Nathan Englander, (Vintage, 2019) [IBR2020]

This is what ritual does. It binds from chaos. Across time.

A typical description of this book tells you that Larry, the strayed oldest son of an Orthodox Jewish family, outsources his duty to recite Kaddish, in three services a day for eleven months in memory of his dead father, to an internet site. That, of course, is the setup. It’s what happens next that is the real book. This post is going to get a bit spoilery as it goes on, so be ready to bail when the warning light goes on.

The novel is divided into four parts. In Part One, we have the setup, an excellent examination of what it’s like to be an outsider in one’s own family, and to have a burden one cannot imagine either honoring or failing to honor. It’s 1999, and Larry is sitting Shiva at his sister Dina’s house in Memphis, which apparently rivals New York in the intensity of its Jewish neighborhood. Larry’s still in New York, in advertising (“Branding,” he’d correct me. “It’s part of advertising, but it’s different”), and is taking a lot of heat for his semi-observance of Shiva. He’s about to take a lot more heat as Dina reminds him of his filial duty to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in three separate shul services a day for the next eleven months. He can’t believe it really matters, but he can’t quite shake the feeling that it does.

That conflict is what interests me most about the book. I, too, have left behind a religion that just won’t vacate a few small strongholds in my mind. Mix that with the genuine grief Larry is feeling – I have no doubt he loved his father and misses him terribly – and I can understand his dilemma.

“I think the World to Come is just a long table where every­one, on both sides, sits, men and women—”
“No pets,” his father said.
“Fine,” his father said. “Under the table, the dogs and cats. But no birds. I can’t picture it with birds.”
“Fair enough,” Larry said.
“This long table, with its perfect white cloth, is set not with food and drink, but with the Torah, copies for everyone, so that you can read to yourself or learn in pairs.”
“I can picture that.”
“And you know what happens at this table?”
“All you do for eternity is study. Nothing else. No interruption. No day, no night, no weekend or holiday, no y’mei chag or chol. For it is the afterlife. Time unbroken—all of it given over to one purpose.”
“Sure,” Larry said.
“This is why, for the souls gathered, that single place serves as both Heaven and Hell.”
Here his father had gulped at the air, fishlike himself.
“It goes like this,” his father said. “If you have a good mind and a good heart, if you like to learn Torah and take interest in knowledge, then studying for eternity is, for you, Heaven.”
He had looked to his son, and Larry had nodded.
“And if all you want is to waste time on narishkeit and bunk stuff, to think your greedy thoughts though the money is gone, and to think your dirty thoughts though your schvontz is buried down below, then for you that same table is torture. Then sitting there, with your bad brain, you find yourself in Hell.”
Larry considered the idea, poised at his father’s side.
Partly, he’d thought it was funny, and thought about making a Larry-like joke. But being his father’s son, Larry also took it seriously. He was awed at the notion and somehow afraid.
His father, who could read him like no one else, reached out with his liver-spotted hand and, laying it atop Larry’s, said, “I’m sure, in that place, for you, it would be Heaven.”
Larry had gasped, not from surprise, but choking back the rush of comfort he took in his father’s ruling.
“Trust me, Larry, it’s all right that you don’t believe. This period in your life—it feels like it’s forever, but if you’re lucky, life is long and each of these forevers will one day seem fleeting. You think when I was your age that I could have pictured this? That it would be 1999—the edge of a new millennium—and I’d be saying goodbye to a handsome, grown son at the end of my days? I can tell you that even back then, I already felt old and thought I knew it all.” His father gave a weak squeeze to Larry’s hand. “You’re a good boy. And I pray that I don’t see you across from me until you reach a hundred and twenty years. But for you, my boychick, when it’s the right time to take your seat, that table will feel like a blessing without end.”

Larry’s problem is that he can’t imagine himself actually carrying out the duty of reciting Kaddish so often for so long. Remember, it’s not just saying the prayer; that he could do. But it must be said in a minyan, a gathering of ten or more Jewish men, and that means it must be said in shul, which means attending services three times a day. Every day. For eleven months. When Dina spells it out, he promises, because he can’t imagine not promising. But he’s got his fingers crossed behind his back:

…As long as Larry promises he’ll say the prayer, what does it hurt Dina if it skips? And honestly, what does it hurt their dead father, in heaven above, if Larry says a prayer or not? Does anyone really think God sits up there with a scorecard, checking off every one of Larry’s blessings?

