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Sentimental Journey

In the new collected stories of Nathan Englander, and in his revised Haggadah, Jews cling tenuously to the easily broken chains of tradition

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In South Beach, Miami. Detail of Untitled, by Gay Block, from About Love (Radius Books, 2012). (Courtesy of Gay Block/Radius Books)

This achievement has had a particular importance to American Jewish writers, for whom the problems of inheritance and remembrance are especially immediate. To see how deeply this generational movement marked writers like Englander and Foer, just try to imagine a Haggadah created in 1970 by, say, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. It’s not just unthinkable, it sounds like the punchline to a joke. That’s because, for the Mailer-Roth generation of American Jewish writers, Jewishness was preeminently a social fact, the name of a parochial, prudish, petit-bourgeois milieu that had to be humiliated if it was to be escaped. In Mailer’s tough-guy antics, in Roth’s manic copulations, even in Norman Podhoretz’s frank social climbing, there was a repudiation of a world in which Jews were felt to be weak, sexless, and socially inept. As for Judaism as a religion, none of these writers really took it seriously at all; it was another banality, the terrain of pulpit rabbis, not of novelists or intellectuals. You could imagine a Roth character scribbling obscenities in his parents’ Haggadah, or perhaps masturbating to it, but not trying earnestly to rewrite it.

The rising, or perhaps they are now risen, generation of American Jewish writers cannot but suffer by comparison with that stellar cohort. Putting aside the question of native talent, there is a great freedom in rebellion when you are certain that the institutions and values you are rebelling against are immortal. But if you are an American Jew under 40, you were raised with the constant awareness that American Jewish life, and Jewish life, is precarious. The themes of our Jewish education were assimilation and intermarriage, Arab-Israeli wars and the Holocaust—each a different name for Jewish disappearance.

Thus the young Jewish writer, even more his non-Jewish contemporary, feels called upon not to rebel against the past but to redeem it, not to discredit authority but to legitimize it. His default mode is commemoration—as in the work of Foer, who has written three books each about a different kind of atrocity, and Englander, whose full-length novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, sought out a less familiar atrocity, the “disappearances” in 1970s Argentina.

“In every generation, a person is obligated to view himself as if he were the one who went out from Egypt, as it is said: And on that day tell your son, saying, ‘For this purpose the Lord labored on my behalf, by taking me out of Egypt.’ ” This is how Englander translates the Hebrew passage that lies at the heart of the Passover Seder, in the New American Haggadah that is coming out just in time for this year’s holiday. It reminds us that the Seder is more than a tradition, something handed down from generation to generation. It is a reenactment, an attempt to collapse all the generations that separate us from the Israelites who stood (if they really stood) at Mount Sinai.

There is something marvelous about these lines, about the boldness with which they insist on the possibility of suspending history. But the very existence of the New American Haggadah tells us something about the anxiety of American Jews when it comes to history and transmission and tradition. You can see this in the way this new incarnation of the Haggadah, which features commentaries by Jeffrey Goldberg, Lemony Snicket, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Nathaniel Deutsch, is constantly insisting on the reliability and unbrokenness of tradition—an insistence that admits the anxiety it conceals.

The first words in the book, evidently written by Foer, announce, “Here we are. Here we are, gathered to celebrate the oldest continually practiced ritual in the Western world. … Here we are as we were last year, and as we hope to be next year.” And running across the top of the pages is a timeline that, like the crawl on CNN, constantly reiterates this continuity: It begins with 1250 BCE (with “a document known to archaeologists as ‘Papyrus Anastasi V’ ”) down to 2007 (“publication of the first Haggadah designed for Jewish Buddhists”). All this suggests that it is not the chains of tradition we now fear, but the possibility that those chains might actually be broken.

That is why the most daring story in Anne Frank, and the best story Englander has yet written, is “Sister Hills,” which tells the story of the growth of a West Bank settlement. The story opens in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, when the unnamed outpost consists of just two households on facing hilltops. Each of the families has sent their men to war, and the women are left to take care of their children. When Yehudit’s infant daughter gets dangerously sick, she resorts to an old Jewish folk practice: She “sells” the baby to her neighbor Rena, hoping in this way to confuse the Angel of Death. The baby recovers, but Rena’s husband does not come home from the war, and over the years each of her three sons dies, leaving her childless. At this point she demands to take possession of Yehudit’s daughter Aheret, now grown into a young woman, whom she purchased long ago.

