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Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

These eight new stories from the celebrated novelist and short-story writer Nathan Englander display a gifted young author grappling with the great questions of modern life, with a command of language and the imagination that place Englander at the very forefront of contemporary American fiction. The title story, inspired by Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, is a provocative portrait of two marriages in which the Holocaust is played out as a devastating parlor game. In the outlandishly dark “Camp Sundown” vigilante justice is undertaken by a group of geriatric campers in a bucolic summer enclave. “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a small, sharp study in evil, lovingly told by a father to a son. “Sister Hills” chronicles the history of Israel’s settlements from the eve of the Yom Kippur War through the present, a political fable constructed around the tale of two mothers who strike a terrible bargain to save a child. Marking a return to two of Englander’s classic themes, “Peep Show” and “How We Avenged the Blums” wrestle with sexual longing and ingenuity in the face of adversity and peril. And “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is suffused with an intimacy and tenderness that break new ground for a writer who seems constantly to be expanding the parameters of what he can achieve in the short form. Beautiful and courageous, funny and achingly sad, Englander’s work is a revelation.

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

What We Wonder About: Discussion Questions
From the Random House Reading Guide:
1.  At the heart of several of these stories is the relationship between religious orthodoxy and contemporary American culture. How do you think the author views religion and issues of faith and belief?

2.  The title story, “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” all pivot around incidents within Jewish history, and the question of how essential stories—stories that define us, that shape both our understanding of the past and our vision of the future—are told and retold over the course of many years. What do you think Englander is suggesting about history, tradition, and storytelling itself?

3.  Many of the stories in this collection are comic in tone, despite the tragic nature of Englander’s dramatic predicaments. How does humor serve the author’s intentions? How does it express his view of life?

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

Additional Questions:
1.  In several of the stories, the Holocaust casts a long shadow.  What role does the Holocaust play in your identity as a modern Jew?

What We Link About

Nathan Englander's website

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
The Jewish Ledger, Connecticut

Nathan Englander interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air

Sunday with Nathan Englander

"Stories That Will Plain Curl Your Eyelashes: A Love Letter To The Moth"
Posted by Nathan Englander to the New Yorker

The Moth and the World Science Festival Present Nathan Englander: Man on the Moon

Committing to memory with author Nathan Englander

KQED Forum - Host: Michael Krasny
We talk with writer Nathan Englander about his acclaimed new collection of short stories, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank."

Electric Literature
“When the fine folk at Electric Literature publish a story, they commission a short animation inspired by a single sentence. This one is based on a line from "The Reader" which will appear in Electric Literature #6. It was animated by the amazing Drew Christie.”

Big Think:  Process

Big Think:  Write What You Know

Poets & Writers


 

Story 1: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

What We Wonder About: Discussion Questions

Questions From the Random House Reading Guide:
1. The narrator of the title story suggests that his wife’s preoccupation with Holocaust survivors is excessive.  “And Deb has what can only be called an unhealthy obsession with the idea of that generation being gone. Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to me, too. I care, too.  All I’m saying is, there’s healthy and unhealthy, and my wife, she gives this subject a lot, a lot, of time.”  How do you feel about this? Later, the narrator suggests that Deb was disappointed by the story about the two survivors meeting years later in the locker room in Florida because she was expecting something that would “reconfirm her belief in the humanity that, from inhumanity, forms.”  What does it mean to have an unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust?  How do you feel about Deb as a character?

2. Yerucham and Shoshana used to be called Mark and Lauren, before they became ultra-Orthodox. Early in the title story, though, Shoshana confides, “We still get high. . . . I mean, all the time,” and that, in relation to traveling with drugs, “it’s pretty rare that anyone at customs peeks under the wig.”  What do you think Nathan Englander’s point of view is about religious Orthodoxy? What point is he trying to make?

3. Appearance and reality, secrets and hidden truths, are themes in the title story. These are approached comically, at first, when Deb and her husband discuss Trevor, and the discovery Deb had made and kept a secret. “But he’s the son. . . . I’m the father. Even if it’s a secret with him, it should be a double secret between me and you. I should always get to know—but pretend not to know—any secret with him. . . . That’s how it goes. . . . That’s how it’s always been. . . . Hasn’t it?” What is at stake here? Why does the narrator suddenly feel “desperate and unsure”? What fears are gathering force in this moment?

4. The idea above—the possibility that we don’t know our spouses, or even ourselves, and that perhaps our lives are something quite other than what we believe them to be—is echoed with powerful, indeed tragic, implications at the story’s conclusion. Discuss the terrible parlor game the couples play in the story’s final pages. What do the couples learn about one another? About themselves? How does this change your understanding of each character and the portraits the author had painted of them in the story’s opening pages?

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

Additional Questions:
1.  How does knowing that this story is a riff on the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” affect your reading of it?  (If you are not familiar with the Carver story, click here for some background.)

2.  How do you feel about the title of this story?  Are you comfortable with the way Englander uses Anne Frank’s name and memory?   Are certain words/topics off limits for casual use?

3.  This story begins, “They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation.  Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.”  What does Englander have to say about who “owns” history and memory – about who has the “authority” to talk about Jewish issues and identity?

What We Think About: Written Reflections

The Gaps Between What We Talk About and What We Do
Maya Bernstein

What to talk about when we talk about what to talk about? This story is essentially a meditation on the possibilities and impossibilities of story-telling. How do stories influence our reality? Why is it that we are so influenced by distant story-tellers, by the Anne Franks, whose stories captivate us so, and yet it can be so challenging to pass our own stories on to our own children? And, underlying it all, is the unspoken question: can we even trust our story-tellers? For perhaps our most gifted story-tellers are actually doing nothing more than spinning stories.

Nathan Englander’s title story in his new collection maintains the comic, slightly sarcastic, light tone of its secular but culturally, and linguistically, Jewish narrator throughout. Fascinatingly, we never learn his name, though Englander does a quick and phenomenal job of making us trust him. How can we not sympathize with a guy whose wife’s best friend from childhood and her husband, both of whom “ran off to Israel twenty years ago and turned Hassidic” and had ten kids, have “[plopped] down on the couch in the den?” We lean back and enjoy the show of these couples, seemingly so different, sharing drinks, and then smoking weed rolled in tampon wrappers, laughing together, and dancing, literally and figuratively, across the lines that seem to separate them. And we can’t help but notice Englander having some fun as well, peeking “under the wigs” of Hassidim and exposing what lies underneath.

And yet, it is clear from the beginning of the story, that it is Mark, a.k.a Yerucham, Yuri, “Born Again Harry,” who is in control of this story, controlling his audience: “the way it comes out of his mouth…I like the guy.” Mark is driving the arc of the story, simultaneously prodded to tell stories – “tell them that crazy story…tell them, Yuri,” and begged not to tell stories: “don’t tell them what it means, Yuri. Just leave it unmeant.”  And, no matter what, his audience wants “to hear what he’s got to say.” Because his stories entertain, enrage, and take unexpected twists and turns. Englander seems to be implying that the better the story, the less truth, or true impact, it can have. Yuri is a story-teller who embodies the tension between spinning a great yarn, and actually saying something that has meaningful, lasting impact.