That’s a second theme that interests me greatly: just how seriously do we take our religions? Do we really believe in hell and purgatory and a day of judgment and that wine and bread becomes blood and body and that baptism has power and our prayers are heard and acted on? I’ve always felt that if we really took eternal life seriously, we’d be living this life a lot differently. Some areas of philosophy and evolutionary psychology wonder if all the guilt that’s built into Western religion is outsourced from our own consciousness, rather than the typical religious notion that it is God who implants conscience in us and without God there is no morality. So when Larry asks these questions – does it really matter if I say the Mourner’s Kaddish on schedule? – I understand how a ‘yes’ can lurk underneath the ‘no, of course not.’

This brought in something I wasn’t aware of. I’m not Jewish, so my (limited) knowledge of Orthodox tradition is based on what I’ve read in academic and popular reading, but I’d never heard this before: after death, the soul goes into a kind of purgatory for a year, to be purged of sin. Saying of the Mourner’s Kaddish (for there are several varieties of Kaddish) helps to ease that process, sort of like Dante depicts in his Comedia for Christians in Purgatory when prayers are received on their behalf. So the question “Does it matter” is more than tradition; it impacts his father’s afterlife experience, speeds along – or delays – his passage to paradise.

Because she’s a pretty good judge of character, Dina explodes at Larry’s promise to say Kaddish, because now she knows he’s lying. Enter her rabbi, who tries to come up with solutions. The most promising is a proxy, someone who will say Kaddish for him. So his responsibility has been pared down to: find a proxy.

Enter And yes, there is a current website of that name offering this service, though I understand it was set up after the novel was published (how foolish of the publisher and/or Englander not to register the domain name themselves). The service has been, however, available for quite some time through other long-established Jewish organizations, so it’s not some newfangled thing. If it were me, I’d probably go to one of them. But this is about Larry. Englander plays the scene of Larry signing up for all it’s worth, including a pornographic pop-up involving a glass dildo (um… really?) that becomes visible when he closes the Kaddish site page. It’s very effective, with details that weave through the rest of the book.

Then we come to Part Two (this starts getting a bit spoilery, be forewarned), which starts a year later when Larry receives a letter from his proxy, Chemi, to indicate his service has come to an end. This sets Larry on a road back to Orthodoxy, via the word “assimilate.” The thing is, this crucial moment feels a bit skimmed-over to me. The bones are there, but I’d like a little more flesh padding them out. We understand the changes Larry goes through to become, twenty years later, Reb Shuli, teacher of Gemara at a Brooklyn yeshiva, but it’s thin. It’s as if Englander suddenly decided he didn’t want this to be that deep a novel, so kept this transition at beach-read level before moving on to the next order of business: Shuli realizes the depth of what he committed to on that website twenty years earlier. He explains to his wife:

What has left Shuli lightheaded is the understanding that all his years of t’shuvah, a lifetime of redemption, had – for his father – done nothing. Not the yahrzeit candles lit, nor the services led. It was twenty years of Kaddishes without meaning, as they were not Schuli’s just say….
“It’s the kinyan,” Shuli tells her, looking around nervously as if someone might overhear. “Just because I returned to the fold doesn’t mean I brought everything back with me. On that website, a lifetime ago, I gave up what was mine.”
“This isn’t news, Shuli. How many times have we discussed this over the years? You paid for a service, and that’s all.”
“But it’s not all. I don’t know if I ever told you. When I signed, there was a digital pen that I put into a digital hand. I made a kinyan. I transferred over my rights – for real. Which means, even now, remembering my father is that other man’s job….It was my intent to be rid of that responsibility for life. The privilege doesn’t just revert on its own. The other party would need to return it.”

This is where things get a bit frustrating for me. I don’t fully understand the kinyan, and I haven’t found an explanation that really makes sense to me. Shuli observes a wedding ritual involving a kinyan, and this reminds him of the twenty-year-old transaction. It seems like a real leap of logic to equate clicking on a web page, moving a pen icon into a hand icon, with the ritualistic and symbolic trading of tokens. His wife also finds it a bit of an exaggeration, and feels confident it’s not binding.

Maybe it makes sense if you’re more familiar with this Jewish custom than I am (though Shuli’s wife would be), but to me, it just seems like a way to carry forth the plot. Then again, we can look at it through the lense of character: Shuli’s guilt over shirking his duty creating a need to take further action. I think that’s the key to the whole novel: see everything through the eyes of the repentant, needing to atone for past sins, including not only outsourcing Kaddish, but leaving the fold in the first place.

