Exactly 20 years ago, Nathan Englander burst onto the literary scene with his provocatively-titled debut short story collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.” Back then, he was a young, single man with a long curly mane struggling to make sense of his break from an Orthodox Jewish upbringing.
Today, the Pulitzer Prize finalist author is again confronting some of the same questions about secularism and religion. However, now it’s because he is a parent and challenged with how to stay true to his non-belief while passing on his still-cherished Jewish heritage to his young daughter.
Englander’s new and third novel, “Kaddish.com,” is clearly a means of working through these issues. He does this by returning to his home turf — both physically and metaphorically.
Unlike in his last novel, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” in which Englander went far afield, venturing into the world of international espionage and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this time — to our benefit — he hews closer to the realities of his own life and that of the family in which he grew up on Long Island.
“My last novel was such a departure for me in many ways. I wanted to get back to where I started from, back to the sacred and the profane,” Englander, 49, said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.
In “Kaddish.com,” it’s 1999 and we meet Larry, a 30-year-old single guy from Brooklyn who is sitting shiva at his married sister Dina’s home in Memphis. Tension abounds between the siblings because of the differences in their religious observance. Dina has remained Orthodox, while Larry has left behind the religious life and become secular.
Larry is comforted in knowing that his late father loved and accepted him, but is tormented by the fact that “from his deathbed, his father continued to make clear that the life Larry currently lived, that he’d worked so hard to build, that none of it was Larry’s real life.”
Larry’s father told him he was confident that Larry would eventually “come home.” To Larry’s father and sister, home meant “anywhere on the planet that held like-minded, kosher, mikvah-dipping, synagogue attending, Israel-cheering, fellow tribespeople, who all felt, and believed, and did the very same things in the very same way — including taking mourning so seriously that they breathed up all the air in the room, suffocating the living, so that the survivors might truly end up one with the dead.”
For Dina, taking mourning seriously means that Larry, as the only male first-degree relative, must recite the Kaddish prayer for his father. Larry refuses.
Englander lost his own father 10 years ago, but he was not required to say Kaddish. “My family, whose other members have remained religious, works well together. Everything was covered and taken care of. I could say Kaddish if I wanted, but I didn’t have to do it every day,” he explained.
But the question of what would have happened if he had been required to recite the prayer for his dead father, to whom it had been important, lingered and became central to his new novel’s plot.
“What if it’s on you and you can’t miss one of the three minyanim, of the eight times a day for 11 months — or else you have failed your father’s soul?” asked Englander.
With Dina’s rabbi’s dispensation, Larry gets himself off the hook by finding a shaliach mitzvah, someone to fulfill the religious obligation for him. He searches an early version of Google and finds Kaddish.com, a site that arranges — for a fee — for a yeshiva student in Jerusalem to recite the Kaddish on your behalf.
Two decades later we meet Larry again — only now he is a husband and father of two, and he has changed his name to Shuli and resumed a religious lifestyle. Having moved back to his (fictional) hometown of Royal Hills, New York, he is now a religious studies teacher at a local ultra-Orthodox day school.
Life hums along until Shuli has a life shattering revelation that all his years of teshuvah, of returning to the fold and striving for redemption, do not make up for what he did by paying for the yeshiva student named Chemi to say Kaddish for his father. It all hinges on a technicality of Jewish law: Shuli is convinced that he performed an actual kinyan (a transfer of rights) when he arranged Chemi to say kaddish for him. Shuli sees himself like the biblical Esau, who sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentils.
“Esav didn’t just reject, he didn’t just turn down, he purposely threw away his birthright because he despised it. This is the rot he and I both hold in our hearts,” Shuli tells his wife Miri.
It’s at this point that the short novel takes a turn both plot-wise and in tone. As the narrative takes on an increasingly angsty and absurdist timbre, Shuli becomes single-minded in his efforts to locate Chemi so he can reclaim his birthright and thereby do justice by his dead father’s soul.
Driven to desperation by Kaddish.com administrator’s lack of response to his queries, Shuli skirts his school’s strict no-internet use rules and enlists one of his students, Gavriel, to use Google Maps and other tools to determine the exact location in Jerusalem of the website’s server. It’s in the historic Nachlaot neighborhood in the center of the city, where Englander himself lived from 1996 to 2001.
“And here in these machines is that exact knowing — for the advertisers and for the governments and for those with good and bad intentions to use as they saw fit. It’s all accessible, your wants and dreams, our sins and secrets, so that Gavriel, tapping away at the keys, can tell where someone around the world sits right then — a humble, hidden someone who does not want to be found. But the Internet knows, and it has no compass to guide it and no will to guard what was meant only for the Maker. Here, it all waits to be plucked out of the air by a child,” Englander writes.
Much has changed since the author’s youth, and he told The Times of Israel that he has been pondering questions of God and technology.
“All those big questions that you wrestle with in high school, that I challenged the rabbis with and got thrown out of the room for — one of them got answered. An omniscient God, that’s a big ask. Then with the internet… if you have a cell phone, if you live in an electrified city on this planet, then somebody really does know everything you’ve done, what you are doing, and what you are doing next,” Englander said.
With the support of Miri, an Orthodox feminist and Jewishly learned woman, Shuli sets off for Nachlaot to find Chemi. To say more would be to reveal too much about how the novel ends as magical realism bumps up against harsh realities. (Warning: there are several pornographic scenes in “Kaddish.com,” especially one scene toward the end.)
“Some of my family members read the book and said it would be a really charming book if I removed that section,” Englander half-joked.
The scene wasn’t cut, and it plays an important role in conveying the notion of change. It’s not so easy to move on and forgive in our contemporary world, in which there is “a permanent record of everything and the size of public shame is gigantic now,” as Englander put it.
The atheist author’s wife and friends tell him that he is “the most religious not religious person in the world.” It’s an identity he’s embraced for decades, but until now he hadn’t thought much about “giving answers to things that I didn’t think I needed to answer.”
But things have changed now that he has a 4-year-old at home. “It’s the parenting thing. How am I going to educate my daughter? What will I tell her?” Englander wondered.
Englander may not truly believe in the concept of olam haba, the world to come. Yet, by writing “Kaddish.com,” he has not only provided his readers with a thought-provoking page-turner. It has also been a vehicle of self-discovery.
“We are really at that moment and I am thinking about who I am and what my soul is. To teach [my daughter,] I have to face myself,” Englander said.