Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Several of the stories in Nathan Englander’s debut collection take place on the fringes of the world of ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews, and each has a compelling hook: a Jerusalemite denied sexual intimacy by his wife obtains his rabbi’s permission to visit a prostitute; a matchmaker tries to force a husband to grant a divorce to the wife he has abandoned; a rabbi moonlights as a department store Santa Claus to pay back his synagogue’s debts; a female wig maker covets for herself the gorgeous locks of a lip-pierced, tattooed deliveryman she passes on a Manhattan sidewalk. Other stories traffic in magical occurrences: a Park Avenue gentile suddenly and inexplicably understands that he is “the bearer of a Jewish soul”; the legendary foolish Wise Men of Chelm encounter the Holocaust; and an unpublished writer, famous to no one, is mysteriously selected to be purged along with the Yiddish greats in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
What unites all of these tales is the author’s probing for resonance, for intensity, for symbolic depth; Englander’s narratives aim for, and at their best attain, that elusive and mystical meaningfulness that characterizes both exquisitely crafted short stories and religious experiences. Kafka and Malamud are Englander’s obvious models in this regard, though those authors rarely drew upon actual Orthodox practice and mythology; in this sense, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Steve Stern may be better touchstones.
Whatever the pedigree, Englander has made this mode his own, and with it earned himself the kind of publicity-as well as prizes, including the PEN/Malamud-that turned a small book of short fiction into a surprise bestseller. In retrospect, it makes good sense: while some Jews in the late 1990s turned to the Kabbalah Center for a convenient and digestible dose of the ineffable, others sought it out between the covers of books like this one.
Buoyed by reviews and a precedent-setting tour of Jewish community centers, Englander became something of a celebrity in the small world of Jewish publishing; as mentioned earlier, in “The Wig,” the protagonist desires the hair of a horticulturalist-“a mane of curls the color of toasted bamboo that runs down to the middle of his back and ends in a deep, blunt ridge”-and this description uncannily echoes the author’s well-known photo, in which curly hair tumbles down past his shoulders.
As the star figure in a generation of young writers with Orthodox roots, including Pearl Abraham and Tova Mirvis, Englander’s career will be followed closely to see if he can produce novels and more stories that deliver on the promise of this outstanding first collection.
Englander’s first novel, about a Jewish family in Buenos Aires during a wave of government terrorism, appeared eight years after his debut; it is called The Ministry of Special Cases (2007). Not much has yet been written on Englander, except for many celebratory book reviews. Ilan Stavans has a short essay on Englander’s stories in The Inveterate Dreamer (2001), though, and given how regularly Englander’s stories are taught at colleges, one can expect critical studies to follow as his oeuvre grows.
Pronounced: hah-RAY-dee, Origin: Hebrew, literally “in awe of” or “fearing” God, this means ultra-Orthodox or fervently Orthodox.
Pronounced: kah-bah-LAH, sometimes kuh-BAHL-uh, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish mysticism.