Nathan Englander dug into a plate of feathery light meat patties bathed in a pool of a sharp Swiss chard sauce and sighed in pleasure.
He’s no stranger to good food; now that Englander is done with his peripatetic bachelor days, happily married since last summer to his long-time girlfriend, Rachel Silver, the two eat at home more frequently, whether at their apartment in Brooklyn or in Madison, Wisconsin, where Silver is working on her PhD in educational policy studies. He’s an avowed carnivore; hence his enjoyment of the beef patties with a side of moussaka.
But Israel, for Englander, is a particular pleasure. He lived here for several years before publishing his first short story collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” during the difficult days of the second intifada, a period that he wrote about in that critically acclaimed piece of fiction. It was then that he learned to speak Hebrew — a more Israeli version than the one he’d been taught during his Long Island yeshiva days — which he still speaks well and with assurance, much to the surprise of the taxi drivers, waiters and hotel staff who give a start when they hear a credible Hebrew vocabulary emerging in Englander’s New York accent.
“I’m here one week and everyone feels translated,” he says, grinning. “It’s a path, it’s a process — ze tahalich (the Hebrew word for process) — see? Literally four days, and I’m already doing that.”
Though here now for a brief visit, having participated in the Kisufim Literary conference at Mishkenot Sha’ananim and then the Jerusalem International Book Fair, Englander has logged enough time in Israel to have grokked some key aspects of Israeli society. He understands how the country works, what type of people say what, what makes Israelis tick — and he uses that knowledge to effect in his latest collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”
The title story handles aspects of Israeli religious life; it’s based on a game Englander used to play with his older sister that became a tale he carried around in his head for 20 years. The second story in the collection, “Sister Hill,” a difficult parable about life in a fictional Jewish settlement in the West Bank, was written after “having not been in Israel for a long time.”
“It’s about how the settlements came to be,” he said. “The settlements are this intractable thing, no one can figure out the settlements, and there’s so much ink written about it, it’s a section of the New York Times every day. I had this idea, what about writing about the history of this thing as a short story? I’m going to write the whole history of the settlements in a story, compressing the whole thing.”
That he did, telling the story of Rena, a settler whose entire family dies — first her husband, and then each of her three sons. She becomes so embittered that she demands motherhood of her neighbor’s daughter, a young girl who was “sold” to Rena when she was deathly ill as a newborn, in an ancient Jewish tradition that was meant to trick the Angel of Death.
The entire story is a parable about halacha, Jewish law, and Englander was toying with the human notion of absolutes, he said.
“The story, to me, is: Do we believe in the morality of contracts, or not?” he said. “This whole idea that Hashem gave us this land, but [not just] anyone can cross its borders; you don’t get to use the same book for greater Israel. Decide. Either open up the schools to everyone, open the borders to the Sudanese. If you’re living by this book, then live by it.”
It’s a powerful story, and one wonders how Israelis will react to having their dirty laundry examined by someone who’s not technically one of them, particularly now that the book has been translated into Hebrew by writers Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron.
“I needed Assaf to know my concerns that there’s this expectation of an American Jewish writer,” said Englander. “I was talking about the micro-nuanced tone, about what was important to me. It’s a fiction, so things are being changed, but there’s also exact information, like about the land contracts. It’s asking people to trust a very specific voice, it’s writing about something that is here and I’m there. But you have to own a world.”
Since its publication a year ago, Englander has discovered that “Sister Hill” is his first story that works for readers as a kind of Rorschach test.
“People come up and tell me they see it as right wing or left wing, or there are those who believe it means the opposite of what they believe,” he said. “And that’s very Israeli.”
As someone who’s known Englander for many years (we were friends in college and grew up in the same neck of the woods), I take a certain joy in reading his stories, particularly when he refers to a time or place that is instantly recognizable. Others do, too. Englander appreciates that sense of ownership, particularly if it’s, say, an Argentine reader of “The Ministry of Special Cases,” published in 2007, about a Jewish family caught in 1970s Argentina amid the Dirty War.
