You look at the photograph of Nathan Englander — he’s handsome, pensive, still, in an empty, dramatic space, sitting there like the pure quintessence of novelist. You know. A Writer.
And then you talk to him, maybe a little intimidated by his work — he’s just finished a new novel, “kaddish.com,” and he’s going to be talking about it in Teaneck on Sunday night (see box) — and he’s not at all what you expect.
He’s warm, charming, incredibly fast-talking, jumping from idea to idea with unassailable if unfollowable logic.
Even on the phone, you (or at least I) are totally disarmed, entirely charmed, thoroughly if abstractly in love.
Okay. Enough of that.
Nathan Englander began his career about 20 years ago with his first book, a short story collection called “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.” He’s published four books since then, some of them short-story collections, some of them novels. He grew up in the Orthodox community on Long Island, went to the school then called the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County — better known as HANC — lived in Israel for five years, now lives in Brooklyn, and is both no longer Orthodox and as thoroughly deeply, authentically, and inescapably Jewish as anyone possibly could be.
Like the main character of “kaddish.com,” he’s nearly 50 now; as with that book’s Larry, his father died in 1999. That’s when the book opens, after a page dedicated “For my sister,” for real, with a description of the relationship between Larry and Dina as the little brother stays with his big sister for their father’s funeral and shiva. Dina lives in Memphis, Tennessee. The rest of the book is set 20 years later; Larry’s evolved into Reb Shuli — formally Shaul — returned to the Orthodox life he’d once rejected, a husband, father, teacher, and son. But whoops! He didn’t handle his obligation to say kaddish for his father properly.
From there, the book takes off, part fable, part magic realism, part mystery, deeply touching, occasionally weird, almost always funny.
Not that everyone finds it funny, Mr. Englander said. He’s been chasing around the country talking about the book, and he’s struck by how varied the reactions to it have been. “My mom thinks it’s a sad book,” he said. Other people have laughed their way through it.
“When I was in grad school, I would think that I had written the funniest story in the world, and I’d put it up, and my friends would be like, ‘I cried.’ And I would put up something sad, and they’d say, ‘I laughed my head off.’
“What the reader thinks is really interesting to me, and it has been comforting and lovely.”
One of the most striking parts of the book is how good-natured it is; it leads its hero through unlikely and perilous adventures in Memphis, Brooklyn, and Jerusalem, and it’s got an unfashionably, satisfactorily happy ending.
Sandee Brawarsky of Teaneck, the Jewish Week’s culture editor, will interview Mr. Englander at Beth Sholom on Sunday night. She’s known him for more than 20 years, since before his first book came out, and has watched him change and grow.
“He is very exuberant,” she said. “He talks a mile a minute. He starts in one place and then will talk about something else and quotes a lot of people and he always makes sure to attribute the quote. It’s very circular.
“He talks about how he talks in a circular way, and his writing is very clear. And how that circular way of talking is very Jewish.” (It was one of his first writing teachers, the writer Marilynne Robinson, who taught him at graduate school at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who’d pointed that out to him, she said.)
On Sunday, they will talk about “his career, how he has gotten to where he is now,” she said. “He looks up to both Malamud and Roth, and in some of the scenes you can see his connection to Philip Roth.” (There aren’t many of those scenes, but they are pretty hard to miss.) “We will talk about the book and Orthodoxy and faith and religion, and how he is secular now but he is really drawn back in.”
“I have all my high-falutin’ reasons for books to get written,” Mr. Englander said. “There are so many sincere reasons, emotional reasons, literary and conscious and intellectual reasons, but I always compare it to being a gymnast. With writing, you are always starting again, and figuring it out again. Reflecting on your own life.”
Okay. So his life. He may be secular — no, he is secular — but his pull toward Jewish life is so strong that you can practically see it between the words on the pages of his book. Ms. Brawarsky sees it. “He is decidedly secular, but his friends tease him about how soulful he is,” she said. “He will catch himself doing all sorts of halachic things. And now he has discovered the world of secular Judaism — that you can be secular and Jewish.”
What can be more Jewish than the concept of saying kaddish?
“‘kaddish.com’” is “a journey book,” Mr. England said. “It is about somebody trying to find something.”
The book’s premise is the need to say kaddish. “There is a father who is religious, who needs an advocate,” the man who will say kaddish for him, three times a day, for 11 months. “There can be nothing clearer. If you don’t say the kaddish right, he’s burning in the fire for real. If you are traditional or Orthodox, the expectation is that someone will do it. If you are not, then not. Just not.
“That set up the story for me.”
It feels necessary to say that the book takes the need to say kaddish absolutely seriously. It is not a joke. Nothing about the Orthodox life that Shuli leads is a joke; it’s his interactions with the outside world that are funny, and they come from him.
“Resilience is not rejection,” he said. “It is a form of love.”
Who: The Jewish Week’s Sandee Brawarsky will interview writer Nathan Englander; after they talk, there’ll be a question-and-answer session and book signing.
When: On Sunday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave.
Why: As part of the shul’s series, “New Horizons in Jewish Literature.”
How much: It’s free.
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