Stories about holy absolutes, and more

Nathan Englander’s new story collection illuminates Jewish life and consciousness with exceptional, soulful clarity. Each of the eight stories uniquely employs character, plot and tone to lay before us the challenging and sometimes ugly elephants that can materialize around anti-Semitism, holy law, secular temptation and Jewish suffering. While the subjects are large, the stories feel intimate, reaching deeply into readers’ sensitivities as they explore vulnerability and holy angst.

For me, the book became a kind of secret treasure I thought about during the day, looking forward to it as if I were going to meet a special friend. I attribute that to not only these eight being simply good stories, but also those imposing elephants, so fascinating by their invisible presence revealed.

In the book’s title story, the first in the collection, Mark and Lauren are Hassidic Jews from Jerusalem visiting Mark’s parents in Miami, Florida. They spend an afternoon with their more spiritually casual Jewish friends, Deb and her narrating husband, who regards the Hassidic couple as “strict, suffocatingly austere people.” Loosened up with liquor and marijuana, the couples verbally spar over issues of modern Jewish life, including intermarriage, liturgical absolutism and the significance of holy ritual. Mark’s ultra-orthodox certainty hides an elephant in his marriage, which becomes visible when the couples engage in an unsettling Anne Frank game that asks players who would hide them in the event of a second Holocaust.

Englander probes the demands of religious absolutes in several of the stories, and while it is Judaic law in his telescope, all faiths can fall within its field of vision. In the story “Peep Show,” a successful attorney, Allen Fein, spontaneously enters a peep show on his way home from work. When he drops a second token into the slot to see the pretty girl one more time, the partition raises and reveals his childhood rabbis. In this symbolic story of sexual guilt imposed by holy leaders, Fein says, “You painted for us the most beautiful picture of Heaven, Rabbi, then left us to discover we’d all end up in Hell. Some room – maybe if you’d left us some room.”

The stories are equally compelling and richly imagined, but diverse in style, testifying to Englander’s breadth of creativity.  For example, “Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side” is written in numbered paragraphs. There is so much underlying the plots of these truly amazing stories that none are simply open-and-closed fictional narratives. They move us to the edges of eternal contentions, encouraging us to look into their depths, such as in “How We Avenged the Blums.” A Russian Jew training a group of boys to fight an anti-Semitic bully says to them: “Do you know which countries have no anti-Semite? …  The country with no Jew;” or in “Sister Hills,” an extraordinary political fable about Israeli settlements, asking probing questions about ancient covenants with God.

It’s unusual for me to claim all stories in one collection as a favorite, but that’s the truth of it here. One more to shout out about — “The Reader,” a story about an old man who follows a has-been author across the country to attend his bookstore readings. He is the author’s only audience. Through the old man’s obsessive attachment to the author’s novels, we understand, as I experienced with What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, “an intimacy as real as a friendship.”

Nathan Englander’s previously published fiction includes a novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, and the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.

Update: Grammatical corrections were made to this post 3.20.12.