Shuli makes his attempts to reconnect with Chemi, his proxy from so long ago, via the website, still in operation. He enlists the help of a student. And my frustration mounts, because everything here is overcomplicated. Setting Gavriel’s age at twelve feels forced (since he hasn’t been bar mitzvah’ed, he’s not implicit in any sin), and the constant trading of extra recess for computer help just feels sleazy. By the way, do twelve year old boys do recess?

Be that as it may, a brilliant passage emerges from this scene:

When he first entered this miserable room and found his way back onto the web, Shuli had prided himself on the belief that all knowledge was contained inside the Torah. And now, as he waits for Gavriel to pinpoint the exact spot on the planet where this hidden yeshivah stood, he’s forced to admit that inside this terrible machine is a different kind of all knowingness. A toxic, shiftless omniscience.
To unlock the secrets of the Torah, one had to be disciplined. One had to work and to think. But this? If one only knew how to ask the question, all knowledge was lazily yours.
…And here in these machines is that exact knowing – for the advertisers and for the governments and for those with good and bad intentions to use as they saw fit. It’s all accessible, your wants and dreams, your sins and secrets, so that Gavriel, tapping away at the keys, can tell where someone around the world sits right then – a humble, hidden someone who does not want to be found. But the Internet knows, and it has no compass to guide it and no will to guard what was meant only for the Maker. Here, it all waits to be plucked out of the air by a child.

Those of us of a more secular bent are indeed quite aware by now of the perils of all that information just sitting somewhere that anyone could find it. It goes well beyond what ads show up on the websites you visit. Just a few days ago, a major effort at vote deterrence was discovered as a major source of voter suppression in 2016: people targeted as Democratic voters who could be persuaded, not to vote for the other guy, but not to vote at all. And think of AI, all those algorithms, programmed without morals, without judgment, without, well, soul. I can see how Shuli might see this through a religious lens.

SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT: But that raises another complaint I have with the book (hey, I often avoid negativity, but I think Englander can handle it). Shuli just seems hopelessly naïve. He was in New York advertising, people! He knew his way around internet porn. This isn’t some sheltered yeshiva bocher who’s never been outside Williamsburg. And yet he doesn’t catch on as Gavriel’s inquiries to go unanswered. He thinks Chemi is hiding from modesty. He really doesn’t get what the rest of us realized immediately, what we suspected back when we first read the words that it’s a scam. This stretches credulity to the breaking point. But it’s still a book worth reading, if you can get into that mindset.

Part Three follows Shuli as he roams through Jerusalem trying to find the yeshiva, and thus the server, responsible for And again he finds himself studying, waiting for a mysterious donor whose middle name might be abbreviated Chemi. Since I’ve given up on credibility at this point, I just went with it and enjoyed the chase. But it’s easily the least interesting part of the book.

Part Four is where the money shot is, and yes, I use that term advisedly, since Shuli’s father (as well as the Lady of the Glass Dildo) makes another appearance. Shuli, and through him, we as readers, finally gets the picture of the scam. It’s not as bad as it could have been, and I give a lot of credit for that. It would’ve been easy to have put the server in the back of someplace awful – a New Jersey muffler shop? – but this is more nuanced, though the upshot is the same: there was no recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. For Shuli, resolution comes while he sleeps. I’m not a big fan of the use of dreams to resolve metaphysical questions, but the interaction between Shuli and Dad is quite lovely, and there’s a religious question resolved quite handily:

One earthly year – what they’d always been taught, what he himself said to his students. This was the maximum period a soul might be purged in the afterlife. And yet, twenty years later, here his father is caught in a ceaseless kind of kaparah.
…”A year is still the maximum,” his father says. “Only without day and without night to signify change, without a son who has been studiously saying Kaddish to go silent at the eleventh month, how are we to know when judgment comes to an end without such markers?”
Shuli, already sweating, says, “I will fix it, Abba. Don’t worry. For you, and for all the others. I will put it right.”

Although I had my complaints, I did very much enjoy this book. The questions of religion and character overshadowed my misgivings about plausibility; for someone more interested in what a character does than in the philosophies raised, I think it might work just as well. I ended up feeling very warmly towards Shuli; he screwed up a lot, but he was able to find his heart and follow it when it mattered. And while some background, however vague, in either Judaism or internet configurations might be helpful, I think the action, and the thought, is accessible to just about anyone.

BASS 2012: Nathan Englander, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from TNY, 12/12/11, and his 2012 Story Collection

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.

[Note: I posted about this story when I first read it in The New Yorker last December, but I did a lousy job; I was too focused on comparisons to the Carver story to really pay attention to the one I was reading, though I knew through Englander’s Page-Turner interview at the time that he’d avoided re-reading the story himself. So I’m giving it another go.]