It is this many-named Yuri who ultimately proves to be, for reasons we can hardly articulate, untrustworthy. When he tells the story about his father, a Holocaust survivor, who goes to the same gym in modern-day Florida with another survivor whose tattooed number is basically identical to his own, we, along with the narrator, are amused, but along with the narrator’s wife, Deb, we are also “crestfallen.” Because perhaps we too were “expecting something empowering. Some story with which to educate Trevor,” to educate our own children, to reconfirm our “belief in the humanity that, from inhumanity, forms.”

Isn’t that, after all, the purpose of stories and story-tellers? To teach us something? To touch us, as deeply as the story of Anne Frank has touched us all? And, more than that, to know that our story-tellers live what they preach, and that our own lives will be affected by the insights we have gained from our stories? That stories nourish us and keep us alive?

Dara Horn, writing in the Fall 2012 edition of The Jewish Review of Books, shares her perspective on the core responsibility parents have to their children. She writes:

All parents, consciously or not, face the task of giving the children they raise a language - expressed not only in words, but in images, rhythms, gestures, patterns of reasoning, and just about every other way that humans have communicated with each other - as their children's most elemental connection to the human past. The reason to have kids is because you care enough about whatever languages you speak, and the chains of stories and ideas and commitments that have carried those languages through time, to want more people to speak those languages in the future, no matter what they may choose to say. Giving children a language rich enough to express the past’s mistakes and the future’s possibilities isn’t a task for chromosomes. It’s a task for parents and teachers.

The whole purpose of telling stories is so that they penetrate, so that they affect the listener, so that they create a shared perspective, language, and set of insights that make critical links and connections between human beings, between generations. But Englander’s point seems to be that the stories parents tell their children often do not penetrate.  This seems to be the dark underbelly of his story – the quiet fact that we tell stories, and they are warped and doubted the moment they leave our mouths, and are let loose to influence in ways we could never have imagined.

Englander’s likeable characters, tearing through teenage snacks in a well-stocked Florida pantry, make us squirm with the unsettling realization that the gaps between us are both impossibly wide, and ridiculously artificial. It is because of our stories that we feel connected to each other. And it is because of our stories, or story-tellers, that we can never truly understand or come close to one another. Englander implies that our stories are what connect us to our roots, to each other, to our identity. But these same stories ensnare us, weave illusory webs of meaning that grant an artificial, mask-like sheen of identity, but which are, at their core, empty – amusing, but hollow. And perhaps that is what is so disturbing, that is what we are afraid to acknowledge, and must keep locked inside. 

Maya Bernstein Bio

As the Strategic Design Officer at UpStart Bay Area, Maya supports Jewish social entrepreneurs on their organizational and program design, designs and facilitates strategic change processes for established organizations, teaches leadership and change theory, and writes about the intersection of innovation and Jewish life. Maya began her career creating informal educational experiences for the Russian Jewish communities in Belarus and Germany. Her written work has appeared online and in print in a variety of publications, including The Jewish Week, Lilith Magazine, and The Huffington Post. Maya earned a B.A. in Russian Language & Literature at Columbia University, and an M.A. in Education at Harvard University, and lives in Palo Alto, CA.



 

Story 2: Sister Hills

What We Wonder About: Discussion Questions

Questions From the Random House Reading Guide:
1. The story “Sister Hills” is divided into four discrete sections. Why? Discuss how the story’s structure relates to its themes.

2. “Sister Hills” can be read as a political allegory based on the story of a bargain struck in order to save the life of a critically ill child.  In this reading, who or what does the child represent, and what meaning can be inferred from the exchange of money? What is the relevance of the two mothers?  

3. Rena changes dramatically over the course of “Sister Hills.” Describe her journey and discuss the difference between her true relationship with Aheret and the way the young couple perceive the nature of their relationship at the story’s end. What point is the author trying to make through his use of irony here, and how does this irony relate to the story as a whole?

4. What statement, in “Sister Hills,” is the author trying to make about the history of the Israeli settlements? What do you think the author believes about their cost? About their fate?  Look in particular at pages 64 to 66, where Rena discusses with the rabbis the nature of a contract, both symbolic and real, and the nature of justice.

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

Additional Questions:
1. Olive trees appear throughout this story, sometimes in the most dramatic scenes.  On pages 37-39, Rena starts to chop down and olive tree and a boy from the Arab village below tells her to stop and says she was “doing something that can’t be undone.”  Do you agree that there are some things that can’t be undone, in the context of this story and more generally?

2. What did you think about the lengthy scene (pages 59-66) in which Yehudit and Rena make their case before the panel of rabbinic judges?  How did you feel about Rena’s use of Jewish law and appeal to judging as “God intended” to support her claim? 

3. In many interviews, Englander says he could not sleep after he finished writing “Sister Hills.”  In what ways, if any, did you find the story disturbing? 

What We Think About: Written Reflections
 

A Reflection on "Sister Hills"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Much swirled through my soul as I read Nathan Englander's latest book, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," especially the second story in the book, "Sister Hils." No summary suffices, and plot-spoilers would be a crime. But this is what I feel, upon encountering Englander's masterful narrative: What are the definitions and limits of Jewish obligation? 

Many Jews carry within them, sometimes even against their wills, the history of every generation past, especially trauma. Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik called this the "covenant of fate," an inherited obligation that forces a Jew to constantly confront the world from the perspective of Jewish history. For Jews who would rather leave Jewish history behind, Soleveitchik argues that even the most passionate willful acts of abandonment only point to the inescapability of their place within the Jewish covenant. In other words, Jewish assimilation couldn't convince Hitler that a Jew wasn't a Jew. But Soleveitchik doesn't end there. He points to a different paradigm, one which suggests a willful embrace of that which is already true. A Jew is a Jew, and while that inevitably includes pain, it also points to the possible of rapture for the whole Jewish family, and perhaps the world. This is what Soleveitchik called the "covenant of destiny," suggesting that this Jewish approach leaves behind fear and compulsion and allows the Jewish People free will to believe in its own destiny.

I am a hybrid liberal/traditional Diaspora-based rabbi whose soul longs for both the State of Israel and an idealized Israel, something Theodore Herzl suggested was the two-fold mission of Zionism. The commanding voice of Halacha, the Jewish legal tradition, is embedded in my heart, anchoring me to the universe by ritually calling me to be present within and responsive to my surroundings. I was first exposed to this ritualistic worldview by my parents' decisions regarding my education and then later chose it again for myself, as even the sacred vows of one generation last only as long as the next generation accepts the obligations for their fulfillment. 

