Monday, November 1, 1999

Q&A Nathan Englander: Torah All Day, TV All Night


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

The response is hidden somewhere in your makeup, building up for a lifetime, waiting with its own biology, its own need to be born. For me, it started with synesthesia. I'm outside walking and it's a bright day. Summer. And I can see the grass. And it's green. And I can smell the grass but it's not grass smell, it's green smell. And I can taste it and hear it and everything, my whole me was green-grass green. It lasted a minute or a second or an hour. But I saw what I could do.
  "The Reunion"

Nathan Englander is author of "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" (1999), a collection of short stories.

HB: A friend made the observation that unlike characters created by earlier Jewish-American writers, your characters don't start from a position of alienation. They're not displaced. They can assume connection to other people

NE: Very interesting. Yeah, I think it's a generational thing, except in my generation, a generation or two after those writers, I find myself more like the generation before them, in terms of how I was formed, my education and my world view. "The Natural" was written as a kind of ultimate American story. A lot of Jewish-American fiction was geared to the process of becoming an American, feeling normal, assimilating.

I was raised with Torah as model, and Orthodoxy as an absolute. I wasn't in a public school system. I didn't have friends who weren't Orthodox Jews. I had to break with that world in order to go out and find my own world. That world was more like Singer's world, a world of rabbis.

HB: The Jewish world of Malamud's generation was not restricted to Torah and rabbis and observance. It was Jewish in politics, in language and in culture.

NE: But so were we. Ask me world history and I will tell you a tale of Jews. Rome to me is Jews and Rome. This was politics for us. The Presidential election, sure, but what's his position on his Israel?

HB: In that older community there might be a number of positions on Israel.

NE: It was also a much more threatened Jewish community, a community that got destroyed.

HB: You feel destruction and displacement in a lot of Malamud. You feel it in the tone and the hard-bitten English.

NE: It's not easy to live in an immigrant community. There is a certain edge.

HB: Granted. But I didn't know, until reading you, that there's still an intact, stable community of American Jews that could serve as a basis for literature.

NE: This is the book that I wrote. It is nothing to me except what I do. I see myself as Jewish, that's for sure, but where my book goes in the bookstore -- sensual massage or Judaica -- is not my concern. I'm thrilled that it's other people's concern. I love that people are reading the book carefully. But what I do is write and worry about my fictions. When people tell me that I came out of somewhere, that can be very interesting to me. But it's not what I do.

HB: So you wouldn't say the Jewish-American writers have been particularly important to you as a writer?

NE: They're becoming.

HB: You started without them?

NE: I started without. That is the whole point. I had a rotten secular education. I got my stories from the Bible. Maybe I learned Torah all day and watched TV all night. I don't know what that makes me. "Different Strokes," and the Mishnah. Now, I play catch-up. So, yes, I love those guys, I love the Russians, I love English literature. I'm reading just as much as I can now.

I feel like I have a million influences. I was three-quarters done with this collection when I read [Bernard Malamud's] "The Magic Barrel." I don't know where it fits in. It surely hit me hard. I said yes, this is magic.

HB: The community you come from may be haunted by the past but it's not threatened and it's not disappearing.

NE: But that community does not educate as if it's stable. This is my point. This is what I mean by when I say that for me, "The Tumblers" is less about the Holocaust than about remembering the Holocaust. It's about the Nazis invading a fabled Jewish town, about them invading my psyche.

My sister's married. The relatives I see on my sister's side are survivors of Auschwitz, That's not my side of the family. My parents were both born in America. Then I'm sent off to a school where I'm raised to believe there can be a second Holocaust, and I'm sensitive to the use of strong language like, "assimilation is worse than the Holocaust." Or "intermarriage is worse than the Holocaust." Worse than forcing people into ovens?

People want politics from me but I'm more interested in rhetoric. I'm in a rhetoric playground in Jerusalem where I hear this kind of language being used: "this one's a Nazi and that one's not", and people screaming, "you're a Nazi and the Nazis should have killed you." That rhetoric is fascinating and very disturbing, very troubling. Point is, I was raised not to feel safe. .

