The living writers society.
I was in graduate school when a classmate told me to check out a story by this young Jewish writer named Nathan Englander. I immediately found a copy of Story magazine and hungrily read "Reb Kringle," a touching, comic piece about a Brooklyn rebbe forced, in order to pay his ailing synagogue's bills, to become a department store Santa Claus during the holidays. My favorite moment was when a little Jewish boy asks Santa for a meno-rah because his new father has told him, "We're having a real Christmas and a tree, and not any candles at all." The rabbi tears off his Santa hat and shouts, "This is not a fit job for a Jew," causing mothers to faint and children to burst into tears.
"Reb Kringle" struck me not only because of Englander's ability to fuse humor with the pain the rebbe suffers under the silence of God, but because it spoke excruciating truth to me: I had been an assimilated child who sat to be photographed on Santa's lap every year, but had somehow found his way back to Judaism. I was impressed by Englander's ability to attack head-on the inexorable encroachment of Christian culture on North American Jews.
Reading Englander's debut short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, I felt for once that a writer born in the same calendar year as I was, was writing meaningful, serious, lasting fiction without the narrative tricks or hipster cynicism that I had become tired of seeing in the work of other young writers. His masterful "The Twenty-seventh Man," set during The Night of the Murdered Poets, Stalin's infamous purge of Yiddish-speaking Soviet writers, speaks to every would-be author's fear of disappearing without ever having been read--one bureaucrat's errant pen stroke bringing an abrupt end to the life of the unfortunate, unpublished Pin-chas Pelovits. But more importantly, "The Twenty-seventh Man" illustrates the randomness throughout history with which tyrants have answered the eternal question: Who shall live and who shall die?
Englander powerfully underscores the tragic historical fate of the Jews in the collection's next story, "The Tumblers," a magical shtetl tale in which Hasidic Jews pose as acrobats to escape the Nazis and ultimately find, despite their faith and cunning, that God has abandoned them: "There were ... no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out from chimneys into ash-clouded skies." The story is a sad reminder that even the most well-wrought fiction can only trick the imagination for so long into believing that things could have turned out differently.
Writing is very much an act of faith, a confidence game between the writer and a subconscious reluctant to give up the goods necessary to make art from the tiniest spark of an idea. Reading Englander's stories about Jews in crisis with their faith and the vicissitudes of the world around them, I understood that the imagined was truly possible, that the words I scribbled down on paper alone in a rented room in Mount Vernon, New York, could have an audience beyond the ten writers of my Tuesday fiction workshop. I continued writing stories about an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in deep spiritual pain, seduced by the wiles of a Christian missionary chiropractor; a young Jewish settler facing a midnight kitchen full of Arabs claiming his home belongs to them; and a feud between two rival Jerusalem falafel stands that escalates quickly from mundane turf war to messianic reckoning. The presence of Englander's stories in the world made the writing of these stories seem less quixotic. I knew there was an audience for stories like mine, and I found renewed confidence for the hard work of bringing them to life.
After I read For the Relief of Unbearsble Urges, I felt for once that a writer born in the same caleder year as I was, was writing meaningful, serious, lasting fiction with the narrative tricks or hipster cynicism that I had become tired of seeing in other young writers.