But even the most textured halachic approach only demonstrates one portion of an affirmed and inherited Jewish life. Soleveitchik's Fate/Destiny paradigms also resonate in spiritual, cosmic, psychological - even national spheres. How does Israel's national narrative interact today with global Jewish sensibilities? Is there a Jewish People? Is it bound by sociological fate? Divine destiny? Spiritual Judgment? And does the complicated context surrounding the only real estate the Jewish people calls home matter anymore? Does the Jewish Diaspora, far removed from the physical reality of Modern Israel's current experience, remember the sacred vows made by so many of previous generations? Is the successful transmission of that story possible? Do we know who we are anymore?

Are we, children and grandchildren of those who witnessed Israel's birth pangs, able to fathom the feverish desperation of the infant state that has provided champion and detractor alike enough raw material to build their case?

Bio Rabbi Menachem Creditor
 

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA.  A popular speaker at synagogues, college campuses, and various Jewish communities around the country and in Israel on questions of Jewish Identity, Leadership, Inclusion, and Spirituality, Rabbi Creditor's writings have appeared in many publications. During the past year he has authored two children's books: "A Pesach Rhyme" and "Avodah: A Yom Kippur Story" and produced two musical albums: "Within" and "Modeh Ani." Rabbi Creditor blogs at rabbicreditor.blogspot.com.

 

Story 3: How We Avenged the Blums

What We Wonder About: Discussion Questions

Questions From the Random House Reading Guide:
1. How does the story of Masada relate to the story of Zvi Blum and the bully known as the Anti-Semite in “How We Avenged the Blums”?

2. On page 88 of the story above, Englander writes, “We weren’t cohesive. We knew how to move as a group but not as a gang. We needed practice. After two thousand years of being chased, we didn’t have any hunt left in us.”  What does he mean? How is he suggesting Jewish history relates to the fate of these neighborhood boys and their plight?

3. “How We Avenged the Blums” concludes with a powerful image of a circle of boys clustered around the Anti-Semite, and the narrator’s unexpected insight about the nature of helplessness and power, dignity and victimhood: “As I watched him, I knew I’d always feel that to be broken was better than to break—my failing.” What does he mean? And why does he consider this his failing?

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

Additional Questions:
1. Why is no name given to the character referred to as “anti-Semite?” 

2. What difference, if any, does it make when, on page 79, we learn that, “Some whispered that our nemesis was half Jewish” and that he had been ejected from their Yeshiva when it was discovered that only his father was Jewish?

What We Think About: Written Reflections

A Reflection on “How We Avenged the Blums”
Ariella Radwin

Which is more confusing: to be powerful, or to be powerless?  Nathan Englander's story “How We Avenged the Blums” is a story of how a young adolescent boy grapples with and understands this question in the context of a well-drilled Jewish education in Jewish victimization.

The story is about a group of young boys who are startled when one day, the youngest Blum boy is attacked and beaten by a peer they call "the Anti-Semite." The boys themselves are intent on avenging this insult, but as they roam their adult community, they encounter a staggering variety of messages about how they should handle the challenge.

For instance, the Blum parents are second generation Americans, and call the police immediately.  But our narrator, a boy as unnamed as the Anti-Semite, reports, "My parents wouldn't have done it, and let that fact be known."  The difference between these positions seems to be the expectation of what could be done, and how rampant anti-Semitism is.  Another character, Ace Cohen, a barely-adult "tough" Jew also agrees that the police shouldn't have been called, but for a different reason; despite the fact that he could fight it, he thinks it's better to let it go rather than escalate the matter.  A Russian refusenik teaches martial arts in specially-created paid classes, while the Rabbis at school are led by the community to support a plan to arm the boys with the tools of self-defense.

The reader feels keenly the lack of community consensus around what should be done.  No one knows what to do about this menacing bully who is targeting Jewish boys, or rather, everyone does: The Rabbi offers one bit of advice, contradicted by that of the policeman, the Jewish boy counted on to offer a punch refuses, and the mercenary Russian teaches fighting lessons, but flees before completing the boys' training.  The story uses these various voices to play with the possibilities of what to do.

Meanwhile, the boys single-mindedly pursue the one avenue apparently open to them: strengthening themselves, practicing skills of self-defense, and eventually mastering the art of attack.

The story seems at times to be an elaborate set-up for the final punch, in which the young bully is finally brought down.  Lured to the playground, then attacked, he falls with a single punch from Ace Cohen.  Now that they are victorious, they can do nothing more than stare.  Englander writes, "With the Anti-Semite at our feet, confusion came over us all.  We stood there looking at that crushed boy.  And none of us knew when to run."

That confusion is the deep essence of this story.  The narrator of the story has not felt confusion up until this point, despite the many voices pointing in every direction.  He has felt universally certain of the need for revenge.  Now that he is looking at his adversary, writhing on the ground in defeat, "I knew I'd always feel that to be broken was better than to break-- my failing."

But while the narrator may come to this conclusion upon the defeat of his adversary, the reader is forced to a different conclusion, noticing that certainty has not fallen into moral disarray with the defeat of the bully.  Rather, all along, the story has been a cacophony of voices, urging as many different solutions as there are characters.

But it is only once the nemesis is brought to the ground that his confusion now mirrors ours.  He has unwittingly demonstrated that being the persecutor seems preferable only when you are the persecuted.  To be powerful is a different sort of confusion, one that confuses morality with possibility, allowing us the illusion of deservedness.

In this story, neither power nor powerlessness avenges abuse.  Both bring confusion, uncertainty, and misery, both for the adults in the community, and their younger reflections.  If there is a lesson in this story, it is about the futility of trying to grow strong in response to power.  In response to a bully, one can either learn to box or not learn to box, but the moral confusion does not abate.  Trapped in a cycle of power and violence, both raising one's fists and not raising one's fists fail to resolve the ambiguity of what to do with a bully.

What is left for us is to consider why this story belongs in a compilation entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.  Several connections suggest themselves, not the least of which is that Anne Frank is a young girl the age of the protagonists who never had the chance they had to experiment with her own power or revenge.  But perhaps more intriguing is the part of the Anne Frank story which she herself never recorded, because she couldn't: the fate which led her family to hiding, and eventually led the Nazis to find and exterminate them.

Amidst a community of Jews who all struggled to find a way to protect themselves from the Nazi threat, we know that Anne's family's path was one of many possibilities.  There were those who attempted confrontation, rebellion, cooperation, acquiescence, flight, and many others.  Nobody knew what to do to save themselves and their families.

And in the end, there was no right answer, for, save for a small number of improbable stories, they all perished.  The Frank family perished along with the Rabbi who showed up to meet the Nazis in Tallit and T'fillin and was shot on the spot.  They perished along with those caught running away, and along with those who tried too late to convert.  Along with those who organized and raised their fists and weapons and went down fighting.  And along with those who trustingly gathered in town squares and were herded onto trains.

