Lily Meyer | Longreads | March 2019 | 9 minutes (2,302 words)
Nathan Englander has been writing fiction about Jews in America for nearly as long as I’ve been a Jew in America. I stole my mother’s copy of his debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, as a nine-year-old, and was both enthralled and baffled by his stories of Orthodox identity and longing.
Since then, Englander has written a play, another story collection, and three novels, the most recent of which, kaddish.com, opens with a secular Jew named Larry who refuses to say daily Kaddish for his dead father. Saying Kaddish is, according to Jewish law, the eldest son’s duty, but Larry can’t bring himself to return to the synagogue he has left behind. Instead, he finds a solution on the then-new Internet: he’ll pay a rabbinical student in Jerusalem to take on his filial duty. Years later, Larry returns to Orthodox Judaism, reinventing himself as a yeshiva teacher named Reb Shuli. He’s happily married, and comfortable in his reclaimed community. The sole stain on his Jewish life is his failure to say Kaddish for his father. His guilt swells into an obsession, and soon, he’s off to Israel to track down the proprietor of kaddish.com and get back the birthright he e-signed away.
Englander tells Shuli’s story in the language Shuli knows best: The Yiddish-inflected, Hebrew-sprinkled English of religious American Jews. He writes with humor, pathos, and irrepressible life. I thought often of Grace Paley as I read kaddish.com, and of the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, which, as it turns out, Englander loves. We spoke on the phone about the Coen brothers, Philip Roth’s secular funeral, and other questions of Jewish-American identity. Like my nine-year-old self, I was enthralled.
Lily Meyer: Your first two novels are grounded in historical and political tragedy. Kaddish.com is all about one man’s drama. How did you make that shift?
Nathan Englander: As somebody who loves the short story, I felt when I wrote my first novel that it should need to be a novel. I wanted it to beg for that size, and maybe that’s why I gave The Ministry of Special Cases that big historical anchor. Then I wrote Dinner at the Center of the Earth, which I’d been wanting to write for twenty years. I’d been waiting so long to write about the Israel-Palestine conflict the way I wanted to, but it was such a stylistic departure for me. It was such a crazy novel to build — a magic-realist literary thriller with seven timelines! — and while I worked on it, I kept thinking, “How did I get here? How did I get to the novel form?”
It made me decide I was ready to write a novel in the way I used to build a short story, which is where I began as a writer. I wanted to return to the personal space of religious and secular, sacred and profane, Jewish and American.
So much of Kaddish.com takes place in Israel. Do you consider it a fully American novel?
Yes, I do, but the novel wrestles with the idea of home. I had really been thinking about what home is, and how the idea of Jewish home can span the globe. I was in Moscow in December for my book tour, and the moment I got off the plane, I was eating kosher Georgian food. When I travel, the world seems 97 to 99 percent Jewish. My wife and I lived in Malawi for a year, and of course we became friends with the other Jewish family in Malawi. When we left, we decimated our town’s Jewish population.
So my experience of the world, in addition to my experience of home, is that there are Jews everywhere. And then in the Orthodox New York community I’m looking at in kaddish.com, there are people who commute from Jerusalem to Manhattan. People go for the weekend. For the people who are financially able to travel that way, Orthodox New York and Jerusalem almost touch.
Totalitarian regimes fear literature because it allows you to enter another person’s world.
I was very interested in your Orthodox New York language. There’s so much Yiddish and Orthodox syntax, and so many Orthodox linguistic tics. I’m thinking, for instance, of Shuli warding off bad luck with the words, “Tfu, tfu, tfu.” I love that Jewish English, and I’m curious about how you transformed it into a literary voice rather than parroting actual speech.
That’s exactly it! I believe in building fictional reality, and you can’t just move language into that reality. Actual dialogue doesn’t read right on the page. There has to be a transformation of language in order for our brain to experience fiction as truth. In my head, everything sounds like the English in this book. I spend so much time unraveling it, making sure that only the sentences that need to sound this way do. That Jewish language is a huge part of me. Tfu, tfu, tfu, for example — everyone in my life knows to say that to me to ward off bad luck. My Lebanese British agent, she says tfu, tfu, tfu. It’s important to me to keep Jewish language in the book. I want to show that being Jewish in this way is valid.
For those of us who believe in a pluralistic, democratic society, Jewishness should not make you other. Speaking Jewishly — speaking yeshivish, as Shuli would say — is one way to sound and be American. Really, it’s many ways. I once went to an early screening of the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, and they talked about reaching out to people to make sure the Yiddish in the movie was right. One person said yes, one person said no, and one person said, well, kind of, and I thought, “This is exactly right.” There are so many right answers. There are seventeen options and permutations, depending on what Jewish world your character represents.
I love that movie! It’s such a good representation of what Jewishness feels like to me.
It’s my favorite of the Coen brothers’ movies. I love it so much. It’s so American, and so Midwestern, and so Jewish. I remember showing it to friends in Wisconsin, and when it was done, my friend said, “What’s a mitzvah?” I was swooning. I was so excited to explain.
But what I love about that movie is that it’s universal, because story is story. I think about A Serious Man a lot when I hear people talk about “Jewish-American fiction.” Both Jews and non-Jews ask whether they can give my novels to friends who aren’t Jewish. Literature isn’t like that! It’s a subversive form! Totalitarian regimes fear literature because it allows you to enter another person’s world. Jewish-American writers often get asked whether our work will be “accessible,” but I think that’s such a weird question, and one that often gets put on Jewish-American books. If a story isn’t universal, it’s a failure. Nobody picks up science fiction and asks whether it’s accessible. And, you know, if you want to read kaddish.com like Jewish science fiction, that’s fine, but I worked so hard to make sure the story would be universal.
