Though author Nathan Englander readily admits that he's veered away from his observant upbringing, Jewish themes pervade his work, including his latest collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, the featured title for this year's "One Book One Jewish Community."
Nathan Englander’s short story “Sister Hills” uses the West Bank as its canvas, but avoids overt political statements. The author focuses on two women left alone during wartime, driven to take desperate measures.
At literary events, Englander says, he is careful not to inject his politics into discussions about his stories. His interest as a fiction writer is in letting characters tell the story, and he eschews writing “with an intentional agenda” about an issue such as the settlements.
“I get asked about Israel. I get asked about Berlusconi,” Englander said, referring to the former Italian president. “No matter how big the room, I’m happy to chat about what anyone wants to chat about.”
“Sister Hills” is one of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Englander’s latest collection. The book is the featured selection for “One Book One Jewish Community,” a Jewish Learning Venture program intended to promote adult learning and conversation. Englander will speak and sign books at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, the first in a series of local events planned around the book.
Raised in an Orthodox Jewish community on Long Island, the author said he no longer maintains a strictly observant religious lifestyle. “I’m a very Jewish person,” he said. “But I’m not religious in any way.”
As a writer, Englander often explores the world he left behind, one he portrays as less than perfect. As a family member, he has no problem sitting at a Shabbat dinner or service.
In translating the Hebrew text for the New American Haggadah, published before Passover this year, Englander said, he felt a “strong obligation to stay true to the original text.”
Englander lived for several years in Jerusalem, not far from the setting of “Sister Hills,” before returning to New York in 2001. The short story opens with two women protecting their West Bank homes while the men and boys in their families fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the middle of the night, Yehudit agrees to buy her neighbor, Rena’s, deathly ill daughter — “buy,” that is, in the symbolic sense — the mother relying on superstition to avoid the Angel of Death and “outsmart what’s coming.”
Yehudit’s life becomes cursed. She loses her husband and three sons over the next decades, and as a lonely widow comes to collect Rena’s baby, who’s now a grown woman. A panel of rabbis must determine whether the rash sale of a baby is any less valid than the sale of chametz before Passover or a covenant with God over the land of Israel.
Englander said that “Sister Hills,” more than anything else he’s ever written, functions as a “Rorschach test” for many of his readers.
“Right-wing people come up to me and say, ‘You see, this is why we need the settlements. This is why they’re important,’ ” Englander said. “And then left-wing people say, ‘This is why the settlements are amoral. This is why they are corrupting the soul of Israel.’ ”
Englander’s first book, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, illuminates the human flaws and desires of his Orthodox Jewish characters. In the title story, a man gets special permission from his rabbi to visit a prostitute. The author is no less shy in telling stories of human frailty, doused with humor, in his latest collection.
In “Peep Show,” protagonist Allen Fein is feeling guilty as he pays to see naked women when four rabbis start calling his name from a neighboring booth. One of the religious leaders is naked and taunts Fein for changing his name from Feinberg, for his gentile wife, for his secular life.
The rabbi says to Fein, should I “congratulate you on changing your name so that goyishe restaurant man doesn’t make you repeat your reservation? Fein, who goes to live in a town where there are no troubles and no Jews, so his son will be able to play soccer carefree on Shabbos morning?”
Englander said that unlike many authors, who start their careers by writing about subjects close to them, he chose foreign backdrops in his earlier work, such as a Soviet prison under Stalin and Argentina during the turbulent 1970s.
“Often for me, writing about a distant setting is what allows for the erasure of distance; it allows me to achieve a level of intimacy” with another time, he said.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is closer to his own experience, he said. “How We Avenged the Blums,” for example, follows a group of Long Island Jewish boys as they train with a Russian janitor to fight an anti-Semitic bully. Englander said he and other Jewish children also engaged in fights with anti-Semites when they were growing up.
Englander said he has struck up a friendship in recent years with Philip Roth, the pre-eminent Jewish American author. Roth has written about the insults tossed his way because of his depiction of Jewish life starting with his first book, Goodbye, Columbus. Englander has written about the profound impact that book and Portnoy’s Complaint had on him, and it’s not hard to find other material linking the two authors.
Englander recalls a friend joking with him that he’s “getting off easy.” She thought the community “would be harder on me,” he said. “But I don’t have a critical intent. The stories may be political, but I’m not being political.”
Englander sees no reason for people to feel threatened by his book, for readers to say, “What are people going to think about Jews?”
“Is it going to be so shocking to discover that your Jewish neighbor also has worries, also sometimes is loved, also sometimes has an affair?” Englander asked rhetorically. “No one ever tries to wipe a group off the face of the earth that they connect with and see as human.”