Truly, Englander's point is well taken-- there is great moral ambiguity in being in a position of power.  What I think the story urges us to remember is that being in a position of powerlessness offers no beacon of light to the moral, safe, or correct path of action.

Ariella Radwin Bio

Ariella Radwin has a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from UCLA's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.  Over the past several years, she has taught courses at Stanford University, the University of San Francisco, and San Francisco State University.  She has also taught in various synagogue and community venues including Bible by the Bay, Limmud, Kevah, Jewbilee, and the Feast of Jewish Learning.  She spends most of her time living and learning with her homeschooled children in Palo Alto.

 

Story 4: Peep Show

What We Wonder About: Discussion Questions

Questions From the Random House Reading Guide:
1. At the start of “Peep Show,” Allen Fein reflects on his transformation. “He had only wanted a peep. He’d gone up the stairs a loyal husband and lover, a workingman on his way home to the burbs. And now, minutes later, a different man emerges: a violator of girls and wives and matrimonial bonds.”  Then, when the partition rises and unexpectedly reveals a rabbi, Allen muses: “Where the rabbis are involved, there is always a path to be followed. Either you stay on it or you stray into darkness: This is the choice they offer. And, much as Allen feels bitter and lied to for all these years, he half wishes he could live in their realm, where a man is religious or he is not, a good husband or bad.”  How are these two moments related? What is the author saying about the nature of identity, morality, and truth?

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

Additional Questions:
1. How does the surreal nature of this story serve its content?

2. What is Englander saying about the nature of desire, guilt, and the life choices we make?

 

What We Think About: Written Reflections
Getting Naked: On “Peep Show”
Howard Freedman

When I was asked to write something about one of the stories in this collection, my response was, “Sure, as long as it’s not ‘Peep Show.’”

Well, here I am.  Writing about “Peep Show,” of course.  It seems that no other contributor wanted to take this one.  And I naturally have to ask what makes this story the one that nobody wants to touch. 

It may be because it's not one of Englander’s best efforts.  A number of critics single it out as the low point of this collection.  And it covers territory that has already been mined; the Jewish striver with the altered name, the blonde gentile wife, the excoriating rabbi, and the overbearing mother are all tropes quite familiar to American Jewish readers. 

And there is the sense among some readers that the humor misfires.  Reviews note that with this story, Englander “veers into shtick” (The Forward), and that it is “dripping with Jewish shtick gone stale” (Haaretz) and “owes an obvious debt to Borscht Belt shtick” (Commonweal). We have a pattern here, and it is apparently not a good thing.

But I think that the more important reason that we’d like to avoid this story is that it makes us feel very uncomfortable.  The setting is a place where few of us would want to be found—whether out of disgust, or fear of being caught.  It’s probably the only story I’ve read where a majority of the characters are unclothed.  And the action revolves around sexual arousal and deceit, as practiced by a respectable member of society (who may well be your neighbor, relative, or husband).  Is this what we want to talk about over tea and cookies?

My answer would be Yes.  There is no single task that literature "should" perform, but one of its valuable roles is to bring us in safety to places that are unsafe.  Protagonist Allen Fein has created such protections for his new life and identity that it is only by traversing an unacceptable boundary that he can begin to face who he really is.  And as readers/voyeurs, we cross that border with him.

My intention here is to rescue the story from accusations of “shtick” and offer a reading of elements that I find meaningful.

The story begins by explicitly paralleling the Times Square’s makeover with Allen’s own metamorphosis.  Allen has been “so busy with his own transformation that he has missed the one going on around him.”  When he asks himself, “As polished, as straight, as on the up-and-up as forty-second street now appears, is it the same inside?” he is setting up the drama that will inhabit the rest of the story. 

Betrayal
When Allen enters the building on a whim, he convinces himself that it is “an understandable bit of mischief, the kind of thing he could tell Claire about.”  Immediately thereafter, he notes that “if he feels guilty enough, he’ll tell Claire he went inside.”

He is taken by surprise, however, when this “mischief” quickly gives way to a powerful emotional experience. “He had only wanted a peep,” but the unexpected touching and the connection he feels to the woman on the stage have converted Allen’s act into something more sinister.  He climaxes, letting “the shame rush in,” and his sin now marks him psychologically and physically.

Guilt
The guilt takes hold immediately.  Allen had “gone up the stairs a loyal husband a lover, a working man on his way home to the burbs.  And now, minutes later, a different man emerges: a violator of girls and wives and matrimonial bonds.” (105)

Compounding the sin is Allen’s need to cover it up.  Although he had initially planned to assuage his guilt by telling his wife what he’d done, he now wants to protect himself by concealing his actions from her:  “Immediately, there is plotting.  Already the deceit grows.”

But he is not quite done here.  Still aroused and with five tokens in hand, Allen is not moving.  Rather, he summons his id and superego into battle: “He admits to himself that if he didn’t ever have to leave, if it meant irretrievably losing the outside world, he would sacrifice it all if only that siren would stand up from her chair, take his hands, and guide them over her body once more.  But he won’t allow himself such an indulgence.  He will put in the token, but he will not touch.  He will look at his shoes and the scuff mark that damned him…He will use up what he paid for, but the penance begins right now.” (106)

Allen is insistent on getting his money’s worth (go figure), but the pursuit of pleasure must surrender to self-judgment and punishment.  It is at this point that the story shifts from a fairly plausible account of a few minutes spent in Manhattan’s seedy underbelly to surreal visions projected by Allen’s guilt and confusion.

When Allen inserts the second token, the panel lifts to reveal four rabbis.  If Rena called for a beit din in the story “Sister Hills” to strengthen her position, Allen’s conscience has summoned a rabbinical court to pass judgment on his sinful act.  Indeed, when his psychologist suddenly appears, Allen thinks, “A witness. Mann has called a witness.” (109)

And there will be more witnesses.  For the peep show has become inverted, and Fein is now the one being observed.  And if, in commencing his adventure, Allen had voiced the minor fear that he might be glimpsed by an “office mate or neighbor,” he will now be on display before those people whose judgment matters most.

And he will be on trial for more than fondling a performer.  The decisions he has made about his life, his turning his back on Jewishness, and the essence of his character will all be fodder for debate and judgment. 

Back to Boyhood
It is central to psychoanalysis that the issues we experience as adults reach back into our childhood.  It is no coincidence that the rabbis sitting on the stage are the rabbis of Allen’s school years, as this “trial” is less concerned with the transgressive act in the booth than it is with the larger question of how this Orthodox schoolboy ended up where he is.  At the story’s onset, Allen had wondered “how little Ari Feinberg had ever become Allen Fein, Esq., in fancy oxblood wingtips,” and he will now have a chance to get at answers, albeit in a highly uncomfortable fashion.

As Allen had “not set foot in a peep show since boyhood,” it is the very act of entering this vestige of Times Square’s squalid past that offers a portal to the unresolved issues of his youth. Think of it as a variation of Proust’s madeleine that is best handled with rubber gloves and disinfectant.

