What Nathan Englander Talks About When He Talks About Jewishness

Nathan Englander says he has left behind the religious rigidity of his Orthodox upbringing. But his new volume of short stories shows that, whatever he may tell interviewers, he seems to maintain a desire to retrieve some of the meaning and coherence of tradition

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
by Nathan Englander. Alfred A. Knopf,
201 pages, $24.95

The title of Nathan Englander’s stunning new collection of stories draws on the name of the young diarist killed at Bergen-Belsen, and on the framework of Raymond Carver’s signature and quintessentially American piece of short fiction, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Nathan Englander
Juliana Sohn

In one stroke Englander informs us that his stories will be set within broad territory − the Holocaust; the tensions within and between contemporary American Jews, religious and secular; and the complexities, worldwide, of defining “Jewishness.”

In the title story, an American man who went from being a secular Jew named Mark to a Hasid who lives in Jerusalem and goes by the name Yerucham, is visiting old friends in Florida with his wife ‏(also an American Jew who grew up secular and became Hasidic, and is, along with everyone else, sloshed on gin and high on pot, as are the characters in Carver’s story‏).

But even in this condition he is still coherent enough to say, about the Holocaust, “you can’t build Judaism on one terrible crime.” Religion, he insists, is the only thing that counts, not “culture,” which is nothing but “some construction of the modern world.”

Yerucham is not concerned about the Holocaust of the past, but the “current one,” which “takes” 51 percent of the Jews through intermarriage.

Englander, once a suburban Orthodox kid from Queens and now a Brooklynite via Israel, told an interviewer recently that he had escaped, in increments over the years, from religious rigidity and a “xenophobic, anti-intellectual, shtetl mentality.” Although seemingly angry about his upbringing and what he describes as a substandard education, Englander’s main purpose in writing the title story is not to point out, as he did often in his earlier collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” (1999), the incongruities ‏(hypocrisies?‏) of Orthodox Jews − men who patronize prostitutes, for example, with the blessing of their rabbis.

While reading “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” Englander’s satirical portrayal of Haredim getting stoned, you may chuckle, but you will probably be much more affected by and remember longer a thought experiment engaged in by the inebriated foursome, an experiment that the American couple has practiced repeatedly, and in which the two wives also participated as young friends together in high school in the U.S. when thinking and talking about Anne Frank.

If there were another Holocaust, “which of our Christian friends would hide us?” is the opening question in what the American husband announces is “not a game,” but a “dead serious” business. To tell where this dead seriousness leads would be a spoiler. But I finished reading literally shaken, and was forced to think deeply again about the hidden meanings packed into what the philosopher Berel Lang calls the “mischievous questions” asked after the Holocaust, especially “Why did so many people fail to help?”

Barren land

Although Englander’s second and longer story, “Sister Hills,” would not have been as provocative a title for the whole eight-story collection, it is the best piece of writing in the book. It begins in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, when two Orthodox families establish an outpost on relatively barren land on two separate hills in the West Bank. It takes us episodically through 1987, when the first intifada begins, on to the second intifada in 2000, and ends in 2011, when the original site has become an upscale bedroom community inhabited mainly by secularists, many of them Russian.

At the beginning, we learn in biblically cadenced prose that the men are about to go off to war. “The boys said, ‘We will come too. There will be some way to help.’ ‘Stay with your mother,’ Hanan said. And Rena, who did not need her husband to make such a decision, said, ‘Follow your father to the city, and see if there’s any way you may serve your country in its time of need.’”

For further reading:

A temporary guest in the world
The writer, herself and I
In the land of Whateverwitz

The woman on the other hilltop, Yehudit, left at home with an infant daughter to care for, soon discovers that her baby is dangerously ill. Resorting to an old Jewish folk practice, which Rena initially sees as magic or superstition, Yehudit asks her to “buy” her child in the hope of confusing the Angel of Death. Yehudit, who apparently has faith in an awesome, interventionist God, assumes that she has unwittingly committed some evil deed. “But it is my evil,” she says, not that of the “utterly pure” child. The baby is “purchased” and recovers, but the men do not survive the war, and all three of Rena’s boys die violently over the years.

