Men in Black
A debut collection of stories by a former yeshiva student explores the world of Jewish
In traditional Jewish families, a yeled tov m’yerushalayim — a good boy from Jerusalem — is a nice little yeshiva student, a parent’s dream of piety, studiousness and obedience. Meet Nathan Englander, a bad boy of Jerusalem, a former yeshiva student from New York now at home in secular Israel, who happens to be a very good writer. In his extraordinary debut collection of stories, ”For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” Englander combines a compassionate grasp of the Orthodox Jewish world with the skeptical irreverence of one estranged from yet still oddly defined by it. The fiction that results is not so much a betrayal of Orthodox Judaism as it is a revelation of the human condition.
That such taut, edgy and sharply observed stories should come from one who emerged from the yeshiva may not be as surprising as it initially seems. After all, much of this century’s best Jewish writing appears to have been produced in moments of transition, sparked by the friction between old and new worlds, tradition and modernity. Able to tell a society’s secrets from the alienated vantage point of what used to be called the ”marginal man,” writers like Isaac Babel, Henry Roth, I. B. Singer and Saul Bellow have made the borderlands of transition their literary terrain. In Englander’s case, he has produced a kind of immigrant literature from an Old World that is still very much in our midst.
The collection opens powerfully and unexpectedly with a story inspired by Stalin’s murderous purge of Yiddish writers. Poised disconcertingly between the tragic and the comic, ”The Twenty-seventh Man” presents us with 27 characters, writers from around the Soviet Union who have been thrown into a Moscow prison. In a series of finely etched scenes filled with grim repartee, Englander brings the eminent poet Moishe Bretzky — huge, slovenly and smelly as a horse” — together with the doyen of Soviet Yiddish writers, Y. Zunser, and a host of wildly contentious colleagues. ”When the noise got too great, a guard opened the peephole in the door to find that a symposium had broken loose. As a result, by the time numbers 24 through 27 arrived, the others had already been separated into smaller cells.”
The wizened and philosophical Zunser faces his fate with a shrug and a darkly memorable question: ”Why write at all when your readers have been turned to ash? Never outlive your language.” When another of the writers, a Communist and patriot, insists that there has been a terrible mistake, that Stalin would never do this to him, Zunser gently mocks him: ”Maybe not to you, but to the Jew that has your name and lives in your house and lies next to your wife, yes.”
If the ambition of ”The Twenty-seventh Man” is unsettling, it is all the more so because the 29-year-old Englander, with only six published stories under his belt (and a Pushcart Prize for one of them), actually pulls it off. Like the work that follows, the story wears its seriousness so lightly, so eloquently, that it succeeds despite itself.
In ”The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” a WASP-y middle-aged financial analyst inexplicably undergoes a metempsychosis in the back of a taxi on his way home. He suddenly realizes he’s Jewish. ”The driver looked into his rearview mirror. ‘Jewish,’ Charles said. ‘Jewish, here in the back.’ ”Reminiscent of Bernard Malamud’s classic story ”The Jewbird,” Englander’s oblique and brilliant peek into what constitutes ”Jewishness” is no less original. By turns hilarious and pathetic, the story shows just how hard it is, as the rabbis say, ”to be a Jew.”
Of course, the technique itself is not unusual. A step back here, a sideways glance there, and religious practice does indeed begin to look very strange. Charles’s uncomprehending wife enters the room as he recites morning prayers and lays tefillin: ” ‘My Charley, always topping them all,’ she said, watching as he rocked back and forth, his lips moving. ‘I’ve heard of wolf men and people being possessed. . . . But this beats all.’ ”If the gist of the story is that you’d have to be crazy to become a Jew, the subtext is more sly: you’d have to be crazier still to become an Orthodox Jew.
Englander doesn’t shy away from much, even imagining the inner lives of ultra-Orthodox women. In ”The Wig,” he explores the very idea of female beauty and sexual longing in a buttoned-up, long-sleeved world. Here the wigs worn by these women to cover their heads, shaved in the name of sexual modesty, become a delicate scrim behind which he speculates on conflicted questions of beauty, modesty and allure as seen through the eyes of an Orthodox sheitelmacher, or wigmaker.