Allen’s regression begins as soon as he enters the building, as the powerful lawyer shrinks to become ineffectual and self-effacing.  He falls prey to a bait-and-switch and is then “too bashful to ask for change.”  Once in the booth, “when the first girl looks at Allen, he feels unworthy to watch.  He can hardly bear having her acknowledge him.”  When he has the opportunity to touch the woman through the window, he “is shaking again, as he did when he was a boy.”  And he finally loses his own agency entirely: “The girl takes Allen’s hands in her own, presses them to her chest, and massages.  It calms him.”

The infantilization furthers as Allen soils himself by ejaculating in his clothing.  His mother will eventually appear, offering him a tissue to mop himself and reminding him that she used to clean his “dirty gatkes” (Yiddish for long underwear).  She not only reduces him to his younger, less powerful self, but makes it clear that it was an illusion that he could ever hold a secret and achieve independence from her.

Dealing
The trial, with its stream of accusations and memories, ends not with punishment, but with a degree of resolution.  When he drops the last token, Allen “is actually eager to find the rabbi and Dr. Springmire waiting for him.” Allen “wants to turn out his pockets,” evoking the Tashlikh ritual at the onset of the Ten Days of Repentance, when many Jews perform this act as a symbolic emptying of sin.

Allen never repents his actions, nor is he ever asked to.  The literal meaning of teshuvah, the Hebrew word used to denote repentance, is “return.”  It’s an apt word, as Allen begins to come to terms with his discarded self.

Rabbi Mann had challenged Allen to “use a little sachel” (a Yiddish word often translated as “common sense”) and deal!” (108) When he witnesses the unlikely spectacle of a rapprochement between his mother and wife (rivals identified with the separate phases of his life), Allen asks himself, “Is this what the rabbi means?...Is this how people learn to deal?” 

“Deal” has a number of possible meanings. One is to bargain and exchange, at which we have already watched Allen fail when the quarter he pulled out to pay for his promised 25-cent experience is ultimately replaced by a five-dollar bill.  But another sense of the word is defined by Merriam-Webster as both “to reach or try to reach a state of acceptance or reconcilement” and “to take action with regard to someone or something.”  His rabbis and psychologist had been ineffective, but his wife and mother have moved Allen deeply.

The window comes down before Allen’s questions can be answered.  Allen is eager to insert his last token and show his rabbi and psychologist “that he is resigned to coping in a situation from which he gladly would have run.”  But it seems that the trial is now over.  They are now all gone, and he is left with himself.

With his rabbis, psychologist, mother, and wife gone, Allen will find his way to the stage, and the reversal will be complete. 

He will get naked, shedding the $500 dollar shoes we met in the story’s first sentence.  In so doing, he will use “one shoe to kick off the other, maybe for the first time since he was a boy in black Shabbos loafers, his father yelling at him not to break the backs.”  He will not only discard the trappings of his transformation, but he will do so in the manner of his younger self.

When he had first encountered the woman on stage, he could “hardly bear having her acknowledge him.  He wants to ask her what she is staring at.”  He ends the story comfortably and confidently, “befitting an object of desire.”

“This he can handle.  In this way, he can bend.”  He will deal.

Bio Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks.  He writes a monthly column on Jewish books for the j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, and has taught in a wide variety of settings.


 

Story 5: Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side

What We Wonder About: Discussion Questions

Questions From the Random House Reading Guide:
1. How is “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” different from the other seven stories in this collection, thematically and tonally? Did you feel it was more personal, intimate? Why do you think the author chose to narrate this story in the first person?

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

Additional Questions:
1. Why do you think Englander chose to break this story into numbered sections?  Could the style relate to the way in which memory works and stories come to us?  Did the style add to or detract from your understanding and enjoyment of the story? 

2. When the narrator wonders how an American Jew from the suburbs can have stories worth telling, his Bosnian girlfriend first says, “What you do is tell the stories you have, as best you can.”  She later says, “You find better stories…”  Does everyone have a story worth telling?  How do we discover our stories?

3. In section 21, the narrator realizes that his family changed the story about the boy’s injury/illness so that the outcome was “clearly God’s will.”  What is Englander saying about the way we retell and even distort the stories from our past? 

4. How do the stories our families tell help shape our identity?

 

What We Think About: Written Reflections

What We Talk About When We Talk About Ourselves
Daniel Schifrin

What does Nathan Englander have the right to talk about? What do any of us?

The title of Englander’s new story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is a riff on Raymond Carver’s book “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

While much of the critical focus on the stories explores issues of the Holocaust and American Jewish identity, for me the key story is a quieter, more formally innovative one, “Everything I know about My Family on My Mother’s Side.”

Here “Nathan” (the narrator of the story, although not necessarily the author) asks himself: Do I, as a suburban-born American kid, have a story to tell? This question is so important to him that, walking with his Bosnian immigrant girlfriend – ripe with authentic stories of tradition and voyages and displacement – they stop halfway across a busy New York street.

“But what do you do,” he frantically asks, “if you’re American and have no family history and all your most vivid childhood memories are only the plots of sitcoms…?”

Her answer is simple: “Those are the stories you tell.”

The girlfriend, secure in herself, sets Nathan on a journey of story-discovery, which leads to self-discovery. And eventually Nathan learns that the greatest stories are often the simplest; they don’t require overwhelming historical events to create meaning. He learns that an uncle died from a simple infection, not a brain tumor, and another relative was killed under mysterious circumstances after World War II, not actually fighting the war overseas.

Nathan, in this story, stands in for most American Jews who have not lived through tragic historical circumstances. And the lesson for us, as “the Bosnian” explained, is that we must tell the stories we have been given.

Englander is part of a generation of younger Jewish writers for whom the authenticity of their historical and Jewish experience was an urgent subject. Jonathan Safran Foer, most famously, turned Jewish literature on its head in “Everything is Illuminated” when his protagonist returned to Ukraine to discover the lost story of his family, creating a reverse immigration saga, complete with a character’s discovery of the English language worthy of Henry Roth. Dara Horn, in novels like “In the Image,” built her career on American reflections of Jewish Europe. And Englander’s first collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” toggled between Yiddish writers in Soviet jails and Park Avenue WASPS contemplating Judaism in comfortable taxis.

With the story “Everything I know about My Family on My Mother’s Side,” Englander makes this quest for American Jewish authenticity the subject – and not just the context – of his writing.
 

Bio Daniel Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, writer in residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and host of its podcast series, writes both "The Space Between" and the "Then and Now" column for the j., the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California. His articles and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and McSweeney's. Recent literary conversations include interviews with Michael Chabon, Nathan Englander, Maira Kalman and David Mamet. In 2007 he was a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

 

Story 6: Camp Sundown

What We Wonder About: Discussion Questions

Questions From the Random House Reading Guide:
1. “Camp Sundown” is a story about vigilante justice undertaken by a group of geriatric campers at a bucolic summer retreat. Discuss the author’s views on guilt and innocence. Look in particular at the passage on page 166, where one of the campers confronts the director and implores, “It’s your choice, Director. You take one crime to bed with you every evening; take a second one tonight.” What is happening in this scene?

