What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander. Vintage. 240 pages. $15.00 trade paperback.
In the title story of this virtuoso collection, two fortyish couples come together for a kind of reunion. The wives grew up together in Forest Hills and went to Modern Orthodox schools for young women. Debbie married the narrator, who dragged her toward secularism and South Florida. Lauren (now Shoshana) married Mark (now Yerucham), and that couple has for twenty years lived in a Hassidic community in Israel. They have ten daughters; the Floridians, at whose home the meeting takes place, have one teenage son – Trevor.
The brilliant dialogue spins out like a culture war, full of innuendo and one-upmanship about secular versus religious, American Jews versus Israelis. Each couple defends its own choices. Somewhat guarded at first, these extremely recognizable characters are reduced (or elevated) to a hilarious series of revelations once they begin sharing Trevor’s marijuana stash.
Much of the dialogue turns on Debbie’s obsession with the Holocaust and the question of a Jewish identity distinct from that catastrophic event. Slowly, that edgy conversation unpacks the full meaning of the Englander’s peculiar title.
“Sister Hills,” is a long, complex fable that begins in 1973. It presents the relationship between the wives of two community-founding families settled on nearby hilltops in Samaria as the Yom Kippur War breaks out. Rena has three sons who follow their summoned father in case they can help the combat effort. Rena’s superstitious neighbor, Yehudit, rushes over with her infant daughter who is running an extremely high fever. She urges Rena to sign a contract transferring the child to Rena, releasing the girl from any harm from Yehudit’s sins that might befall her.
Rena signs, but also agrees to let Yehudit continue to raise the child. In time, Rena decides to enforce the contract as a kind of compensation for the loss of her husband and two of her three sons to war (the third is lost in an auto accident).
Englander connects Yehudit’s sense of sinfulness and her ailing child to the issue of Israel’s legitimacy in the disputed territories. Is this land a true homeland or a tainted region? What is the value and meaning of a contract, whether land, servitude, or a covenant between God and the Israelites? When a court of rabbis comes to settle the case of who is the true mother, they have their hands more than full with Rena’s Torah-based arguments.
The fable, with its encapsulated history this region and of the nation, is an unsettling inquiry into Israel’s soul.
Englander’s topics, tones, and techniques are spectacularly varied. In “How We Avenged the Blums,” the narrator takes a distanced, bemused look at how several Jewish boys strive to overcome their strongly engrained meekness in order to confront the Anti-Semitic bully who terrorizes them. They learn useful lessons from a Russian immigrant and from their would-be savior, the one Jewish kid they know who has the physical prowess and know-how to take down the bully.
“Peep Show” has a nightmare premise. When Ari (now Allen) Feinberg (now Fein) scrapes his glossy, expensive shoe, his surface of success (gorgeous blond gentile wife, thriving law practice, stylish garb) is pierced. He crosses a threshold and is drawn into a peep show that first reveals his sexual hunger and lack of control and then reveals – through the whacky appearance of three rabbis from his religious school days – his mixture of guilt and resentment stemming from the black and white moral world he had left behind for a comfortable secular relativism. Finally, Allen becomes the object of desire in the fantasy peep show cubicle.
“Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side,” “Camp Sundown,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” can each provoke endless discussion. Highly original and yet eerily familiar, each balances the particularity of Jewish experience with the universal connections that have earned Nathan Englander, at forty-three, a seat the table of major contemporary American literary figures.
For all the celebrity he has attained, Englander still knows, or remembers, the inevitable frustration of finding an audience. In “The Reader,” perhaps the least Jewish-themed story in the collection, the unnamed author is on one of those book tours when audience’s are slim to nonexistent – a situation that threatens his very reality. The overwhelming need to reach others is something that writers like Englander are born with. A handful of them, like this exquisitely talented and disciplined man, succeed.
This review appears in the September 2013 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).