Nathan Englander page 2 | page 1

The Jewish Angle
[sines & cosines]

"I write what I write," Englander, who now lives in Jerusalem, says simply. "It just happens to be a world that I've spent a good part of my life in. This was what I was drawn to write about."

Englander is sipping iced tea in the bar of a downtown Washington, DC, hotel. It's the blurry middle of a blurry day amid the blur of his May publicity tour following the book's release. In the evening he'll appear at a local bookstore, read one of his stories, answer questions and sign copies of his book. Now, sitting in the sumptuous dark leather of the bar, he looks like a guy who was on your college Israel program—jeans, sneakers, Henley sweater over a T-shirt. Not so different in dress from what he described to
Time Out New York as the style of his "Gap Orthodox" community in West Hempstead, Long Island: tzitzit over khakis. Now though, he goes fringeless.

After graduation, some classmates from his modern Orthodox yeshiva went to Israel to study and returned wearing the black hats of the ultra-Orthodox. Englander went to SUNY Binghamton for college because he wanted a liberal arts education. He majored in literature and Judaic studies and graduated a secular Jew.

With the apparent success of Orthodox Jewish outreach organizations in attracting marginal Jews and mainstream money to their institutions —Chabad and Aish Hatorah are two of the best known—many people can't fathom the idea of a Jew walking in the opposite direction.

"Do you still study Torah?" Englander is asked at his reading.

"I need this stuff for my work," he says, and with characteristic cheek paints a picture of himself studying shoulder to shoulder with a table full of yeshiva students. But while they're dialoguing with God, he's mining material for a story.

"I need it," he says again, and grins. "I write it off."

"What community keeps everyone?" he tells me, this time dead serious. "I read these articles—'He eats pork.' Well, why shouldn't I? I'm a secular person. If you're not surprised that people go into a community, you shouldn't be surprised that people go out."

His family is more accepting of his choices than the outside world seems to think.
For The Relief of Unbearable Urges is dedicated to Englander's mother, who read all the versions of his stories. Friends and family acted as his fact checkers, he says, verifying such minutiae as, would an Orthodox woman have had a creme de menthe at a hotel?

Stories of people getting religion tend to focus on the newly religious, but the phenomenon also affects everyone in that person's life, Englander points out. That's the subtext of "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," which appeared in the
Atlantic Monthly this year and is included in For The Relief of Unbearable Urges. Like everything in Englander's fiction, there's a sly twist. The ba'al teshuva in this case is Charles Luger, an Upper West Side gentile.

Ping! Like that it came. Like a knife against the glass, Englander writes. And Luger, riding home in the back seat of a cab, suddenly realizes he's a Jew. Jewish, he tells the driver. Jewish, here in the back.

"This is the greatest period of Jewish outreach in a couple thousand years and you see things happen very radically," Englander says. "That interests me. And I guess Mr. Luger is sort of extreme, and I empathize with him and those around him. That's what I wanted to explore. It's hard enough for him. But there are other people involved."

  I read these articles—"He eats pork." Well, why shouldn't I?
  The other person in this case is Luger's wife, Sue, on whom Luger drops the bombshell a day after his epiphany and shortly after she has a root canal. If it's not a nervous breakdown, she tells him, drooling and slurring from Novocain, I want to know if you feel like you're clinically insane...

"Because what you're telling me, out of the blue, out of nowhere, because what you're telling me is, inherently, crazy."

Charles nodded repeatedly, as if a bitter truth were confirmed.

"He said you would say that."

"Who said, Charles?"

"The rabbi."

"You've started with rabbis?" She pressed at her sleeping lip.

"Of course, rabbis. Who else gives advice to a Jew?"

Luger has found a teacher in Rabbi Zalman Meintz of the one-man Royal Hills Mystical Jewish Reclamation Center or, in the manner of Jewish organizations, the R-HMJRC. Luger is soon avoiding the treif on his dinner table, performing morning ablutions, and sending his business suits away to be tested for
shatnez, the forbidden mixture of linen and wool.

For Englander, the story is really about "an identity and how you make these changes, and how they threaten people in a way—that's really what the story is about for me," he says. "There's a threatening aspect, because it's a brave thing to do."