I've tried to deconstruct everything I was taught and put it all back together. I reject certain things as bad or nonsense. I keep other bits. I am interested in Jewish history, and how Jews have been treated throughout history. I'm almost ready to reject it, to say, that's only my upbringing. But, no, there has been a specific weirdness.

HB: After feeling pretty much that way for a long time, I'm now more interested in the myth we've create about our history, as opposed to the history itself.

NE: That's one of the most fascinating things about modern Judaism to me. This is a very big obsession of mine.

HB: Do you know Yosef Yerushalmi's book, "Zakhor: Jewish history and Jewish memory " (1996)? It's a great little book in which he examines the difference between Jewish myth and actual history. For example, coming to meet you today I was thinking about the way we construe the destruction of the second Temple. We tend to think we were helpless, as usual, and it was a catastrophe visited on us. In fact we were far from helpless. We made a crazy political decision to revolt against Roman power.

NE: I think about it, too. And I think, who were the Maccabees?

HB: On a talk show you were on, a caller compared the Maccabees coming down from the hills to Mujahadeen [sp?].

NE: So how can he celebrate Chanuka?

HB: You use Yiddish freely in your stories. What effect does that have on non-Yiddish speakers?

NE: I have very few rules, but I had two concerns with the fiction. One is universality. Any beautiful sculpture from around the world, bring it me, and I'll say, yes! There is universality to successful art. The opening to "The Tumblers" was difficult. To tell a Chelm story you need to assume readers know about of the wise men of Chelm, but to explain it openly would have ruined the story. I wanted someone who doesn't know about Chelm, to be able enter the story and I wanted someone who knows it well to go all the way.

My other concern is for accuracy. I made up the names for the acrobatic moves in "The Tumblers" because I feared some acrobat in Poughkeepsie would read it and think I'm having my characters do impossible moves, and that would ruin the story for him. He'll say, even in a miracle they couldn't do that. Stuff like that I worry about.

But I love world literature. I read literature from all over, Russian lit, Marquez, Borges. There's no reason people can't be exposed to other worlds. So yes, occasionally I wish I had French when I'm reading a translation of "The Idiot", say , and there's a lot of French in it, and I don't get it. But mostly it adds for me. Some things are for flavor and don't need to be translated. But in the title story of "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" you need to know about the menstrual bed. It has to be stated, because if people don't know that you have to have a split mattress for when a woman is menstruating, they're out.

HB: The way you solve the problem in "The Tumblers" is to have a character recollect some of the history of Chelm.

NE: And again, I don't consider myself a Jewish writer. I write fiction. I got rid of the writer business. Otherwise you don't get started writing, there's too much weight to bear.

HB: You started by not considering yourself a writer?

NE: Oh, please, I wouldn't dare! If you ask a lot of my friends, especially from the Iowa workshop. If they are writers, they'll say, I write fiction. It's not about people being cool, it's just too much, too uncomfortable. Who wants to dare? Like I said, I grew up with this special feeling for books as objects. A scribe writes Torahs, he's a holy man who just copies the stuff over.

"The Tumblers" is the one story where I recognize a certain tradition of fiction and tip my hat. I nod to Singer's tales of Chelm, and to Leslie Epstein's "The King of the Jews". I have my own fear about dealing with very sensitive material. I liked Epstein being a generation older than I am, being born in America, and writing this very powerful Holocaust book.

HB: By sensitive material, you mean?

NE: Holocaust material. When survivors come up to me after I've read "The Tumblers", it's a big deal for me. In Miami, a student of Bruno Schultz's came to the reading. I sat down with him after; he was an art student of Bernard Schultz's. That's very heavy stuff.

HB: "The Tumblers" was a great story, to my mind, partly because it got through the all the defenses I've built up against the Holocaust. In the very last speech, it's as if Mendel is emerging from the charmed mythological world of Chelm. All Chelmerie drops away. The myth meets reality:

"Mendel turned his palms upward, benighted.

But there were no snipers, as there are for hands that reach out of the ghettos; no dogs, as for hands that reach from the cracks in boxcar floors; no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out from chimneys into ash-clouded skies."

And some of the stories, "The Twenty-seventh Man" especially, have a lot of Yiddishkeit in them. I'm curious about your relationship to Yiddish literature and Yiddish writers.