Left childless, an aging Rena, insisting that the original “contract” be fulfilled, demands possession of Aheret, Yehudit’s daughter, now a grown woman. An argument ensues loaded with theological and political implications. One senses from this that the battle for Aheret reflects the Middle East’s fierce contest over disputed territory. In the end a beit din is assembled; but after intriguing exchanges and interpretations of Jewish religious law resonant with contemporary relevance, the rabbis can do little more than leave Yehudit bereft and Aheret and Rena locked in a relationship filled with bitter resignation, one as inextricable as the Israeli-Palestinian entanglement itself.

The parable invites multiple interpretations. But it is clear that Englander, who has no use for religious fanaticism, or for the oppression and daily humiliations suffered by the Palestinians, draws a sympathetic portrait of the settlers as pioneers continuing the Zionist dream of reclaiming the land. Perhaps this will be unsettling to Englander’s more dovish readers, but in his own inimitable way, the author shows why ending Israeli occupation will be a very difficult task, practically and spiritually.

Less intractable, but also difficult, is the construction of a successful work of creative imagination. Although Englander has said that the worst advice given in writing courses is to write what you know, this is precisely what he or his writer doppelganger, conveniently named Nathan, tries to do in “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side.” “But what do you do if you’re American and have no family history and ... your most vivid childhood memories are ... plots of sitcoms, if even your dreams, when pieced together, are ... snippets of movies that played in your ear while you slept?” Although the writer’s girlfriend tells him to do the best he can with the family stories he has, she backs away quickly to say something more authentic and provocative: “You find better stories than that.”

That advice leads to a story about the search for a story. It has 63 numbered sections which, though nonlinear and seemingly disconnected, come together like a Cubist painting. Did his mother’s uncle Abner die at the age of 8 of an infection whose danger his great-grandparents underestimated, or was it a brain tumor, and therefore God’s will, something unstoppable, leaving the family blameless? Was Grandpa Bennie killed in Holland by the Germans during the war, or did Bennie accidentally shoot himself afterward? Several versions of the same stories are ferreted out of family members. But in the end, the question of which renditions are “true” becomes less important than the writer’s ability to move fluidly between memory and invention.

Many of the stories in this collection, as in Englander’s first, are influenced by the Jewish fable-writing practiced by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem, and by Bernard Malamud’s magical realism ‏(before it had that label‏). Critics of Englander’s earlier work had asked whether the stories actually transcended their edgy, jokey premises to achieve some higher purpose. That question, tone-deaf to begin with, should be put to rest with this new set, including “Camp Sundown,” in which a group of Holocaust survivors, certain that one of the elderly men among them was once a concentration camp guard, conspire to pursue “justice,” and “How We Avenged the Blums,” wherein a small group of suburban yeshiva boys try, with hilarious and troubling consequences, as well as lingering moral questions, to learn how to defend themselves against an anti-Semitic street bully.

The collection is not perfect. “Peep Show,” the weakest of the lot, is about Allen Fein ‏(ne Feinberg‏), a former Orthodox Jew who “accidentally” ends up in a strip joint, where he is greeted not only by a gorgeous nude who excites him ‏(and will no doubt do the same for some readers‏), but also by the rabbi of his youth, his mother and his therapist. Yet even in this story, dripping with Jewish shtick gone stale, there is a Kafkaesque sense of confusion as the various doors to the booths, behind which naked bodies are displayed, open and close with surprising, embarrassing or frightening results, especially with an abiding feeling by Fein that something great has been lost.

Off the page, Englander can be overly cute and evasive. In answer to questions about his Orthodox upbringing, he has quipped, “I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the ankle-length denim skirt,” and “if it weren’t for God’s instantaneous and violent retribution, I’d declare myself an atheist.” But for all his apparent rebellion against the past and his tendency to discredit authority through the use of irony, it seems in these stories that Nathan Englander also yearns to retrieve, even if in renewed form, some of the meaning and coherence of tradition.

Gerald Sorin, a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz, is author of “Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent” and a biography of Howard Fast, to be published later this year.