Welcome to the year of Nathan Englander: a new, critically acclaimed book of short stories with the Carveresque title of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (also the title of the first story in which a Ultra-Orthodox couple smoke weed with a secular couple,) a translation of the Haggadah entitled the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and a play based on a story from his first collection, put together in conjunction with the rom-com queen Nora Ephron set to come out in November. Add on to this that Englander’s speech can barely keep up with the speed of his mind and you get a lucky interview with one of America’s most talented short story writers. Here, we talk with with Englander about religious hypocrisy, the complexities of the past, the morality of fiction, and some generational differences in the Jewish experience.
In your new book there is a heavy emphasis on the past, whether in the fact that most of the stories take place in the past, or that the few that do not, entail an obsession over the past. Was this purposeful?
I never thought in those terms. It’s an interesting way to frame it in the sense of framing stories in their time. I had no specific focus, just how the synapses were firing or where I found my brain. Perhaps, for me in these stories, I am really interested in how a Jewish education, or how in any type of education, history is the present. So much of how I was educated was with a constant awareness of the past, the past is always present and a deciding factor in our lives.
In the vein of the last question, besides the general past, many of the stories lie within the specter of the Holocaust…
I don’t necessarily see these stories as Holocaust stories. Hopefully, the story is a living thing, and it makes for conversation and reflections. There was no purpose on my part to write Holocaust literature, but it’s weird for me to have my personality shaped by my non-experience. So much of who I am, I am because of things that did not happen to me. But, my brain does not know that these aren’t my memories, that my parents aren’t survivors. In Berlin, I remember sitting there stewing in my own endless Holocaust obsession, that’s what we do when we are writing, we are simply in a vulnerable state. I was interested to follow that thread. My point is that my brain has been not accidentally formed, and that’s what I was looking to explore.
Have you thought as to how some people might react to some of the more controversial aspects in these stories?
I am very interested in this idea of ownership of cultural material, this idea of what the Holocaust means and how we have to remember it. I find it fascinating that people always say to remember the Holocaust, but they don’t realize that they remember it in their own specific way, for their own specific purpose. I expect people to say how could you do what you did with Holocaust material, but then I think of the Hasidim putting the yellow star upon children. To me that is such a good example of hypocrisy and a lack of self-awareness. People went to war against Philip Roth, or a war with literature, but here you have religiously committed people committing probably one of the single greatest Jewish offenses against the Holocaust that I can draw to memory, all so they can keep women in the back of the bus. It was really cynical and horrible. Using kids in that way.
Recently, Shalom Auslander published a book that deals with similar issues. He portrays an obsession with history in general as a neuroses that stultifies the present. What do you think of this idea?
I don’t necessarily think of it in that way, but you touch upon a point of obsession in writing this book. I have a terrible obsession a fear of being wrongly accused of injustice. Consequently, I am a deep believer in fiction as a moral act. I am interested in seeing these issues morally, in seeing them from different perspectives. In fiction, when you are choosing a story, I find myself always looking at those lines. Look, the world is not a fair place, and the questions of injustice and morality are the questions I think about. Some of these stories force the questions of justice i.e. if you saw an 85 year old Nazi would you actually deliver justice, or would just let that person go?
Many contemporary Jewish authors focus on the past, and part of your books appear to say that part of the Jewish experience entails a constant struggle with the past.
Perhaps, but it depends on the framing. My point is, yes, all that stuff could be looked at from the outside, but it’s hard for me to think in terms of Jewish writers. I could look at trends within contemporary Jewish authors, but that idea of a “Jewish author” is hard for me. I’m glad to be within any category, but for me, it took me forever to realize the question is not about being a Jewish writer. The real question is how has living in the world affected your imagination. In all the years and all the hours of writing, it never crossed my mine to ask how do I represent contemporary Judaism, or what is the state of Judaism today. That idea, that I do not identify as a Jewish writer, is not a provocative argument starter. Rather, Judaism is not other to me. I can’t think outside of it.
Your story “Sister Hills” is almost a mythical creation story of the Jewish Settler Movement with infusions of some very basic Jewish tropes i.e a wise women that outwits men and superstition surrounding the saving of a child. The story is also a very biblical story in tone. In a sense, this story represents a very different style than your other stories, much more allegoric. How did this story come about?
You know, I didn’t sleep the night after I finished that story. In this story, I hoped to explore numerous ideas and tensions, but one idea in particular stays with me. I’m fascinated, after being a yeshiva person, after being steeped in these books, to hear them being used in a certain extremist way. This fascinates me, the morality of it all, the extremism of it all, and I guess I wanted to make a story about people who take these things as seriously as they profess to believe. When people look at this book, the Bible, and say that this is what is says, and how it should be used, authoritatively, that’s fascinating to me. How people lack the self-awareness to realize the ulterior motives behind these uses. I am really interested in how people disassociate, and split and don’t see complexity of these matters. I hear people not thinking through their ideas, contradicting themselves, and I wish for them that they at least believed what they were saying. As much as people study in yeshiva Talmud, I study this stuff. For example, how someone could say I’m anti-choice to such a degree, but still support the death penalty even if we’ve proven that it is ineffective, and even if the same Jewish sources state that a Jewish Court that kills one in seventy years is a murderous court?
You seem very passionate about these ideas, where did this come from?
From an early age I was a sincere kid, and I guess I am a very sincere adult. Additionally, I know I fear and mistrust authority, but either way, seeing people misusing the book gets to me. Having studied the Torah, I am shocked how people could make it so simplistic. I have access to the Torah, even with homosexuality, it’s not so clear, you know, the rabbis tell us that the world in the time of Noach was destroyed because of violence, but then use violence to achieve their questionable ends, or focus much more on less harmful aspects of the transgression of the law. I want people to push and preach, but also to realize that they are doing it for ulterior motives whether power, but don’t tell me this is what God wants, I want self awareness.
It seems that having gone through the Yeshiva education it’s hard to take the Yeshiva out of the student…
It’s funny that you put it that way, having “gone through” something. There’s an interesting logic here, a love of books, but at the same time, that idea of cloistered thought. So yes, those questions stay with me. That’s how my head naturally thinks.
In your story “How We Avenged the Blums” you describe an elaborate battle between the local anti-Semites. I feel that my generation experienced considerably less than anti-Semitism in their life, are you drawing here upon personal memories or capturing a general experience of anti-Semitism?
Though fictionalized, that story actually deals with aspects of my past. We had a version of that war with local anti-Semites. I remember my father and mother running down the streets saving my sibling numerous times. I am still shocked that people can wear yarmulkes today without being harassed. I think it would have been different for me without the anti-Semitism. You know, the same with Nabisco products. To see Orthodox people eat Twix or M and M’s is kind of really heartbreaking to me. That would have changed the landscape completely.
In the vein of the lack of purported experience in this generation with anti-Semitism, I believe there are differences to highlight between your generation and my generation as to the Jewish experience. To me the Jewish experience today is much less fraught, a more comfortable Judaism that leads to much more apathy. Do you see that?
I do notice that. I remember seeing kids in Jerusalem when I lived there. I saw kippah wearing teenagers, untroubled about things that would trouble me at that age. I notice that my nephew’s age live in really comfortable neighborhoods. But for me that sense of being cursed at , and chased home, they really stay with you. I remember swastikas on the shul, a red painted swastika. These experiences shaped me. But I would like to write that book, it sounds nice to me, a comfortable Judaism.