2. What do you think the director should have done in “Camp Sundown”? What should the campers have done? Why?

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

Additional Questions:
1. On page 155, the Camp director says, “You are convinced that you are right… But it is time, it is memory, that has turned you wrong.”  What does this story have to say about memory – and the fragility of memory?

2. Apart from explaining why Josh was promoted to camp director, what does the fact that Rabbi Himmelman was apparently “a fondler” add to this story? 

What We Think About: Written Reflections

The Rules Are Different Inside
Sue Fishkoff

“Camp Sundown” is a macabre tale of memory and obsession, two of Englander’s favorite tropes. It’s also brilliant, hilarious and terrifying. What greater irony could the author seize upon to delve into the lingering horrors of Holocaust memory than choosing to set this story in a camp? Of all things, a camp. I’d never thought about the double meanings of that word in quite this way before – a summer camp where children play; a death camp where Jews burn.

The analogy sneaks up slowly on you. The beginning of the story is straight out of Mordecai Richler – a couple of charming but annoying elderly Jews kibitzing with a hapless younger man who is trying to be patient with them. Agnes and Arnie, both survivors, wield their Yiddish-inflected dialogue with the same pride as the numbers tattooed on their arms. Each serves its purpose. Each infuriates Josh, the new camp director, but only one can he argue with.  It’s not fair, is it, when survivors wave their suffering credentials in our faces?

Josh is desperate to keep things under control. But control, as any survivor of Hitler’s camps knows, is impossible. The rules are different on the inside, Arnie points out.

As the sweet old codgers in Camp Sundown begin to take over and impose their own standards of justice, I’m reminded of Lord of the Flies. There’s the same ganging up on one victim – Piggy by the shipwrecked boys and Doley Falk by the Sundown seniors. Piggy, however, was undeniably innocent. Is Doley blameless, as Josh believes? Or is he the Nazi camp guard Agnes and Arnie are convinced he is? In the end, Truth doesn’t matter; only the truth as the survivors understand it. They believe he was a Nazi, so he is one.  And they want him dead. The numbers on their arms demand his blood. Josh sees the horror coming, and not only is he powerless to prevent it, he becomes drawn into the inexorable forward momentum of events. By the time he organizes a book burning and Agnes begins addressing him as Herr Direktor, there’s little more to say. Despite the fact that Camp Sundown offers instructional swim, and is therefore, as Josh points out at the tale’s beginning, a real camp, it is not a fun camp. It is a prison where survivors like Agnes and Arnie return year after year, unable to shake the memories of what they suffered, unable to put their feet on a different path. By the time Josh comes upon their lakeside execution of justice, he is as guilty as they are, as guilty as any “camp” director. As Arnie informs him, he who witnesses a murder and says nothing is as guilty as the one who murders.

There’s a lot of humor in this story, particularly in the dialogue. I found myself grinning again and again at the older characters’ phraseology, the “boychiks” and the “always he takes care” and the “what do you know from.”  When Arnie tells Agnes that Josh is too good for her ba’al teshuva Vegan granddaughter “because she wears now a wig and eats the snafu hot dogs” (“tofu,” Josh corrects him), it’s as if we’ve stepped into a different story.

But no. Sweet Aunt Agnes and jolly Uncle Arnie – wise-cracking, implacable judge and executioner. God save us from Camp Sundown. And God save us from what made it what it is.

Bio Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, and author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority and The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch. A former national correspondent for the JTA and The Jerusalem Post, she lives in Oakland.

 

Story 7: The Reader

What We Wonder About: Discussion Questions

Question From the Random House Reading Guide:
1. “The Reader” is an exploration of the relationship between authors and readers. Is there a social contract between writers and readers? What is an author’s responsibility to his or her reader?

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

Additional Questions:
1. What do we learn from the Author’s memory of his mother reading to him (Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot”) and assuring him that the story had been composed for him alone?  (For more on the topic of the Babel story, read the Reflection – link below.)

2. The Reader is the only story in the collection that does not appear to have a Jewish theme in the foreground.   Do you discern an underlying “Jewish” message from the language or the story’s content?  

What We Think About: Written Reflections

Nathan Englander Tests Our Faith
Emily Kopley

Why is “The Reader” in Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories? One reviewer has identified the tale as “a puzzling inclusion” (Griesmer), while another has noted that it is “the only story in which Jewishness isn’t foregrounded (though in one scene both main characters wear yarmulkes)” (Lorentzen). That parenthetical caveat holds an answer. The scene reads:

Author is truly thankful for his champion, his upholder. This is what he tells himself when he finds his one loyal reader wearing a yarmulke and sitting front row at the JCC in St. Paul.

In a yarmulke himself, Author is so grateful for this man who sustains him, who preserves him, who does not turn his back in hard times against him, that the mantra turns into a little prayer. Author recites this from his dais—it comes out of his mouth, a poem. The old man looks thrilled, teeth and hair shining, as he listens to a private devotion that’s nearly drowned out by the din of evening-league basketball blowing through a retractable wall. (180-181)

In a JCC, that secular, American invention often aimed at promoting sports rather than spirituality, author and reader conduct a prayer service. Author thanks “this man who sustains him, who preserves him, who does not turn his back in hard times against him.” Jews often recite a similar prayer of thanksgiving: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” On his dais, voicing an impulsive, approximate Shehecheyanu, Author acts as Rabbi to his one loyal congregant, who here serves as a god. “The Reader” is, in fact, the only story in this assemblage on Jewish identity whose theme is faith.

Freighted language throughout hints at the old man’s divinity. As in the above passage he is Author’s “champion, his upholder,” in a later passage he claims to be Author’s “patron” (186), a synonym with overtones of “patron Saint” and “pater,” or “father.”  The story’s conclusion strengthens this last association, when Author thinks of the reader as “his old man” (186). Like a divinity, the old man’s earthly manifestation is slightly doubtful. He is “a gift” (178) who is “at first invisible” (176), and when he bars coffee-drinking youth from Author’s reading at the story’s end, “[o]nly [his] pointing hand is visible to those on the café side of the door” (186). He is the last representative of a tribe once invisible in its abundance: when Author read in a Seattle auditorium years before, an event coordinator told him, “Remember to raise your eyes to the balcony . . . You can’t see, but they’re there” (177). The reader’s evident existence challenges Author, and by extension all writers, to believe in readers he and they cannot see. Most physically striking about this “ancient, ancient man” (180) is his dark black hair, which “seems real, vibrant, and undyed” (175), as though the head below it is undying. But it is not. The old man wins his contest with the caffeinated young people at the cost of his invincibility: “During the scuffle, his black, black hair has somehow flipped in the wrong direction, his part reversed. That miraculous hair, which Author was sure was left untouched by time, reveals itself to be a separate color underneath. It is the sick yellow of straw. Author’s reader for once looks his properly petrified age” (187). As when “the Great Oz” turns out to be “that man behind the curtain,” the mystically omnipresent reader here turns out to be a vulnerable elderly man who himself needs sustaining and preserving, like the culture of reading that he embodies.

