I just read Nathan Englander’s short story in the latest New Yorker and I found something deeply disturbing about it. On one hand, I love to read and see Jewish things out there in the world. On the other hand, it’s almost too much. I’m embarrassed we Jews don’t come off smelling like roses, and I wonder: Does the whole world have to know all the ins and outs of our eccentricities? Thank goodness all Jews can at least identify with the Holocaust — it’s something we all share. Who didn’t grow up obsessed with Anne Frank? It’s natural for the Shoah to be uppermost in our minds. Thoughts?
I just finished reading Nathan Englander’s story in the latest issue of The New Yorker. I think it’s spot on. We may be religious or we may be secular, but the issue of our generation is that we lack total direction. We are floundering in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Is our only unifying point fear of persecution? I’m sick of it — Judaism is more than Holocaust, pogrom and inquisition. Young Jews are searching for a new vibrancy — kudos to the author for having the courage to say what needed to be said! We need to stop being paranoid. The world is not out to get us. What do you think?
That was quite the short story to evoke such drastically different responses. Let’s take this from the top. Like many, I first came to know Nathan Englander when his award-winning collection of short stories, For Relief of Unbearable Urges, came out in 1999. I loved the collection though a number of stories were admittedly a bit too close for comfort. He brilliantly captures the authentic voices of both men and women and the observant and the secular.
In his story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” Englander brings together two girlhood friends, Lauren and Debbie, who attended a modern Yeshiva high school many years ago. Their paths took them in drastically different directions. Lauren, now Shoshana, has been living an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle in Israel with her husband Yerucham, formerly known as Mark, and their 10 children. Debbie took a turn to the left. No longer observant, she lives in Florida with her husband, and one son, Trevor. They have been brought together thanks to Facebook and a visit to an aging parent in South Florida.
One thing leads to the next as the visit progresses. The two long-lost couples drink too much and then get high on Trevor’s secret marijuana stash. One minute they are exchanging family updates, the next dancing with exuberant abandonment in the rain — until finally they enter into some pretty intense intimate conversations — ultimately leading up to a dramatic revelation.
Englander makes no secret of the fact that he has modeled this New Yorker offering after Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which is a tale of the inebriated intimate exchanges of two couples also leading up to some unexpected revelations.
The reunion begins with the typical prickly points of contention between the observant and the secular: Kosher laws, dress standards, Israeli politics — you get the drift. Englander, a true insider himself, growing up Orthodox in West Hempstead and attending day school, gets these nuances down pat. But do not be fooled. They are a smoke screen for the real issues that begin to emerge.
The first is Jewish identity in this post-Holocaust age of ours. On one hand, Debbie argues that “There is such a thing as Jewish culture. One can live a culturally rich life.” While on the other hand we’ve got the bombastic Yerucham contending with great verbosity and bravura: “Judaism is a religion. And with religion comes ritual. Culture is nothing. Culture is some construction of the modern world. It is not fixed…in Jerusalem, we don’t need to busy ourselves with symbolic efforts to keep our memories in place. Because we live exactly as our parents lived before the war.”
Englander keeps it up — the Holocaust pops up repeatedly like a bad game of Whack-a-Mole; the retirement home is like a “D.P. camp with a billiards room,” the retirees have numbers on their arms, the Mormons are posthumously baptizing the 6 million, there is a silent Holocaust in the highly assimilated America. And of course the subject would not be complete without Yerucham contending that Americans use the Holocaust as their only source of identity.
If you’re not emotionally drained enough by now, wait — there’s more: Let’s go back to the title, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” After all the verbal sparring about lifestyles, the two couples end up in close quarters, locked tightly in the pantry, wondering about living in really close quarters, about going into hiding; about who would hide them if there was a need in the event of another Holocaust. This resurrects a maudlin game of the women’s childhood: Would so-and-so hide them, would they hide each other? Would husband hide wife?
Is it disturbing to see Jewish characters behaving like this — drinking, smoking pot and ragging at each other? Is it painful to see Jews portrayed in such unappealing ways? Yes, but such is the path of fiction in our comfortable diaspora. We’ve got volumes of lies that tell our truths, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Phillip Roth. That ship has sailed. It is a rare contemporary portrayal of Jews that has us beaming ear to ear.
But here’s the upside: We will survive all of these depictions. In fact, we will thrive. Stories like this are a healthy palette upon which we can do some sorely needed soul searching. These are issues we all struggle with — some of us on a daily basis. In what ways can we remember the Holocaust with respect and honor, learn from its lessons yet develop, nurture and grow a healthy Jewish identity for our children? Can anything compare with the intense experience of the Shoah? What are the ways to demonstrate one’s love, short of literally giving up your life? That I will leave to you.
But on the Jewish front, I suggest that the answer lies in balance and attention: The balance of ongoing, rich Jewish engagement along with joyous pride in our traditions, with authentic Torah experiences and lots of loving attention to how we transmit all of our history. Yes, the pain, but not to the exclusion of the pride.