Jerusalem broke his heart
From Long Island yeshiva bocher to one of New York's young literati, Nathan Englander has come a long way - via Jerusalem.
NEW YORK - Every time he drops a book, any book, he picks it up and kisses it immediately. This is one of the last instincts that remain to him from his life as an ultra-Orthodox Jew. He kisses not only books that he drops, but also books that move him. When he finishes reading a good book, he shuts it and brings it to his lips, as an act of respect and gratitude.
The young Jewish American writer Nathan Englander has gone a long a way in his life, from the yeshiva on Long Island, where he was born, through life in Jerusalem to the apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He sits in the most fashionable cafe-bar-restaurant in Soho, "Soho House," one floor below the famous swimming pool where one of the final episodes of "Sex and the City" was shot, in a mobile phone-free zone. In total seriousness and concentration he is working there on his next book.
Englander, 34, is considered one of the promising writers of contemporary American literature. He was selected by The New Yorker as one of the 20 best young writers in the United States. His stories are published in anthologies and in important journals. He published his first, and thus far his only, book at the age of 29. The book, which was recently published in Hebrew, has been translated into 11 languages and was an international best-seller that won the author important prizes like the PEN-Faulkner Prize and the Pushcart Prize. Englander also received an advance for the book that is unprecedented for a beginning writer - the press has hinted at approximately $350,000.
"For the Relief of Unbearable Urges - Stories" includes nine short stories that deal with the meaning of Jewish existence in the 20th century. The opening story, "The Twenty-seventh Man," describes 27 Jewish writers who are executed at Stalin's orders, who are mistakenly joined by an unknown young writer, Pinchas Pelovits. Pelovits writes his first and last story in prison, as they await their death.
"The Tumblers" describes a bunch of pious Jews from the town of Chelm, who in the train on the way to the gas chambers decide to pretend to be tumblers and be saved. "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" describes a New York yuppie who during a cab ride discovers, in a one-time revelation, that he is in fact Jewish. He abandons his psychologist, begins to eat only kosher food and enters a crisis in his love relationship.
Rabbi as Santa Claus
Englander knows how to tell a story. He is gifted with the ability to write about characters, times and places that are far from his personal world, with precision and touching charm. In his book he brings to life a series of Jewish characters in extreme situations or moments of crisis: a wig saleswoman who buys the luxuriant curls of a New York messenger boy in order to make a wig that will remind her of her youth, or a rabbi who makes some money every year by dressing up as Santa Claus at Christmas time, and wins affection because of his authentic white beard.
Englander grew up in an environment of storytellers. "Having growing up in such an extreme religious world, having left that world, I had to go very far into the other world, and it took me a long time to find balance and to find things from my old world that I'm thankful for. One thing that I'm thankful for is the fiction - I'm really monkish and extreme in the way I work and write. I'm thankful that I grew up in a world in which stories were treated as truth. Abraham or Moses were real people to me. I was given really mythic stories."
Today he defines himself as Jewish in the cultural sense of the word. "My brain was patterned in a certain way," he says, "and those switches are very hard to break. I'm culturally Jewish. Where I come from, there is no such thing as culturally Jewish. I gave up religion in my first week in Israel, at the age of 19. It was the first time I violated the Sabbath when I took a bus to Tiberias. For me it was new to see that being culturally Jewish is an identity."
He adds that now he is completely secular, and that when a person becomes secular there is no real difference as far as he is concerned between eating on Yom Kippur, shaving his side curls with a razor or eating pork. For him, everything fell and collapsed and he simply no longer feels any need to observe all the strictures.
His work has often been compared to the work of other Jewish writers like Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, but Englander - though of course flattered - prefers not to be identified by the definition "Jewish writer." He says his stories aren't "Jewish," but that he simply spent many years in the Jewish world and that his art is supposed to function in a universal way. He can understand the talk about a generation of Jewish-American writers, but for him these definitions - Jewish prose, Black prose, homo prose - are restrictive and he notes that he doesn't read "The Brothers Karamazov" and think that these are Russian heroes, even though he realizes that this is Russian prose. He just wants to tell the best story he can.
American boy's Israel
Englander was born on Long Island to an Orthodox Jewish family and after he completed his yeshiva studies he registered at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he studied Judaism and literature. At that time he also left religion and worked as a photographer's assistant. For two years he studied at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he currently teaches. "Most of the people who go there grew up with a silver spoon in their mouth and are mostly graduates of Harvard and Yale. I came there without any background."