In a darker vein, ”The Last One Way” tells a religious woman’s story of ”one flit of a date in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel,” for which she pays with ”18 years of miserable marriage and 18 years separated, waiting for Berel to give her a divorce.” Long-suffering Gitta has suffered enough; she wants out, and would even do away with her husband altogether if that’s what it takes. ”Her life was one of infinite patience and unfinished business, an existence of relations drawn out.” The misery of a wife abandoned without a husband’s consent to a religious divorce is one of the most painful pictures in the Orthodox world, and Englander doesn’t flinch from it. Like his other stories, this one finds no relief or redemption, only bitterness made palpable.
In such peeks behind the religious curtain, some readers may find Englander walking a fine line between voyeuristic titillation and clear-eyed revelation, but in the end, his profound if critical compassion saves these stories from cheap prurience. The collection’s suggestive title story is a case in point. In it, a Hasidic Jew’s amorous advances are spurned by his wife; after months of rejection, he seeks the advice of his rabbi, who tells him he must find the strength to ignore her until she ”should come to find” him. ”She will not consider your virtues,” the rabbi wisely explains, ”until she is calm in the knowledge that her choices are her own.” But the husband claims not to have such strength: the urges are unbearable. ”To be around someone that I feel so strongly for, to look and be unable to touch — it is like floating through heaven in a bubble of hell.” And so the rabbi writes a heter, a special dispensation, to visit a prostitute, as if it were a prescription. But the sexual encounter that follows and the husband’s inner torment make the original ”unbearable urges” pale in comparison.
Only one story approaches the Holocaust, circling its edges elliptically and somewhat warily. The Jews of Chelm — a shtetl affectionately known in Jewish lore for its wise fools — wake up one morning to the Nazi occupiers’ evacuation order, which includes an incomprehensible decree: ”Only essential items were to be taken on the trains.” How is one to interpret such an edict? In Englander’s Chelm, the responses are divided between two schools of thought: for the ultra-pious Mahmir Hasidim, ”essential” means only their long underwear; for the more relaxed and epicurean group known as the Students of Mekyl, it includes all the furnishings of a summer house. The story is a parable, of course, about the incommensurability of such circumstances, the sheer impossibility of interpreting this edict ”correctly” or logically according to any school of religious observance.
Dressed only in their ragtag underwear, the Mahmir Hasidim of Chelm mistakenly clamber aboard a circus train and are in turn mistaken for a clownish troupe of tumblers. This, they decide, will be their disguise. ”Who knew that Raizel the widow had double-jointed arms, or that Shmuel Berel could scurry about upside down on hands and feet mocking the movements of a crab.”
Absurd? Certainly. But as the story’s protagonist, Mendel, realizes, it is ”no more unbelievable than the reality from which they’d escaped, no more unfathomable than the magic of disappearing Jews. If the good people of Chelm could believe that water was sour cream, if the peasant who woke up that first morning in Mendel’s bed and put on Mendel’s slippers and padded over to the window could believe, upon throwing back the shutters, that the view he saw had always been his own, then why not pass as acrobats and tumble across the earth until they found a place where they were welcome?” Why not, indeed. Perhaps only the logic of Chelm can make sense of such a world.
Of the nine stories in this collection, only the last — too obviously based on the author’s experiences in Jerusalem during a series of bombings — disappoints. It opens as exquisitely as the others, the explosions coming in ”three blasts. Like birds. They come through the window, wild and lost. They are trapped under the high-domed ceiling of the cafe, darting round between us, striking walls and glass, knocking the dishes from the shelves.” But compared with the compactness and clarifying control of the preceding stories, the rest of this one seems a little full of itself, its teller too flattered by the sound of his own voice in its nearness to death.
Still, as the only rough stone in a volume of polished gems, the story came as a relief. Sustained perfection in such an emerging talent, wise beyond his years, would have been unbearable in its own right. It turns out that Nathan Englander is as human as his brilliant stories are humane.
James E. Young, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is currently a visiting Stewart Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University.