“What matters to me is to meet people from that point of history, players in that history, that’s a kind of papal blessing,” he said.
At the same time, said Englander, a writer has to recognize the limit of being able to create characters and places that are wholly realistic and factual. He recalled the 80-year-old rabbi in “The Tumblers,” a character from his first collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” who evades the death camps by turning into an acrobat. Englander made up the names of the acrobatic moves by thinking of how the brain works, knowing an acrobat “wouldn’t believe an 80-year-old rabbi doing it.” But having never turned an acrobatic move in his own life, Englander could picture something else, and did.
“You always have to realize everyone’s synapses are going to fire,” he said. “Once you start fictionalizing, that’s what it becomes, that’s what your brain does to it.”
Even when that story is largely based on personal experience. In his latest book, the story “How We Avenged the Blums” is about a group of religious Long Island tween boys waging battle on an anti-Semitic peer with the help of a Russian immigrant janitor. Englander laughed as he recalled the war he and his friends had with non-Jews in West Hempstead, the Long Island town where he grew up.
“It’s fictionalized so no one should sue me, but it’s crazy that could happen in the early 1980s, in a Jewish town so close to Times Square, that you get to in 30 minutes on the Cross Island [Parkway], “ he said. “The point is that the world can change in a good way; I see kids wearing kippot on the subway in New York late at night; and no one’s going to scream dirty Jew [at them]. I wanted to explore things that were normal to me. It didn’t sound crazy to me to have a swastika scrawled on a sidewalk.”
That said, he’s been expanding beyond his comfort zone, experimenting in different writing formats, including two translations, that of Etgar Keret’s “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door” and last spring’s “New American Haggadah,” a literary translation of the Passover texts, created in collaboration with a writer friend, Jonathan Safran Foer, as well as his first play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” which opened at Manhattan’s Public Theater in November.
“It was working on something without experience,” said Englander. “I had no reference points and it reminded me of sitting in my room and working on those first stories [in “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”]. “I was working outside of time and space again.”
Keret and Englander — whose heads of tousled, graying hair make them look somewhat like twins, at least according to fans on Twitter — have been friends for some time and have often appeared together, including an appearance at the Jerusalem book fair, where they discussed the art of translation, following their recent translations of one another’s books. The play, said Englander, happened only because the late, great Nora Ephron encouraged him to turn the story into a play and he knew how much he would learn from that experience.
“The option to work with Nora, a genius? Done! Teach me drama,” he said. “With Foer, he knows me well and made it clear that it’s something I should do. It could have been horrible, but I had such a great time. I’d be sitting at home, learning, with all these gemaras around me, my thumbs in the air. It made Rachel crazy, as secular as I am, that I can’t have any mezuzah, any symbol. She was like, we’re living in a beit midrash. But now we have a couple of mezuzahs” – one in each apartment, in Brooklyn and Madison, Wisconsin.
The different formats have offered Englander a new angle on genre, “suga,” he said, with a chuckle, recalling that an Israeli friend told him to use the feminine version of ‘sug,’ as another alternative to ‘g’ener‘, as Hebrew speakers say, which is “impossible for me with a New-York ‘resh‘, yet a little too sophisticated for the average Hebrew speaker.
“It’s different forms of communication, and it was about relearning form, dialogue on stage versus novels,” he said. “You have to write it in such a way for the form of the written page; there can be super short dialogue in a novel, but put that on stage and it’ll be nine hours long and your nose will start to bleed. In a book, you pace your reading, but a play’s in nonstop motion.”
Along those same lines, Englander is “addicted” to participating in The Moth storytelling events.
“I’m interested in form right now, and each feeds the other, in a huge way,” he said. And it doesn’t hurt when a new project, or form, involves collaboration with a kindred spirit like Keret or Safran Foer.
“You support your friends’ work, it’s hafuch al hafuch (topsy turvy),” he said. “It’s an unbelievably small world. It’s the Jewish thing.”