It’s an immensely complicated, though essentially “plotless,” story. Mark and Laurel (Yerucham and Shoshana) are Hasidim who’ve lived in Jerusalem for the past twenty years; they’re in South Florida to visit Mark’s ailing father. The narrator and Deb are non-observant Jews living in South Florida. Deb and Laurel went to school together, and are visiting for the first time since then; the two couples sit around talking. That’s it.

It’s all in the details.

Who touches whom – who clings to whom, and why – and who can’t touch. Where they are at any time – the den, the kitchen table, the floor, the back yard, the pantry – and why they went there: for a drink, to play, for food. What name, their given names or the Hebrew names they prefer, the narrator chooses to call the two visitors – and how not only what he says changes, but how he uses those names in the narration of the story. The snipes that take place, under guise of “conversation.” Who likes whom. Who approves of whom.

Most of the discussion falls into the category of what it means to be Jewish. Is it a religion, a culture, an ethnicity? Is an Ethiopian convert, or a guy who lives a non-religious life in South Florida, just as Jewish as an Hasidic Yeshiva-educated son of a Jewish woman? Is intermarriage the second Holocaust?

There’s some amazing choreography, both verbal as topics weave and course, and physical. They start in the den, looking at pictures and meeting the teenage son. Then to the kitchen for a drink and, as the afternoon progresses, a few joints (suggested by Laurel, since everyone in Israel smokes pot, apparently, and fortunately, Trevor hides his in the laundry hamper). At one point Deb, stoned, is on the kitchen floor, and the narrator joins her, holds her, comforts her, until they are lifted up – back – by Mark. They go out and play in the rain. An attack of munchies brings them to the pantry, a small room rather than the closet I’m familiar with.

Have you ever thought about what room in your house would be ideal for hiding a family in the event of a second Holocaust? I haven’t. But Deb has. It’s the pantry, and being in the pantry, stoned, leads Laurel/Shoshana to bring up the Game.

“It’s not a game,” Deb says.
And I’m happy to hear her say that, as it’s just what I’ve been trying to get her to admit for years. That it’s not a game. That it’s dead serious, and a kind of preparation, and an active pathology that I prefer not to indulge.
“It’s the Anne Frank game,” Shoshana says. “Right?”
Seeing how upset my wife is, I do my best to defend her. I say, “No, it’s not a game. It’s just what we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank.”
“How do we play this non-game?” Mark says. “What do we do?”
“It’s the Righteous Gentile game,” Shoshana says.
“It’s Who Will Hide Me?” I say.
“In the event of a second Holocaust,” Deb says, giving in. “It’s a serious exploration, a thought experiment that we engage in.”
“That you play,” Shoshana says.

Imagine yourself, stoned, having confided some things to people you don’t really know, having played in the rain with them, having fretted about what your husband is saying to them – and suddenly you play this game, and try to imagine: Would your husband, if he were Gentile and you were not, hide you? What I truly love about Englander’s handling of this is that he doesn’t look at who would or wouldn’t; he looks at who believes the other would or wouldn’t.

So here they are, on the last page of this story, in this pantry, this closed room – they can see the sun dimming again through the crack under the door – and now Deb and Shoshana consider whether their husbands would hide them.

A plotless story? Hardly.

Nathan Englander: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from The New Yorker, 12/12/11

New Yorker illustration by Zohar Lazar

New Yorker illustration by Zohar Lazar

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.

So first I re-read the original Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s been a while. My answer to the almost-question of the title has traditionally been: “Anything but ourselves.” What I remember: booze, light and dark, a more civilized Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the shallowness of whatever it is these people call love. Then I read the original vs edited by Gordon Lish version, how “Beginners” became the famous story that was actually published. It always surprises me to see the major changes an editor makes. Then I read some analysis of the original about how Carver was a recovering alcoholic and his stories always use food as nurturing and caring, but booze as destructive, and how important the offer of cheese and crackers, followed by no action of actually providing those things, was. I don’t remember that from my days in Lit 101. Which is why this kind of reading is so much better than that kind was.

And then I read this story, the title story from Englander’s forthcoming collection (which will also include “Free Fruit For Young Widows“). I’ve put off commenting on it for a few days, because I’m intimidated by it. I liked it more than the original (I’m waiting for lightning to strike me dead… no? Ok, good), because the people, the progression, made more sense to me. I think it’s just that I don’t understand 50s people, as portrayed in fiction and movies. They all seem to behave in some socially-approved way that I never learned. Maybe that’s where I went wrong in life.