The story’s climax comes when Rena demands that a beit din command Yehudit to hand over her daughter, and it is here that Englander nudges his parable into his familiar territory of over-explicitness. For by this point the reader has already picked up on the way the women’s competition for Aheret echoes the contested status of the settlement, which over the years has grown into a thriving bedroom community full of secular Russians that offers free Wi-Fi. Just as both parties have a lawful claim to the girl, so Palestinians and Israelis both have a just claim to the land: the Arabs through first possession, the Jews through the city they have built there.

As with the best parables, Englander’s is ambiguous enough to offer multiple meanings. That’s why it’s disappointing when he has Rena berate the judges about the sanctity of contract, making the political parallel explicit: “If [the Arabs] claim the contract false … do we give up our homes? Do we give up our city?” The story is finer when things are left implied—as in the conclusion, when Aheret and Rena are locked together in a bitter cohabitation, as unresolvable as the Arab-Israeli predicament.

What is striking about “Sister Hills” is not just the biblical starkness of its prose and premise. Equally unusual is the way Englander gives a deeply sympathetic portrait of religious settlers, a group held in very low regard by many American Jews. He successfully communicates the way the settlers’ project can be seen as an extension of the original Zionist project of reclaiming the land; and he shows why the prospect of Israeli disengagement from the West Bank is so practically and spiritually traumatic.

It says something profound about contemporary Jewish life that Englander’s stories of identity and belief seem shallow and garish, while his story of Jewish politics feels challenging and true. Perhaps the great Jewish fiction of the near future will have to be less psychological and social than is currently the norm, and more explicitly political. And perhaps the great dividing line in contemporary Jewish life is not the one between religious and secular Jews, but between those who see themselves as members of a historical Jewish nation, and those who find such an identity archaic or delusional.

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gesrhon hepner says:

Loved Adam Kirsch’s very negative of Nathan Englander’s book, and the principle rationale for his negativity:

Better never to rebel
against what you have always hated
than being subject to its spell
by rebelling, while belated.

Of the essence always, time
determines whether your rebellion
is successful, or a crime
in eyes of man and the El Elyon.

Gershon Hepner gwhepner@yahoo.com

jacob arnon says:

Adam’s review was right on.

Englander reminds me of a naive teenager who just discovered that his parents have sex and is shocked, shocked, shocked…

james horowitz says:

I do not understand this desire to denigrate the obvious pleasures of a great writer, who other great writers have identified as our reigning master of the short form. Where do you get off contradicting the authority of Foer, Egan, Lethem–all the leading lights of Brooklyn who have given rapturous blurbs. Surely you don’t think they are no good either? I wonder how you’ll feel when no less an arbiter of literature than the New York Times Book Review runs its rave review on the 19th. All of Fort Greene will be dancing in the streets–a friend of mine who works at DeKalb, coffee place where the author works, say that it’s the cover and the reviewer is a close friend of the author’s.

Shalom Freedman says:

I didn’t wise or ethically right when Philip Roth did it. And I do not believe it wise or ethically right when Englander does it.
There is a history which is too meaningful to bear ‘fictionalization’. Anne Frank’s story is such a history.

Good essay, really good essay, on Englander. My own take on the new stories is less sympathetic. I agree with your choice of “Sister Hills” among the story as rich and serious. Generally, I’m bothered by the easy, ugly cynicism of the stories. Transgression, breaking boundaries, can’t be done for its own sake. Thee’s no (here’s an old fashioned term!) moral center to the stories.

John J. Clayton

Indeed, the critique of Mr. Englander’s stories pales beside the wisdom of Mr. Kirsch’s last sentence, which is profound. If Jews lose the sense and importance of their historical identity, they are participating in their own doom.

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Sentimental Journey

In the new collected stories of Nathan Englander, and in his revised Haggadah, Jews cling tenuously to the easily broken chains of tradition

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