modern Jews who leave the flock for more secular pastures. But at base is usually the intersection of the individual and the religious community, and in turn the religious community and the society containing it.
Nathan Englander entered this pantheon in the late 1990s with his debut short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. His latest book is the novel kaddish.com, which came out this year. The seriocomic vein that runs through his work is as evident as ever–but first, a little background.
In For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, what got Englander the attention he deserved was a series of memorable setups taken to their logical-absurdist conclusions. In the story “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” Stalin signs a death warrant for twenty-seven dissident writers–but the twenty-seventh person on the list isn’t a writer at all, simply a schnorrer included by a clerical error and sharing a cell with doomed literary greats. In another story, “Tumblers,” a group of Jews bound for Auschwitz gets on the wrong train, and they find themselves mistaken for a troupe of acrobats set to perform before the Führer, with only one day before their act goes on. Other premises are less grim but equally mind-warping: a rabbi who supports his shul by moonlighting as a department store Santa Claus; a Park Avenue WASP financial analyst who suddenly becomes a Jew on his cab ride home one afternoon; or, in the title story, a husband whose wife is cool toward his sexual advances and who receives special dispensation from his rabbi to visit a prostitute. The setups are somewhat reminiscent of those in the stories of the Israeli fabulist Etgar Keret, some of which Englander has translated.
Englander’s second collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, is more measured and serious, but it retains the bittersweet tang, starting off with the title story, a pitch-perfect riff on Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but featuring two couples talking about the Holocaust and their Jewish heritage: “They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.” Besides having an excellent ear for mimicry, Englander is a master at what comedians used to call the old switcheroo, as in his story “Peep Show,” in which what you see across the smudged plexiglass divider may be either your rabbi or your mother.
Truly memorable short stories, not just the flavor-of-the-month sex-and-surrealism, ordinary narratives set in global trouble spots, or voice-driven narratives with too much echo in them aren’t that common. Englander’s language is both precise and evocative. Besides earning the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story and the Frank O’Hara International Short Story Award, Englander has also won a Guggenheim Award.
Englander’s novels are a somewhat different affair. His first, The Ministry of Special Cases, traces a Jewish family caught up in the Dirty War in mid-1970s Argentina, and what it means to lose a son already estranged from his parents. Englander’s second novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, revolves around the fate of an unnamed prisoner held for years in a black site in the Negev Desert. The novel moves in ever-widening circles, from the guard whose career has been spent in watching over the prisoner, the guard’s mother, the woman who entrapped the prisoner, and her lover, to a battle-scarred general and the prime minister of Israel. The action moves back in time from Israel to France and the United States, but always tied to the tortured state of Israeli-Palestinian relations. It’s an odd, slightly awkward combination of a slow-moving thriller and a love story.
These novels are fine books because Englander is such an excellent writer, from the level of coruscating sentences to moving character portraits and settings that breathe. Englander is tender toward his people, sympathetic to pain suffered, while also wise to the pain they inflict on others. He’s good not only on what makes people tick but also on what drives them nuts, the conflicts they live with and maybe, with a little help from others, resolve.
Kaddish.com is a sparer production than his previous two novels. The premise could have served as one of Englander’s what-if tales: Larry, a disaffected Jew who was brought up Orthodox, doesn’t want to say the Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, for his deceased father. He doesn’t buy into the whole ritual of Orthodoxy, despite alternately tearful and angry remonstrations from his sister. Yet without the recital of the prayer for eleven months, his father will languish in the afterlife.
To be a Jew means to be from elsewhere, it often seems, and though Larry hails from Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, the novel starts with him at his sister’s home in Memphis: “Mirrors covered and front door ajar, collar torn and sporting a shadow of beard, Larry leans against the granite top of his sister’s fancy kitchen island.” This is Judaism in the New South, peopled by figures like the uncharismatic Rabbi Rye, who alternates between entreating and arguing. The family kvetching spurred by Larry’s bullheadedness is a lot blunter. As Dan Greenburg once wrote in How to Be a Jewish Mother, the infliction of guilt is an art, a skill–a calling. Englander has a talent for presenting feeling, thinking characters gored on the horns of dilemmas of their own making.
Yet Judaism has always been adroit, sometimes in the service of getting around the laws of the Talmud. Want some tasks performed during the Sabbath, when all work is forbidden? Hire a shabbos goy! Want to carry personal items outside the home? Pay out a string along a perimeter to create an eruv, an extension of the private sphere that can be blocks long. And if you can’t find anyone to say the Kaddish, you can assign a proxy. As Rabbi Rye explains, “Don’t spread it around, but it really is–halachically–the same.”