The punning phrase “his part reversed” calls attention to the closing exchange of roles. Until this moment, the reader has fulfilled Author’s faith in being read and appreciated; now Author obliges his devotee’s own faith by reading to him from a work in progress. This work, bound in “a small, soft notebook, its spiral gone” (187) recalls the “copy of the author’s book” that the reader had held on his entrance (176). This book “had been invisible in his hand” and “looks, in fact, Bible-soft” (176). Author here figures as the creator of a Bible, seeking heeders of his creation. This early passage anticipates the revelation at the story’s end, that reader and author are for each other a god and a believer.

Doubling riddles the story’s title and structure. “The Reader” could refer either to the old man, who reads Author’s work, or to Author, who reads his work aloud to the old man. Author worries over his “relentless commitment” (182) while the old man demands, “Why is my commitment a weaker thing?” (185). And the word “gift” applies both to the old man (178) and to a free copy of Isaac Babel’s early stories (182), whose emotional power Author aims to emulate. In addition to strengthening the ties between Author and the old man, parallel language creates a neatly symmetrical whole. At the story’s start, we read that Author has put “all he had” into his new novel (171); at the story’s end, Author “reads on with all he’s got” (188). In the first scene, after an unattended reading a young bookstore employee offers coffee creamers “as if Author were an old goat at a petting zoo” (172); in the last scene, the old man shouts at the café crowd, “This man, a legend! Not a trained cat from a Russian circus . . . You listen for the right reasons. This is not a monkey who will ride a dog for a show” (186). The story’s narrator assures us, “That you haven’t heard of Author . . . this doesn’t take away from what was” (173), and later the Author enjoys talking with a Seattle bookstore buyer because he “knew how it once was” (184). When the old man first appears, Author offers him “a drink” instead of a reading (173), and he later offers the same to the bookstore buyer (184). The old man, of course, refuses the substitution, and Author ends up reading to his one-man audience, finding that “it puts tears in Author’s eyes, tears that he lets fall, so that it is now from memory” (177). Many readings to his one-man audience later, Author resists his listener’s pressure: “Author does not want to cry. He can feel his eyes wet, and goes as far as tipping his head back, praying a tear won’t fall” (185). This particular echo strengthens the contrast between the first and last scene of Author’s address to the old man, the initial gratification and the concluding resentment yielding to protectiveness. Other echoes may likewise be read against each other.

One echo rebounds especially quickly. At the protagonists’ first encounter, “Author reads his heart out for this lone man” (177), as at the second encounter , “Author reads his heart out for the old man” (180). These near-exact phrases frame the central scene, and are reinforced by the farther-traveling echoes mentioned above. Asterisks break the story into seven sections. The fourth and middle section (178-180) features Author’s second reading to the old man, whose exultation of literature prompts Author’s memory of his mother reading aloud Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot” (179) (sometimes spelled “Dovecote”). As a child, Author had felt that the story was intended uniquely for him (180). As an adult, Author has aimed to inspire in others this “intimacy as real as friendship” (180). And as a novelist a decade past his years of glory, which is when we meet him, Author doubts his ability. The crowds don’t come anymore; he must be a failure (186). But the old man’s confidence in Author, potent because of Author’s confidence in the old man, spurs a third faith, that of Author in himself. “Read[ing] his heart out,” Author recovers the forgotten “intimacy.”

The faith this story considers is not in a Jewish God, but it is yet a Jewish faith. Jews have historically formed their lives around the written word, whether that word be holy or human. Babel’s autobiographical “The Story of My Dovecot” shows young Isaac’s passion for Russian literature to be at once distinctively Jewish and distinctly perilous. At an examination for entrance into a prestigious school with a quota on Jews, Isaac is asked about Peter the Great. He remembers passages on the ruler in Putsikovich and Pushkin. Anticipating Author’s tearful reading from memory to the old man, Babel relates of his boyhood self, “I recited the poems in sobs . . . . I . . . shouted out Pushkin’s verses with all my might, as fast as I could” (348). The examiners are impressed—“What a nation! The devil is in these Yids!” (348)—and welcome Isaac into the school. Isaac’s Uncle Shoyl, a master fabulist, builds his nephew a long-coveted dovecot. Weeks later, Isaac buys several doves at market. In the midst of his purchase, he learns that a pogrom is tearing through town and that Shoyl has just been murdered. As Isaac hurls home, clutching the doves to his chest, a formerly friendly Gentile cripple strikes at the doves, killing them. Isaac suspects in the sequence of events a weird, cruel justice, one that rewards love of words and stories with death.

In “The Reader,” the author’s advocate may be seen as a loose analogue to Shoyl: both are old men whose delight in the narrative imagination encourages a younger man, and whose mortality is exposed at the story’s end. But “The Reader” treats this exposure tenderly and hopefully: love of words here risks no punishment; the risk lies rather in apathy. The peril in “The Reader” is not a culture against Jews but a culture uncaring towards reading. In fact, Christianity in “The Reader” appears as a generous force for social good: Author, in physical as well as spiritual need, finds food and a little money at a “church-run stand” (182) and the “Come Unto Me Mission” (183). A culture uncaring towards reading lurks where people are drawn to a reading by a fight (186) or to Virginia Woolf by her walking-stick (173). (I am writing my dissertation on Woolf, and when I research at the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, I sit with my back to the glass case holding this sinister, sensational thing.) Such a culture loiters too in a bookstore housing a marijuana dispensary (182) or a café (183). Arguably like JCCs, these incidental bookstores aim to preserve faith by displacing attention to everything but the faith itself. Alluding to “The Story of My Dovecot” in “The Reader” insists upon Jewish faith in the written and spoken word, and contrasts the danger to the literary Jew in 1905 Russia with the danger to the literary Jew in contemporary America.

It is easy to detect in “The Reader” a writer’s concern for his own success and way of life. Some reviewers regarded the story not only as ill-fitting but as “indulgent” (Friedman) and as betraying “unironised self-pity” (Lorentzen). Surely some irony is intended: Englander published the story, which sneers at texting (174) and mourns volumes lost to silverfish and neglect (173), in Electric Literature, an online-only publication. And Englander knows that many of his readers are “stylish young people” (186). But it is true that the story occasionally strikes as sentimental and too personal. Yet, in my view, this is the story in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank that most rewards passionate readers. It is elegantly crafted, pairing lively and affecting characters with resonant phrases and attentive patterning. It reads as though this subject alone roused Englander to the verbal complexity he admires in Babel. I chose to write on “The Reader” for this reason. While I admire several of the other stories (especially “Sister Hills” and “Camp Sundown”) for their posing of moral dilemmas and their humor, I am moved most by this story because its form proves its content, the mutual faith of reader and writer. Perhaps Englander fears that layers would lose readers. But if writers write fearing readers can’t be trusted, readers will come not to trust writers. And then no one will read on.

