Not all writers resemble their writing, but Nathan Englander is — like his books — energetic, literary, funny, reflective, serious, exuberant and very Jewish.
In person, he speaks in buoyant prose, interrupting himself and telling a story, quoting another writer, referring back to his new novel “kaddish.com” (Knopf) and artfully returning to where he began to answer the question.
His debut book, “The Relief of Unbearable Urges,” for which he won the PEN/Malamud Award, was published in 1999, the year this latest book is set. Back then, Englander had left the Orthodox world he grew up in and was exploring ideas of religious and secular, sacred and profane. He’s now 49, married and with a daughter, still not religious but teased a lot by friends and family for having a “religious soul,” an accusation he understands, but denies.
For this fifth book, Englander, Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University, says, “I wanted to take the writer I am now and go back to where I was then.” He adds, “It’s a really nice circle for me.”
In an interview conducted at Russ & Daughters at The Jewish Museum, we talk a lot about obsessions and compulsions, about his character’s obsession to right what he perceives as a wrong he committed; his own experience of writing this book, the first draft of which he completed in a feverish three months followed by a period of meticulous revision; and the many topics he thinks about and wrestles with — and thinks about how we think about them — like time, faith, redemption, technology, change, God, death and mourning, the afterlife, humor and that which is concealed in plain sight. His palette of ideas is grand and colorful.
The novel opens with shiva — “mirrors covered and front door ajar” — in the Memphis home of Dina, older sister of Brooklyn-based Larry, whose much-loved father has passed away. Larry has strayed from the Orthodoxy they grew up with, and is uncomfortable in the public mourning, with a steady stream of visitors, services and, as he perceives it, scrutiny. His kipa feels like “a hubcap for all its emotional weight,” but he recognizes that to take it off would be like standing naked before this community.
Dina is at once insistent that Larry take on the obligation of saying Kaddish for 11 months, at services three times a day, and distrustful that he will do it. They find peace from their battling in their agreement that Larry will assign a shaliach mitzvah, an emissary, or proxy, to say the mourner’s prayer in his place. He chances upon the website kaddish.com and pays a yeshiva student to be his proxy, understanding that their contract is binding through a digital form of kinyan, or symbolic exchange, that allows him to fulfill his obligation according to halacha.
The thing about Englander is that he uses words like shaliach mitzvah and kinyan naturally, so that those who know what he’s talking about know that he’s getting it right. And those who know neither the words nor the concepts can glean the meaning through context and brief description, and don’t get tripped up in their reading. He also weaves a chasidic folk tale about heaven into the narrative, a story that some will recognize and others will come upon for the first time.
“Story is story,” he says. “It needs to crack its boundaries. As for explaining things, I work really hard.”
I wanted to take the writer I am now and go back to where I was then. It’s a really nice circle for me.
He adds, “I love Malamud. You read ‘The Natural.’ I don’t know anything about baseball. I know about Jews. It’s fine. There’s a baseball bat, a mitt. I got you.”
Englander builds fictional worlds and infuses them with empathy. In the novel, when the year of mourning is complete, Larry receives a photo of the young yeshiva student he had contracted to say Kaddish in a Jerusalem study hall. Moved by the image, he begins to cry, and then cries for his father, which leads to uncontrollable weeping, which he realizes is for his lost self. Often, he retells this story, which grounds the narrative of how he returns to religious life.
Larry takes on his Hebrew name Shaul, then the nickname Shuli, moves from Clinton Hill— selling his apartment “for about a thousand times what he paid for it” — back to his old neighborhood of Royal Hills, tracing “his way back the three subway stops toward the stand-alone aluminum-sided houses, toward the worser restaurants, and his fellow Jews.”
Shuli marries Miri, who is Orthodox yet very different in outlook than Dina. With the windfall from his apartment sale, Miri is the one who devotes herself full time to Torah study, while Shuli works as a seventh-grade gemara teacher at the yeshiva he attended, where a gym “doubles as a lunchroom and triples as a house of prayer.” In his classroom, the clock on the back wall is a “charm in the necklace of pictures that circled the room. All the great rabbis, framed and hung to inspire this new generation.”
The next scenes unleash a deep need for Shuli to release the kinyan, to take back his responsibility, his birthright. His quest to put things right takes him to Jerusalem, to the neighborhood of Nachlaot. Let’s leave the story there, with mystery, questions both practical and rabbinic, dreams to be interpreted and change ahead.
There’s a scene early in the novel that has to do with pornography and a fish tank in Shuli’s nephew’s bedroom, and Englander is very aware that this puts him into a certain shared tradition of shocking scenes with his late friend Philip Roth. “That tickles me,” he says. “It was a lovely friendship. I love those connections across time.”
Story is story… It needs to crack its boundaries.
I read him a quote from my last interview with the great writer Grace Paley, when she said: “I’ve always liked this being Jewish business. It’s meant something to me.” He agrees, “That’s a lovely way to say it. When you talk about Philip and Grace Paley, there’s different kinds of Judaism — I came to that kind of Judaism later. Religion was only religion to me. It’s up to the reader, but it’s why I think I can write both sides of these stories. Why I’m obsessed that I can be Larry’s self and his sister’s self and Shuli’s self. This idea that I lived both sides of that kind of Judaism.”
“There are so many different kinds of Jews,” he says. “We’re sitting in Russ & Daughters café. It’s really comfortable for someone embracing cultural Judaism. This is a temple of cultural Judaism,” he says, finishing a potato knish.
In these past two decades, Englander has also written “The Ministry of Special Cases,” “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” and the play “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” which premiered in 2012 at the Public Theater.
Englander remains close with his sister and her family and his mother — his father died 10 years ago — and they share a spirit of loving respect along with their religious differences. He grew up in West Hempstead, L.I., has lived in Israel and Malawi and now lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. In part, returning to the place where he began in this novel was inspired by his young daughter, as he’s thinking a lot about the responsibility of passing along Jewish ideas and Jewish language to her, figuring out how to talk to her about God.
“These are questions,” he says, “I’m going to have to answer.”