NE: They are Maskilim basically; the enlightened ones. They are the ones who escaped religion. Think of Babel; he's the best example. He basically became a Cossack, this Jewish boy with glasses riding with the Cossacks, though not necessarily Cossack-like in behavior. That's the ultimate transition.

"The Twenty-seventh Man" came out of college, in a sense, taking Judaic studies, learning more broadly. I started thinking about "The Twenty-seventh Man" when I was about 18 years old. I see that one as the first story.

Fiction demands building these things from nothing and building them well enough to be convincing. I have no Yiddish. A few words.

HB: It's strange to think of an Orthodox community in which Yiddish plays no role.

NE: My great-grandparents spoke it, my grandparents, maybe, among themselves. My mother didn't know it and my father didn't know it. A few words hung out in the house. But, no, there was Hebrew; Hebrew became a language again.

HB: There's really only one story -- not counting the last story, "In This Way We Are Wise", which seems more like a series of journal entries by Nathan Englander than a story -- I hope I can say that to you . . .

NE: You can say that to me. It's not the first I've heard it. For me, it works like a coda, but I know a lot of people get bumped by it.

HB: Not counting "In This Way We Are Wise", you have only one Jerusalem story, the title story, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges".

NE: And I wrote it in Iowa. I was writing about Jerusalem when I was in Iowa City. As for this Jerusalem, the one I live in, I don't know where I am yet.

HB: When I read the title story, I thought of the torture of the Greek titans. Dov Binyamin's wife finally wants him again, but now, after craving her, he's sick with the disease he got while satisfying his unbearable urge elsewhere, and with his rabbi's consent.

NE: I do a lot of post-writing research. I make up the rules for these worlds, and then feel like I can't break them. For "The Tumblers" I still get email from the European Train Enthusiasts Association: I didn't want to the train doors to open in the wrong way. It's a fable; it shouldn't matter, but I wanted to know bar cars like that existed during World War II. Turns out there were three of them. It had to be possible or I would have lost my bar car. Braided hair turns up in "The Wig". I was going to cut that until I found two wigmakers, one in Brooklyn and one in Jerusalem, to confirm that they do receive Eastern European hair in braids.

In the story "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges", the one thing I feel most true to is Halachic logic. There is a concept in Talmud about your putting on black clothes and going to another city for your unbearable urges.

HB: So we can trust you as a Talmud *chochem* [scholar]?

NE: I wouldn't dare. But there is an internal logic which I'm always thrilled to find.

HB: There's often a tension between ecstasy and Orthodoxy in the stories. In "The Reunion," Marty, the main character, is describing epiphanies and ecstasies that have no place within the organizations and institutions of his faith.

NE: Thanks for noticing that!

HB: If you go back to Singer, obviously the supernatural is all over the place. And my sense of Malamud is that the supernatural is never mentioned explicitly but there's something weird happening. In a book like "The Natural" the supernatural is implied. The dybbuks have no name but they're at work.

NE: They're in the baseball bats.

HB: How do you deal with the right-wing tilt of Orthodox politics?

NE: I just spent the weekend with my sister. When I come to her house, she'll listen to me scream for about an hour. Then I see that in their home religion is not about politics. It's about worship and faith. Sometimes you forget in Jerusalem that religion is not about politics. In Israel the two are so mixed.

If I walk into a religious home in the States and people are wearing yarmulkes, I will put a yarmulke on out of respect for that home. In Israel, you might want to exercise your right not to wear a yarmulke, which never, never would have crossed my mind before my going there.

I have no political statements to make. They're all either extremely gigantic or extremely tiny, as in, I believe in democracy. That's all.

HB: What are you afraid of? Why be so shy about political statements?

NE: Honestly? It all goes back to learning curve stuff. I've just been writing short stories all my life. Now here you are giving me your time. I'm not ready to use it as a political platform. That's how I feel. One day I think I'll be ready.

If you want to know, I get more radical every day. I've given a lot of readings and recognize that people are coming out to hear this book. That blows me away, that's the best part of all this. But I get a lot of warning speeches. People sit me down a lot and say, this isn't good, watch out for that. The speeches are about keeping my feet on the ground. I think, this must be bigger than I understand.

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