The Vanishing Argentine Jews

Nathan Englander’s much-anticipated first novel begins and ends in darkness, in a walled-off corner of a cemetery the Argentine Jewish community would like to forget. This is the burial ground of the Society of the Benevolent Self, once the synagogue of Jewish pimps, prostitutes and other underworld figures. The wealthy and respectable offspring of Jews with names like Hezzi Two-Blades and Henya the Mute prefer to wipe out traces of their less respectable background, anxious that they have enough to worry about in the dangerous times of 1976, during Argentina’s Dirty War.

Kaddish Poznan, the son of a prostitute, is hired to sneak into the walled-off section of the cemetery after midnight and chisel away their names from the tombstones. As the prosperous daughter of another prostitute explains to him, “Which man is better off – the one without a future or the one without a past?”

“The Ministry of Special Cases” (Knopf) is a novel of ideas, a historical novel that at times feels like one of magical realism, but it’s the story of a society gone awry, when surreal things can happen. The son of Kaddish and Lillian Poznan “is disappeared,” a term understood to mean the government-sanctioned kidnapping of individuals, with no traces, no answers about their fate and no accountability by the authorities.

The novel is a departure in subject and tone from Englander’s award-winning and best-selling collection of stories, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” published in 1999 when he was 29. In both, Jews figure prominently, but while the stories teased out differences between religious and secular Jews, the novel is about, among other things, community, identity, memory and fathers and sons.

Kaddish is the name given to Poznan by a rabbi who refused to come into Poznan’s home (because of his mother’s line of work) when he was summoned to give the sickly infant a blessing. The rabbi suggested that his name be changed to Kaddish to ward off the Angel of Death. The name turns out to be both blessing and curse. Throughout his life, Poznan is a man who’s kept out, relegated to the outside. For him, “It’s a bully’s heaven we have been given, a coercive place where all the self-righteous can float around judging, voyeurs with wings.”

Plastic surgery plays into the story, and Poznan is paid for one gravestone effort with a nose job for him and his wife performed by a prestigious plastic surgeon, also the son of Benevolent Self members. They get their Jewish noses erased, chiseled off. Kaddish’s surgery goes well, altering his Jewish-looking profile to make him a handsome Argentine, but his wife opens her eyes to the nightmare of a terrible job performed by a student, leaving her with a nose much worse than she began with. She then faces a larger nightmare when her son Pato is taken away and then vanishes. Although her nose is fixed again to make her look beautiful, she misses seeing the image of her son – who also had a prominent nose – when she looks in the mirror. Her pain is overwhelming.

Lillian does everything she can to get her son back, regularly visiting the corrupt offices of the Ministry of Special Cases. She loses her job in an insurance office when she steals the private telephone number of a general who was a client and goes to see him. The unnamed general denies the kidnappings and tells her, “Powerful as I am – I admit it – I can’t undo what’s not been done. I can’t make your son from nothing. You are Jews. Go to the river and mix him from clay. People from nothing is a Jewish affair.”

Englander succeeds in creating a world that is darkly compelling. He writes bold and beautiful sentences, sometimes with humor embedded in his language and juxtapositions. Jewish expressions, teachings and aphorisms are woven into the way characters speak.

“The story is both real and absurd,” Englander, 37, says in an interview with The Jewish Week in an Upper West Side coffee shop near Columbia University, where he spends much time writing.

While he has worked on the novel for almost a decade, its publication has timely elements, much to the author’s surprise.

“I ended up with an accidental political position,” he says. “I deeply believe that in a democracy, you can’t just arrest people – people have a right to be entered into the legal system, charged or freed.” He notes that it’s terrifying that the idea of habeas corpus is now being debated in America.

The “Jewish writer question” is one he finds irrelevant, although he is asked it frequently and has ready answers. He’s adamant about not wanting to be seen in a limited way; he doesn’t see being Jewish as being “other” and he doesn’t see the world from a specifically Jewish point of view. His obligation, he says, is to the story and to what it demands. When the first book collection was published, much was made of the fact that the long-haired author grew up attending a Long Island yeshiva and had left that world. In the stories, he wrote about Jews from all angles.

With short hair now, he says that he no longer looks like “a roadie for the Allman Brothers.” He describes himself as “a lapsed atheist lately” and then adds, “I couldn’t be any more Jewish.”

The first sentence of the novel is about Jews; in fact, the very first word is Jews. He writes, “Jews bury themselves the way they live, crowded together, encroaching on one another’s space. The headstones were packed tight, the bodies underneath elbow to elbow and head to toe.”

Englander visited Argentina in 1991, traveling there for the wedding of friends he’d met in Israel and then joining them on their honeymoon. He began the novel years later, working “off of these vague memories of place,” he explains. He speaks no Spanish, but since beginning the novel has mastered a lot of Argentine history. He returned to Argentina only when the novel was finished.

The author moved back to New York in 2001 from Jerusalem, where he had lived for five years. He explains that the book was shaped by the years he lived in Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem interrupts you. Time is not unbroken,” he says. “I have a love of cities, complicated cities.” He has been back to visit, but is not drawn to live there again.

“I love New York. I’m a city loyalist. When I was living in Jerusalem, there was no other city,” he says. In the novel, he’s drawn to the question of what happens when a beloved city changes.

Englander was awarded the Bard Fiction Prize, a PEN/Faulkner Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2004 was a Fellow at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. He has been working exclusively on the novel for more than eight years, working long hours every day, although he admits he is also obsessively devoted to yoga. For him, writing is an organic process of “imagining and imagining and rewriting to see if a world could be built where these things happen.”

“To lift up my head at the end of the book, to see how close it is to my heart, to see how much the Dirty War affected me, how I feel about those mothers,” he reflects.

Interestingly, the Society for the Benevolent Self has basis in history. As reported by Isabel Vincent in “Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas,” there was in fact a mutual-aid society in Argentina known as Chesed Shel Emet, Benevolent Society of Truth. The organization was established and maintained by Jewish women, mostly from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, who had been literally sold into slavery by Jewish criminal gangs from 1869 until the late 1930s.

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