I thought a lot about the question of othering as I read kaddish.com. You use so many Jewish concepts, and so much yeshivish, without explaining. I loved that, but how do you then make sure that the story remains universal?
I wanted to show that this is a real world, a valid world, a super-American world. I really wanted to embrace my characters’ world. I want readers to enter into this world that, to nearly everyone in this nation, is supremely foreign. The way to get them to enter is story. The novel is a journey! Someone — Shuli — gave away something that he desperately, desperately needs back, and he goes on a journey to find it. That journey needs no explanation.
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How did you decide to structure a novel around Shuli’s failure in his duty to say Kaddish daily for eleven months after his father’s death? That’s a very specific piece of Jewish law.
This book is coming out ten years after my father’s death, and I think I wanted to explore the weight and responsibility of mourning. For the religious family, saying Kaddish is a gigantic thing. A man like Shuli’s father thinks his soul hangs in the balance. I remember going to Philip Roth’s funeral, where Kaddish was not said, and thinking, “Wow, he really put his money where his mouth is.” It doesn’t hurt to hedge a bet, you know? But Roth must have left instructions for Kaddish not to be said. In my family, on the other hand, it was very important that Kaddish be said when my father died. I wanted to reflect on that.
Writing is like a waking dream … Nobody ever reads a word that I consciously wrote. Those sentences never make it to the final version of the book.
How did Shuli come to you? Did you have to work to invent him, or did you know him right away?
I knew him right away. You know, as my career has progressed, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with creativity and dissociative states, and understanding how the writerly brain works. I’ve gotten more comfortable waiting until an idea or character has formed in my subconscious to start writing it down. I’m not touchy-feely in the rest of my life, but I am about craft. Craft is my belief system. It’s like religion. My obligation to writing is religious — the duty, and the complete awe and fear.
Could you tell me more about that awe and fear, or about the religious experience of writing?
Writing is like a waking dream. This is where it ties into religion, faith, brain chemistry: nobody ever reads a word that I consciously wrote. Those sentences never make it to the final version of the book. When I think about writing, I know what I’m producing is the rough draft. I’m just working to train my synapses, doing the conscious work so I can have those moments where my subconscious shines. It’s like sports, or the Jewish concept of makom kavua, which means same place. If you pray every day in the same words, same place, same seat, if you’re lucky, then you get to a place where, if you’re lucky, reality just falls away. When you write, you want reality to fall away. You train yourself to get to the point where your fingers are tapping away while you daydream. That subconscious space is where the serious work gets done. That’s what I’m in awe of, or reverent of. I’m in such awe of that creative space, even though I know it’s just brain chemistry.
Kaddish.com is about religious awe and belief, but [very light spoiler alert] it’s also about a scam. Everyone loves scammer stories — there have been masses of them in the past year. Why do you think we enjoy them so much?
I wasn’t conscious of that at all. Back to the awed belief in fiction! As soon as you asked me that, I thought, “Oh, yes, a scam!” but I would never have said so before this moment. But yes, the idea of false realities is central to this book. I think it’s because I’m such a naïf. Fictional worlds demand the author to believe in right and wrong. If a person I think is good is evil, the book won’t work. I think I have a very strong sense of right and wrong in real life, too. It’s shocking to me that people would knowingly do or say things with selfish, nefarious intentions. I can’t imagine hoodwinking somebody the way people in power do now. Maybe I was built that way, or maybe it came from my religious education.
You know, I don’t think I was born to be Orthodox, but I don’t think I was born to be secular. I struggle on my non-faith the way other people struggle on their faith. I think my wife worries that one day she’ll come home and I’ll have payos and a beard to the floor. I really think I was made, not for the Orthodox world, but a world with stronger truths. I can’t go in the Out door. I would die at a broken stoplight in the desert. I would starve to death in my car.
That instinct toward fairness comes through strongly in the book, and in Shuli. Do you think he has that same impulse when he’s Larry, and living a secular life?
This is a side point, but as a writer, I started very far from my life. I started writing with a story set in a Stalinist prison in 1952, and since then, I’ve slowly learned to draw closer to my own experiences. My last book was the first one in which I converted my own memories to fiction, and now, in this one, Shuli is so close to me. We have that same naïve personality. I do think that personality is in Larry, yes — but I wonder about what’s in me! I call myself secular, like Larry. I don’t fast, I eat pork, which horrifies everyone when I travel as a writer. In no symbolic way am I Jewish, but Jewishness is such a confusing identity. I’m confused about who I am and what that is, and with Larry, I wanted to figure out who he is inside. I wanted to know, too, how a person flips from Orthodox to secular and back again. How do you leave the Orthodox world completely, and then return with the same ferocity? I think the answer, in part, is that he always has Shuli inside.
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Lily Meyer is a regular reviewer for NPR Books, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlantic, Electric Literature, Tin House, the New Yorker and more. She studied creative writing at Brown University and the University of East Anglia. She won the Sewanee Review’s First Annual Fiction Contest, judged by Danielle Evans, and is a two-time grant recipient from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Editor: Dana Snitzky