Nathan Englander page 3 | page 2 | page 1 The Jewish Angle
[Sines & Cosines]

Englander is talking about himself, too.
Lots of teenagers feel stifled by their schools, by second-rate pedagogues. They're inflamed by the hypocrisy, the equivocation they perceive among so-called role models. Some sweat it out. Others incorporate it into their life's work. Nathan Englander the yeshiva student thought Orthodoxy was about rigor and consistency and seeking truth. "I had basic theological questions," he says. "None of the men in charge of my religious education were equipped to deal with them."
I started writing because it was the one thing that I had the tools for. If we had a decent blowtorch at home, I might be a welder or an industrial sculptor or a pyromaniac.  

He became known as the class troublemaker and left Orthodox Judaism "emotionally," he says. His "intellectual journey" to secularism, though, took many years.

"I was naive. I was the believing child," he says. "I think that's the reason that I probably got knocked out. Taking it so seriously. There was no leeway with me. I was an absolutist. I think that some people knew that life was more gray, or more varied. I didn't understand that whole part about bending [the rules]. And in a classroom setting where people aren't equipped to deal with [questions], these issues get seen somehow as rebellion."

He found his outlet in literature. And to satisfy his creative impulse, he began to write. "I started writing because it was the one thing that I had the tools for," he says. "If we had a decent blowtorch at home, I might be a welder or an industrial sculptor or a pyromaniac."

"He has a tremendous sense of the absurd and that's present in his stories," says Englander's editor, Jordan Pavlin. "The notion that there are moments of tremendous humor in even the darkest circumstances, and those moments are sustaining."

Nowhere is that more evident than in "The Tumblers," in which the fools of Chelm find themselves about to be transported to Auschwitz. By chance, a group of them is mistaken for acrobats, and they use that opportunity to save themselves from immediate destruction.

"This story for me is not a Holocaust story as much as it's about the act of remembering the Holocaust," Englander says. "The memory of the Holocaust is something so thorough that it's invaded literature. It's the Nazis showing up in a fabled town. The story's almost about the act of writing that story. It's about the act of remembering."

After college, Englander traveled to Argentina, began working in photography back in New York, and wound up at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the Harvard for aspiring writers. That's where Lois Rosenthal of the literary magazine
Story met him in 1995.

"I usually go to the workshop every other year to teach," says Rosenthal, who lives in Cincinnati. "Nathan was my driver from the airport." On the ride, they began talking about Englander's Orthodox upbringing, Israeli politics, and other topics. "I said, 'Are you writing about this stuff?' " Rosenthal says. "He handed me a folder."

Inside were three stories: "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," "Reb Kringle" and "The Twenty-seventh Man." Rosenthal read them when she returned home and immediately published them in
Story. All three are included in the current collection.

"They're very intense and full of heartbreak and humor. Who would have an Orthodox rabbi playing Santa at Bloomingdale's to save the shul?" Rosenthal says.

That's the premise of "Reb Kringle," which introduces to readers the white-bearded, Santa-bellied, sciatica-suffering character of Reb Itzik, who each year succumbs to his wife's entreaties to use his God-given resemblance to Saint Nick to help pay the bills:

"It's a sin, this job," was all he came up with.

"It's absolutely not a sin. Where does it say that playing with goyishe children is a sin? There is no rule against playing games with them."

"Playing! You haven't seen, Buna. Anyone who has seen would never call such mayhem playing. Not since the time of Noah has the world seen such boundless greed."

"Reb Kringle" doesn't read like a newly minted story. There's an oldness about it, and the other stories in For The Relief of Unbearable Urges. In fact, it's as current as the latest assimilation statistics, as the turning point in "Reb Kringle" makes clear.

The book's title story concerns a hasid, whose rebbe grants him dispensation to visit a prostitute, after the man's wife refuses to have sex with him. "The Twenty-seventh Man" is unpublished Pinchas Pelovitz, who is mistakenly marked for execution by Stalin along with 26 renowned writers. In prison, Pelovitz composes his masterpiece, which he recites to his three illustrious cellmates just before they are all shot, increasing his readership threefold.

"What makes [Englander] so remarkable is he's not writing about the condition of being Jewish. He's writing about the condition of being human," Pavlin says.

Englander's collection caused a bidding war among publishers, something common enough for a first-time writer, Rosenthal says, but a heady experience for Englander, who had by then moved to Israel.

"While it was going on, Nathan would call me from Jerusalem. He kept saying, 'I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I'll call you later.' "

For The Relief of Unbearable Urges was released in April. The reviews have read more like paeans. Reviewers seem powerless against making comparisons between Englander and Singer, Malamud, Kafka, Golgol, Chekhov, John Cheever and Flannery O'Connor. Rosenthal says she's glad Englander is staying away from the New York literary scene, where writing can give way to being a writer. "He's smart, living in Jerusalem, where he can live the life of a writer instead of acting like a writer."

One of the few criticisms has been about Englander's female characters. He has "a tendency to portray women, uniformly, in story after story, as selfish, demanding and narcissistic creatures, insensitive to their husbands' spiritual and emotional needs," reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times.

The issue arose in the question-and-answer session following his book reading. "My sympathies are with the women," he insisted. "If they're unsympathetic," he said, referring to the wives of Luger, Reb Kringle and others, "I didn't make the men mean enough."

With assimilation forcing a dumbing down of Jewish culture, the discovery of a young talent who writes so fluently from inside the Jewish experience is a morale boost. Yet what is the setting for Englander's nine stories? The Orthodox world, the Holocaust, Israel, and the Stalinist purges of the 1950s. This begs the question: can a viable American Jewish literature still be fashioned from a mainstream Jewish context?

The subject doesn't interest Englander. "I guess that would be assuming this [book] is within a viable Jewish context. That's never been my intent." He insists his motive for writing is entirely personal, the goal of his fiction universal. He won't be the poster boy for the Jewish cultural renaissance.

"I write what I write," he says. "[Orthodoxy] just happens to be a world that I've spent a good part of my life in. This is what I was drawn to write about. And this is the world this book needed to be in. I don't even consider myself a Jewish writer. And if the next book needs to be in the world of formula stock car racing, then I'm writing about race cars."

But while the boy can leave Orthodoxy behind, it isn't clear if you can take Orthodoxy out of the boy entirely. Writing, he says, demands a "monkish existence," and the focus and discipline of a Talmud student. "I am a pro when it comes to ritualistic behavior, everything prescribed and timed and structured, everything right or wrong. And once I got serious about writing, I discovered that I'd adopted a lot of these forms. You write hard every day, six days a week, and on the seventh you rest. My own Sabbath. For a long time Sabbath fell out on Tuesday."

"Nathan is very meticulous and he works very, very hard," Rosenthal says. "He's extremely polished. It's unusual for someone to be that young and that good."

Englander is sitting behind a dark wooden table on a small stage in the Washington, DC, bookstore. Although his stories are serious, the table is somehow too solemn for Englander's irreverence and scruffy good looks. He's moved the audience with his reading of "The Tumblers." Some have their heads lowered, as if they want to cry. Through their questions, it's clear they want to attribute a spark of holiness to Englander's labors, to know his days are as transcendent as his stories. But Englander, part secular apostate, part stand-up comic, will have none of it.

"Is writing a form of prayer?" he is asked.

"Not in the least," he says. "It's a lifestyle choice."
  I don't even consider myself a Jewish writer. And if the next book needs to be in the world of formula stock car racing, then I'm writing about race cars.

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