At the age of 18, Englander left his country for the first time and went to Jerusalem - the city and the myth of his childhood. Jerusalem, he says, just like New York is the center of the world and Englander loves centers.
He came to the holy city in May, 1996, on Election Day in Israel, when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister. "It's interesting - the level of hope I came with. I thought I came for peace. I really thought it was done. It was a hopeful time. I used to go to East Jerusalem to eat, we were all sitting there together, with somebody high in the Palestinian Authority - you can't tell me there's a pure hatred on both sides, because I didn't see it.
"I think of the person I was when I moved there, and what I believed - and the difference after a pigua [terror attack] and the feeling after the second intifada, of self-destruction of both sides. I went to Jerusalem so full of hope. I really felt that I wanted to be a part of this exciting thing, I wanted to live my life in Hebrew. Jerusalem was the city of the Tanach [Bible] and the dreams. It was fascinating to me to live in Nahlaot. I was going to call myself naive but I wasn't naive because had things worked out the other way, I just would have been right."
But Jerusalem broke his heart. As in any romantic relationship, he says, one side is left heartbroken. The fear of terrorism, the death and the prolonged political crisis led him to return to New York three years ago. The final story in his book, "In This Way We Are Wise," is the only one of the stories that is written in the first person and that includes autobiographical elements.
In the story, he describes one of the major terror attacks in Jerusalem, his Israeli friends who stubbornly insist on carrying on with their daily routine, and himself, in contrast, in increasing despair. In the book he writes: "Jerusalemites do not spook like horses. They do not fly like moths into the fire.
"They have come to abide their climate. Terror as second winter, as part of their weather. Something that comes and then is gone."
He also writes there: "A biblical Israel, crowded with warriors and prophets, fallen kings and common men conscripted to do God's will. An American boy's Israel. A child raised up on causality and symbol - I can guide you to the valley where David slew Goliath. Recite by heart the love songs written by Solomon, his son. There have been thirteen sieges and twenty downfalls - This is my knowing. Dusty-book knowing. I thought I'd learned everything about Jerusalem only to discover my information was very very old."
The conversation with him is spiced with words and phrases in Hebrew. During his years in Jerusalem, Englander studied Hebrew, mostly by reading newspapers. Before the interview he had an attack of homesickness for Israel, and went to eat hummus. When he talks about Israel and the political situation he gets emotional - he still feels involved. He recalls Judah Halevy and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who visited the land of Israel but for whom "Jerusalem was too much," he says.
In September, 2001, he returned to New York - just before the World Trade Center disaster that changed the face of the city. "It was just surreal to be here. I had experience with terror, being helpless after each pigua. I remember living in Jerusalem being jealous of New York friends who called me crying about not getting invited to the right party for the Oscars. Obviously it was an interesting time to move back to New York and see it become another city.
"I feel frustrated. Arafat and Sharon - for me, the two of them together are like a Shakespeare play. The cycle of violence is so insane. It's not a question of right and wrong, it's not a question of power - it's protecting your citizens. I felt safe in Israel when I thought people had a plan. I used to feel there is a plan, but then there were the piguim in Jerusalem and Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] took Moskowitz's money and opened the tunnel to Har Habayit [the Temple Mount] - how many people died there, over 70? It was shocking for me to understand that bad decisions are made by both sides. You ask me about Jewish fate? Forget goral [fate], let's talk about the general, basic, logic of how people interact."
Living in a bubble
Up until a few weeks ago Englander gloried in long and copious hair, which seemed to serve him as a symbol of personal freedom. His separation from religion was gradual. When he was 13 he found among his sister's possessions a copy of George Orwell's famous novel "1984" and began to read it. Gradually he was exposed to secular Western literature, to the books of Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud. "When I was a boy," he says, "I had a lot of questions that the rabbis didn't want to answer. How do we know that God exists, how do we know that he created the world? I was a very serious religious boy, and I think that if they had succeeded in dealing with those questions and not being threatened by them, maybe I would have remained religious to this day."
Reading, he says, saved his life. "Through reading I understood that this world doesn't come with answers. Through books I met people like Kafka and Conrad, who weren't afraid to raise the questions I asked and to live their lives without answers."
Englander takes his decision to write very seriously. He is already well-connected to the circles of writers and playwrights in New York, or as he defines it in Hebrew: "I have a bubble in New York now." But he is not chasing it - "It uses up a lot of energy," he says. Currently he is working on his second book - an historical novel about Argentina, where he spent several months in 1991. "Today I'm in a situation where if there's a good party in the city I let myself stay home in order to keep writing. After all, this is what I do in life."