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

Adam Kirsch
February 08, 2012
In South Beach, Miami. Detail of Untitled, by Gay Block, from About Love (Radius Books, 2012).(Courtesy of Gay Block/Radius Books)

The literature of Jewish disaffection is now itself a part of Jewish tradition, its gestures of rebellion recuperated as insignia of belonging. Isaac Babel, who wrote about the impotence of the Jewish intellectual, is now a hero to Jewish intellectuals; Franz Kafka, who dramatized the blockage of Jewish tradition and the impasse of theology, is now read as a profound Jewish theologian. Even Philip Roth, the creator of Alexander Portnoy and Mickey Sabbath and Nathan Zuckerman, has turned in his late-late period into a moist elegist of his boyhood Newark; his recent books all read like palinodes. Born into this Jewish and American cultural climate, what is a novelist to do?

This question is raised in very concrete terms by the appearance of What We Talk About When Talk About Anne Frank, the new volume of short stories by Nathan Englander, at the same time as the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, which features Englander’s translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic text. The story collection declares its quandaries in its title, an allusion to the famous Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Englander’s story of that name copies Carver’s basic situation—two couples in conversation, getting gradually more intoxicated and more dangerously honest. By putting Anne Frank in the title, Englander marks his story as Jewish, but in a particular way: The juxtaposition of Carver and the Holocaust is both a declaration of his own fictional territory and a blatantly bad joke.

The big question about Englander’s work, since his sensational debut collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges appeared in 1999, is whether his stories transcend their jokey premises to achieve some higher meaning, or simply offer a kind of Jewish minstrelsy. Englander himself is aware of this danger, as he made clear in the story “The Tumblers,” in his first book. This story imagines the fate of the holy fools of Chelm, the town celebrated in Jewish folklore, during the Holocaust. Englander has them escaping deportation to a concentration camp by boarding a train full of circus performers, then posing as a tumbling act in order to survive. The story climaxes with the Chelmites, dressed in pitiful costumes, putting on an incompetent show in front of an audience of Nazis.

The story strives to be a parable, but, as with much of Englander’s work, the more closely you read it, the less coherent the parable seems to be. After all, the crime of the Nazis was not primarily to humiliate Jews; nor can the Jews during the Holocaust be thought of as performers. And if the idea is to show what happens when folktale innocence meets human evil, that was already done supremely well by Isaac Bashevis Singer; inevitably, one reads Englander’s tale as a pale imitation of Singer.

What is distinctive about the Englander story is its sentimentality, which is another way of saying its failure to trust the subject and the reader, its insistence on underscoring the tragedy of the situation with cues and nudges. One such nudge comes when a young Jewish girl is shot by a German soldier: “The bullet left a ruby hole that resembled a charm an immodest girl might wear.” Another comes when the Holocaust is described as “unmatched feats of magic performed with the trains. They go away full … and come back empty, as if never before used.” (This kind of mock-naiveté has more in common with Roberto Benigni than with Singer.)

Where “The Tumblers” makes sense, however, is as an interrogation of Englander’s own treatment of the Holocaust and of Jews. Is writing about these things the way he does equivalent to forcing the innocent Jews of Chelm to dress up and play tricks for a hostile world? For there is indeed something potentially exploitive about the high-concept premises of Englander’s stories about Hasidic and Orthodox Jews. In “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” a moneyed WASP suddenly decides that he has a Jewish soul, and begins to live Jewishly, to the outrage of his disbelieving wife. In “Reb Kringle,” a Hasid with a big belly and beard makes his living as a department-store Santa. In the title story, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” a Hasid is told by his rebbe to go to a prostitute when his wife won’t sleep with him.

The wager of each of these stories is that the comic premise will build and topple over into liberating outrage—as Roth does in early stories like “The Defender of the Faith” or “Eli, the Fanatic”—or else deepen into a Malamud-style magical realism. But the truth is that Englander’s talent is not perfectly suited to either of these purposes, and his stories often seem to end where they begin, with the punchline of their premise. That is when the threat of minstrelsy appears—the possibility that readers will laugh at these stories only as familiar Jewish shtick.

Englander is at his best in a more familiar and old-fashioned kind of realism, in which he simply explores the common humanity behind the surface unfamiliarity of Hasidic or Orthodox life. Englander, who was raised Orthodox on Long Island, is well-situated to do this, just as Sherwood Anderson did it for the inhabitants of his invented Winesburg, Ohio; and a story like Englander’s “The Wig”—in which a Hasidic matron’s disappointed sexual feelings are sensitively imagined—puts the reader in mind of Anderson’s compassionate realism.

Thirteen years later, in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, the same impulses are still at war in Englander’s fiction. Once again, he is prone to high-concept stories that trade on the obvious incongruity of Jews—especially old or Orthodox Jews—doing profane things. In the title story, two couples—one pair of assimilated American Jews, one pair of baalei tshuvah from Israel—smoke a lot of pot and get the munchies, and the sight of black hats getting high is a large part of the story’s point. In “Camp Sundown,” a group of Holocaust survivors, convinced that another elderly man is really a concentration camp guard in disguise, murder him in a bout of senile revenge.

Worst of all is “Peep Show,” a story about a former Orthodox Jew who goes into a Times Square peep show and, instead of a stripper, is greeted by his therapist, his mother, and his childhood rabbi. The book’s high-powered blurbs describe Englander as “edgy” and “audacious,” but this fantasia on Jewish guilt is like something Woody Allen would have rejected for being too broad around the year Englander was born. (There are even shrink jokes: “I think it would be best if you paid for my peep. Thus far in your therapy, we’ve constructed a relationship based partly on financial remuneration.”)

Both the shtick and the psychology here are so contrived that it brings home one of the dilemmas Englander faces as a writer: simple belatedness. To rebel against a puritanical Jewish household in the year 2012 is inevitably to repeat the gestures of those who did the same thing in 1932 and 1952 and 1972, and it would take a writer of genius to give that rebellion a genuinely new fictional form.

Even then, the rebellion itself would not speak to today’s young Jews in the way that Roth’s did a half-century ago. If postmodernism, in the 1960s and 1970s, gleefully exposed the nullity of traditional authority and the corrupt partiality of every account of the past, then the post-postmodernism of the writers who emerged in the 1990s is an attempt to rescue the concept of authority and to regain contact with an authentic past. The literary standard-bearer for this generation was, of course, David Foster Wallace. Wallace’s achievement was truly dialectical: Instead of simply rejecting postmodern fictional techniques and returning to an outworn mode of realism (à la Jonathan Franzen), Wallace pushed through the artificiality and self-consciousness of postmodernism to create a new, self-critical sincerity. His achievement, one might say, was to make sentimentality legitimate again.

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.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.