There’s a definite nod to the original, evident in the opening paragraph quoted above, but I soon stopped trying to force a one-to-one correlation. Two couples get high and talk about deeply emotional topics without really getting deeply emotional. I enjoyed the observation that the Holocaust is forced on Jews in a way they don’t always appreciate, and the anecdote about the golfers with tattooed numbers that differed by five. I love the idea, beloved by many of my generation, that intermarriage is the new Holocaust. Freedom has its price, after all. I don’t know that I agree with the concept, but that’s supposed to be how the Lost Tribes got lost two thousand years ago.

And I love the Anne Frank game. It’s so dangerous, so loaded, it’s just made for a story like this. If there were a new Holocaust, who could you trust to hide you? Could you trust your spouse? The moments of truth these people encounter was quite real to me.

Light and dark are used much the same way as in the original, as are food and intoxicants. I think it gets to the heart of the matter much more cleanly, spiraling in on that last scene in the pantry which could serve as a safe room until it hits squarely on the truth. I enjoyed it very much.

And my answer to the implied question in the title: We talk about love when we talk about Anne Frank. Fear, somewhat. But love. Who would love us, that much. And who we could fool into thinking we love them, that much.

[Note: I re-read and reposted about this story when it appeared on BASS 2012]

BASS 2011: Nathan Englander, “Free Fruit for Young Widows” from The New Yorker

New Yorker Illustration by Emmanuel Guibert

I will pretty much get on a plane to anywhere in the world if it’s to do an event with the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (and, yes, the little boy in the story is named after him). So about a year and a half ago, I flew to Rome to give a talk with Etgar, and, a nice surprise, there in the first row of the audience was an Italian friend of mine. After the talk, we ended up on the roof of her building telling stories for hours. One of those stories was about Etgar’s father, and matching uniforms, and the Sinai Campaign….. I wanted to tell Etgar something about the narrative structure of the story. But I didn’t want to be rude and talk about a personal story in an inconsiderate way. So I asked, in Hebrew, “Would you mind if I engaged with that story as a story?” And Etgar turned and said, “Sure. Take it.” As in, It’s yours, go write it. And there I was backpedalling and apologizing and saying, No, no, that wasn’t my intent. But Etgar made it clear. He writes about talking fish, and fake angels, and women that turn into hairy men after dark, and that, really, this is not the kind of thing he would do. So a year went by, and I was living in Berlin for a few months, and thinking about history and the Holocaust and Israel, and that’s when I sat down to write “Free Fruit.”

This is how Nathan Englander describes the origin of “Free Fruit for Young Widows” in his New Yorker Book Bench interview, and in his BASS 2011 Contributor Notes. Initially this anecdote interested me because I’d read Keret’s “Surprise Party” in One Story (I think I’m being haunted by One Story, I’ve had reason to mention it in something like three-quarters of the comments I’ve done this fall) and would otherwise be unaware of him.

But now I find myself in a position where I’m not sure I’m willing, or able, to discuss this as a story, because it’s one of those intensely personal Jewish pieces that becomes rather like a Buddhist koan, and I don’t have the background to fully grasp it. Still, I can fumble along. You can fumble along, too, since it’s available online.

Three things seem very important for me to say. First, I found it very difficult to get into. The first paragraph is bewildering and reads like a magazine article rather than a short story. Yet I’m not sure I’d want to see it rewritten; one of my complaints about the last BASS volume was that most of the stories were too similar, and here when confronted with something different, I’m embarrassed to find myself balking. So as I’ve learned from past stories, I just kept plugging along, and eventually things started making sense and it turned into a short story.

Second, I think the boy Etgar’s philosophical development is perhaps the real metaphor of the story. He goes from seeing things in absolute certainty to realizing there are gray areas: “Shimmy did his best to make clear to his son that Israelis—in their nation of unfinished borders and unwritten constitution—were trapped in a gray space that was called real life. In this gray space, he explained, even absolutes could maintain more than one position, reflect more than one truth.” At first Etgar is unconvinced, but later, he “decided Professor Tendler was both a murderer and, at the same time, a misken.” Is this growing? Or inuring? Or sophistry? Has he developed compassion, or callouses? Or both? Or has he just learned to rationalize what he wants to believe anyway?

Then there are the questions of blame, guilt, forgiveness, responsibility, punishment. That’s what rabbis do all day; debate is the Jewish sport. I’m not able to follow fully. But I get the jist, and can appreciate the intricacies of what’s going on.

I don’t really “get” the story. But once I got into it, I enjoyed it. And more than that, I appreciated it. We never know how good we’ve got it until we remember how bad we could’ve had it, in a different time, a different place.