Serendipitously, Larry finds an electronic means to that end, via the internet, that purveyor of pornography and prayer, the modern cornucopia that is all things to all people. Overly ingenious? If God didn’t want people to find a way around restrictions, he wouldn’t have given us laptop computers, right? Larry finds a website where he can pay someone to say Kaddish; he can even view the visage of the chosen hireling, a fresh-faced student named Chemi. That Larry is multitasking that evening, alternating between cybersex and a search for a website to carry out the Mourner’s Prayer, makes for one of those switcheroo setups that Englander does so well.
But then Larry, in a shock to readers who believe in character logic, returns to the religion of his youth, his conversion ascribed to finding his lost self. In the second part of the novel, Shuli, as he’s now known, has become a rabbi, acquired a wife and two children, and obtained a job teaching at a yeshiva in the (fictional) Royal Hills section of Brooklyn. But the Kaddish that he never said for his father continues to haunt him, and eventually he travels to Jerusalem to track down a piece of his past.
Despite what might seem like the curve of a life lived, the narrative feels more like a short story than a novel and in fact omits huge chunks of the protagonist’s life that would undoubtedly have complicated matters. Shuli’s background is never delved into too deeply, nor do we learn much about his conversion, the way Bible readers don’t know a lot about Saul of Tarsus before his life-changing vision on the road to Damascus and his name change to Paul. To be fair, Larry’s metamorphosis into Shuli isn’t an instant miracle but a gradual process, aided by frequent trips to his sister’s, “far from the prying eyes of his irreligious, heterogeneous Brooklyn gang.” In short, Shuli, né Larry, re-immerses himself in the culture bound to the religion.
Englander remains on top of his expertise. (In 2014, he translated a version of the Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer.) In kaddish.com, he portrays the intricacy of Judaic laws and how they form a network, a life. Through Shuli, now a model Jew, a reb who’s also a mensch, we experience parts of la vita nuova: Shuli’s smart and capable wife, Miri, along with their two children, the objects of tenderness and only a little worry; or the yeshiva where Shuli teaches the Talmud section known as Gemara: the mostly dutiful students; the able school secretary, Mrs. Meyers; Shuli’s boss, Reb Davidoff. It’s a serviceable supporting cast, sketched in just enough to eke out Shuli’s Progress.
But Shuli’s attempts to help a problem student named Gavriel kick off another life shift. Gavriel’s recently deceased father makes for a parallel with Shuli and his dead father, and something in Gavriel’s manner reminds Shuli of Chemi, the boy chosen to say Kaddish by proxy so many years ago. A wedding service Shuli performs spurs “the thought of burdens and of unions,” and he experiences what he downplays to others as a “little reflux of the soul.” Suddenly he’s back in guilt-land, feeling awful that his redemption never personally helped his dead father. He needs to track down the physical locale where Chemi once prayed for Shuli’s father and somehow reclaim the bond with his father. Gavriel turns out to be tech-savvy and provides Shuli with web assistance. The novel turns into a quest narrative.
When they find the school in Israel, we get an abrupt shift in location from New York to Jerusalem and are reminded that Englander is wonderful at setting. His description of the Nachlaot area in Jerusalem is a better personification than many novelist’s characters: “He knew about the tricks the neighborhood played on a visitor’s perceptions. There were mansions tucked behind rotted metal gates, and hovels where one expected a mansion to loom. A single-story cottage might actually be three stories tall as it climbed down a hillside, and some cave-like house might offer, from a rear balcony, a breathtaking view.”
Rav Katz, the wise and benevolent rabbi of the yeshiva Shuli seeks, recognizes need when he sees it and accepts Shuli into his school, which is the one that Shuli suspects of harboring the website service. We see more of Shuli’s guilt, his need, and his tortured soul. “Forget the soul?” asks Katz. “What else is there?” But in this life, not the next, resolution may exist. The novel’s conclusion is ingenious. Shuli comes up with a solution that forces a restitution. Does it justify all the pages? No, if it’s just a setup; yes, if you acknowledge that this is not just a life but a way of life, not just a past cast off but a future claimed. If the larger picture in Englander’s earlier two novels was focused on individuals caught up in history, kaddish.com is smaller and more personal, a true spiritual journey.
Still, “spiritual” isn’t the same as “earnest.” The soul has many soundings, and its journey explores depths that may appear funny and sad simultaneously, as Englander recognizes. What value does life have if one can’t extract pleasure from pain? Englander supplies both for his characters, which is to say, a fully imagined existence. To invert the old joke “Does it hurt?” and its answer, “Only when I laugh,” one might as well ask, “Do you laugh?” and conclude “Only when I hurt.” Englander is the kind of author who can make any reader wince and smile at the same time.
kaddish.com, by Nathan Englander (Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95)
DAVID GALEF is a professor of English and the creative writing director at Montclair State University, as well as the author of over a dozen books. Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook appeared recently from Columbia University Press.