The 2nd Avenue Deli is closed. Rectangles, at 10th street? Closed. It’s the second day of Passover, and Nathan Englander is going to have to do without chopped liver. He frequented both restaurants when he lived in Manhattan, in the days when he thought he was going to be a photographer, before he went to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop – before he moved to Jerusalem and got serious about finishing his book. He’s been closely following the Gael Greene-Ron Rosenbaum chopped-liver wars from his small, spare apartment with a view of Israel’s Supreme Court. But he won’t be able to weigh in with an informed opinion today. Slinging his messenger bag over his shoulder, the 29-year-old heads into Veselka for the pierogi – never mind the elaborate Easter-egg decorations.
Englander’s collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, has just been published by Knopf to, as they say, critical acclaim (thereby justifying Englander’s mid-six-figure advance, and that book party next week at publisher Sonny Mehta’s home). The nine surprisingly mature, occasionally folkloric stories – each teasing out the strained relationship between the secular and the ultra-religious – are set in Russia and Jerusalem, in the fictional Orthodox enclave of Royal Hills, and on the Upper East Side. After one week, the book’s gone into its second printing and has secured a top-ten slot on Amazon.com.
Englander, who tends to look on the dark side, is shocked by the mainstream’s eager reception. Brought up in an Orthodox West Hempstead neighborhood, Englander decided to stop practicing Judaism altogether at the age of 19, ironically on his junior year abroad in Jerusalem. “I’d been taught to regard secular people as less Jewish,” he says. “I was taught to look at them as uneducated, on the road to assimilation.” But this view was impossible to maintain in Israel, where Jews of all levels of observance are, by definition, affirming their identity. Englander realized he could be ritual-free – and still be Jewish.
“Many people have an incident that made it clear that they couldn’t remain Orthodox,” he says. “One day, a teacher went around the room, asking each person if he’d said his evening prayers. Everyone said yes; kids I knew were lying because they weren’t from kosher homes. When he got to me, I said no, I didn’t. I thought it would be better to tell the truth. I’d done something bold and honest and right, but it exploded.” Englander received a stern public reprimand.
As a child, Englander spent most of his time at yeshiva, but in his teens, he felt he had to break away. A teacher encouraged him to write, and to read things besides the Torah. He started off with Orwell and progressed to Camus, Kafka, Conrad – “stories of people trapped in unjust situations.” He begged his parents not to send him to City College (where he’d won a scholarship) because he wanted to be farther than a subway ride away from home. But his college roommate at suny Binghamton was also Orthodox, and Englander had few friends outside this community. “I’d come home from school and watch TV until the sun came up. It was like being in the world but rejecting it. The world belongs to others – you pass a thousand McDonald’s a day, but you don’t go into McDonald’s.”
Today, Englander, who calls himself “culturally Jewish,” eats pork, doesn’t pray, and works on Saturdays. He lives in Jerusalem because, he says, “it’s a good place to be poor.” That he now has money hasn’t really sunk in yet. His immediate family, all still Orthodox, respect his choices. But “interviewers treat me like a heroin addict,” he says. “Everyone’s acting like it should be some big traumatic thing for my family. But why shouldn’t they respect my life decisions if I respect theirs?” The book is dedicated to Englander’s mother, a careful reader of his stories in all their drafts.
The idea that his book will be denounced by the Orthodox community irritates Englander. “I’m annoyed that anyone would think that I air dirty laundry in some way,” he says. “This is in my head – my imagination.” Reactions from neighbors have, so far, been benign: Englander was stopped by a younger member of his parent’s shul last week, who said his book was the topic du jour (in a good way) at Passover services.
Reviewers are already tossing the names of elder Jewish writers into the air as putative influences. Michiko Kakutani suggested Bernard Malamud (for “allegory and quotidian detail”), Franz Kafka (“humor and sadness”), and Isaac Bashevis Singer (“art and eros and the uncanny”). Englander’s agent, Nicole Aragi, who started courting him in earnest after he’d sold two pieces to Story magazine as a student at Iowa, also notes an old-fashioned quality: “I don’t know how he manages it: You talk to him and he’s light and funny and cheery and young, and he hands over work that has an incredible gravity.”
In Englander’s fictional universe, husbands and wives don’t communicate, compromises are made, lives are lost. But Englander’s also satirizing the wider contemporary world as it rubs up against Orthodoxy. “The Gilgul of Park Avenue” stars a Wasp lawyer who has a revelation that he is, in fact, Jewish. He signs up for daily Torah lessons. He performs ritual ablutions. He throws away all the cheese. His wife is horrified, not least because she feels Orthodox Jews are too déclassé for Park Avenue: ” ‘Well, if you have to be Jewish, why so Jewish? Why not be like the Browns in 6-K? Their kid goes to Haverford. Why,” she said, closing her eyes and pressing two fingers to her temple, ‘why do people who find religion always have to be so goddamn extreme?’ ” It seems that she cannot love him as a Jew.
As a boy, Englander wouldn’t dare switch on a light during the Sabbath for fear his grandparents would burn in hell. Today, the only thing extreme about him is his hair, so integral to his demeanor that it may have inspired his touching, even feminist story “The Wig.” Ruchuma, Royal Hills’s finest wig-maker, has lost her figure and her looks, but she sees her youth on the head of a delivery boy with a pierced chin. Offering him $4,000, she shears his locks and makes a wig for herself so she can upstage every other woman at temple. Englander grew his hair around the time of his first trip to Israel – it wouldn’t have been allowed at yeshiva. It’s a running joke among Englander’s friends; when he first arrived at Iowa, a classmate convinced fellow workshopper Chris Adrian that Englander was the former drummer from Ratt. (Adrian has since become one of Englander’s best friends.)
Although he’s now assuming rock-star status in the literary world, Englander is approaching his upcoming tour merely as a chance to see more of America. The last time Englander came home, he spent all his time in bookstores, scouting new writers and stockpiling books; he has said he would have given Knopf his manuscript for twenty titles from its backlist. We walk past the St. Mark’s Bookshop, and his book is in the window. He doesn’t stop for a snapshot.