Bibliography

Babel, Isaac. “The Story of My Dovecote.”  Isaac Babel’s Selected Writings. Trans. Peter   Constantine. Ed. Gregory Freidin. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010. 347-355.

Englander, Nathan. “The Reader.” What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 169-188.

Friedman, Dan. “What is Nathan Englander Saying?” The Jewish Forward, 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 19 Aug. 2012.

Griesmer, Paul. Englander’s Latest Suffers Lapses in Authorial Control.” The Bowdoin Orient 141.24 (4 May 2012). Web. 19 Aug. 2012.

Lorentzen, Christian. “Turtle Upon Turtle.” London Review of Books 34.6 (22 March 2012): 39-40. Web. 19 Aug. 2012.

 

Bio Emily Kopley

Emily Kopley, a native of central Pennsylvania, received a BA in English at Yale University and is now a doctoral candidate in English at Stanford University. She has published articles on Virginia Woolf, the poet Rachel Wetzsteon, and the Jewish-American novelist and theologian Arthur A. Cohen.

 

Story 8: Free Fruit for Young Widows

What We Wonder About: Discussion Questions

Questions From the Random House Reading Guide:
1. Discuss the contrast between the narrative form of “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in which a father is lovingly recounting a story to his son, and the story’s actual substance. How does this dissonance contribute to the story’s power? What is the significance of the comment Etgar’s father makes when Etgar is twelve: “Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.” 

2. In “Free Fruit for Young Widows” Englander distinguishes between two kinds of survival, saying that Professor Tendler “made it through the camps. He walks, he breathes, and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him. After the war, we still lost people. They killed what was left of him in the end.”  What does he mean?

Copyright © 2012 Random House, Inc.

Additional Questions:
1. In a world where “God no longer raised His own fist in the fight” (page 192), are we allowed to make our own rules?   In a post-Holocaust world, have the traditional codes of right and wrong been permanently changed?

2. What does this story have to say about forgiveness?  About retribution?

What We Think About: Written Reflections

A Fractured Hasidic Tale
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

I spent many years at Jewish summer camps storytelling and here is what I learned:  The art of finding the tell-able tale is simple: look for a parabolic twist, the surprise revelation that reveals a bigger truth than the listener expects.  For example, the miser who at the last minute (or even after) does a mitzvah of tzedakah; the poor butcher who has been feeding the dogs… before they barked and is thereby greeted in heaven as a hero (unlike the rich man who arrives in heaven… in second place… there is the whole story!).

The mother lode of such stories is found in the Hasidic tradition.  Buber’s Tale of the Hasidim and similar collections contain hundreds of such tales that confront expectations and shatter convention and Edward Feinstein’s little book, Capturing the Moon, is a great addition to the bookshelf.

“Free Fruit for Young Widows” the last story in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frankby Nathan Englander, is a hard to read story if there ever was one.  Each scene is a painful chapter in the life of the central character, Professor Tendler: in 1956 he shoots four Egyptian soldiers in the head and then proceeds to beat his best friend to a pulp.  Tendler is a survivor of a concentration camp where he has seen his family murdered.  Upon return to his childhood home he then murders the Polish family, former servants of his family, who had taken over his home for themselves.  Over the course of time he becomes Professor Tendler and, like an eternal light, perpetually gets free fruit from Mr. Gezer, the very same best friend he had beaten, and then, in the end, from Gezer’s son.  It's a rough tale to take in.

Robert Alter, in his review Enough Already in the April 5, 2012 issue of The New Republic concludes: “Englander showed flashes of real talent at the beginning of his career, but he has lost his way. These stories are neither courageous nor outrageous. They are merely bad.”

OK.  But I have a different theory.  I think these are fractured Hasidic Tales.  There are no hidden Tzadikkim (righteous individuals), no secret places, no redemptions, no surprises, especially in “Free Fruit for Young Widows.”  How do I know this?  I heard it on the radio.

On an evening in August I was driving south from Marin to San Francisco listening to Selected Shorts on KQED.  The novelist Colum McCann was the guest host for an evening of story readings at Symphony Space, and I heard “Free Fruit for Young Widows” read by the actor Michael Ceveris.  If you are a fan of the Fox sci-fi series Fringe, like I am, you will know Cervis as the Observer named September.  He is a very good reader.

The story I struggled to finish in print unfolded in the car like a Hasidic Tale, only not.  And still I fell through the trap door. Why should I expect an orphaned boy who hid himself in a pile of dead bodies and emerged before two startled American GIs, one of whom faints dead away, to walk all the way home and then overhear his nurse plot to murder him, and not go mad?  Or something else. 

Alter writes, “One might reasonably infer that Tendler’s grief has transformed him into a homicidal maniac, but the problem is that Englander’s treatment of the Holocaust, here and in other stories, like his treatment of anti-Semitism and even of sex, does not leave any firm ground for a moral or even a psychological perspective.”  Right, because there isn’t.  Buber’s Hasid’s and their stories are fine for camp, but in reality, the Holocaust killed them, in every way.

So of course Englander makes Tendler into a university philosopher.  A field where nothing really matters in the post-holocaust world since German tenured professors of philosophy became Nazis and little boys became serial killers.  And that's the rub.  When the fruit vendor, tells his son Etgar, the future fruit merchant, this fractured tale, Englander drops the trap door and reveals, “it was on that day that Etgar Gezer became a philosopher.”  Now, what does that mean? When we talk about Anne Frank, what are we talking about?

Alert.  Etgar Gezer, the new age philosopher.  Gezer is Hebrew for carrot, which calls to mind the Israeli short story writer Etgar Keret.  Keret's father survived the Holocaust by hiding in a hole, underground.  Like this book, there is an Etgar in the last story in Keret’s Suddenly, A Knock On The Door.   That story is called “What Animal Are You?” where Keret and his son encounter a German Public Television reporter asking Keret to write, so that she can take a picture of him writing.  Translated by Nathan Englander.  What are we talking about?

In a fractured world we have a fractured Hasidic tale. Israelis are living in a fractured peace.  We, the listeners, are hearing through fractured ears.  And we have a fractured storyteller.

Bio Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is the Senior Educator of Lehrhaus Judaica. Since 1975, he has been a Jewish educator in the San Francisco Bay Area, learning with children, teens, families, and adults. He has been active in informal education, tours, community development, and congregational life. In 2002, he was awarded the Covenant Award as “An Exceptional Jewish Educator who has had a significant impact on others, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the transmission of Jewish knowledge, values, and identity.”