In response to the Channukah attacks in New York, my daughter tweeted about anti- semitism and a phrase we must have engrained in her head, “ It doesn’t matter who you marry, when they come to get you, you will always be a Jew”. Likely we did repeat this as mantra, for we echoed our parents’ words, usually used to warn us against intermarriage. My father, in particular, felt betrayed when his sister married his non- Jewish friend, who berated his beloved mother as a “ dirty Jew”. Eventually my aunt and her husband divorced, but the die was cast in my father’s head, his experience teaching him that all the warnings were, in deed true, because when the chips were done, and true feelings came out, you were a Jew, and that meant bad, reviled, strange unacceptable, dirty. My father was a man of few words but dating someone other than a Jew was not allowed in our family.
My daughter in another tweet reacted to this fear of anti- semitism and Jew- hating, explaining in her youth, that having bleached her hair blond to match her blue eyes was reason to allow her to pass as an Aryan, keep her safe, and quieten the horrific holocaust scenes so generously dispensed in Hebrew school classes. I thought about her tweets as I read Nathan Englander’s Kaddish.com that made me uncomfortable because of the portrayals of Jews.
As we begin the story at the shiva of Larry’s father, Larry, the protagonist, rejects his Judaism. However, surprisingly he will soon embrace it, transforming himself into a kosher Rebi Shuli. But, from the outset, as a reader, I’m not impressed with the person who arrives at his father’s funeral in his hometown of Memphis, who battles with his sister, Dina, disparaging the kind orthodox people at the shiva, judging and rejecting them, and viewing porn during these sad days of mourning. The omniscient narrator relates,
The second day of shiva is even harder than the first….He lets himself be small-talked and well-wished, nodding politely….One after another, he receives the pathologically tone-deaf tales of everyone else’s dead parents….Larry wants to say, in response, ‘Thanks for sharing, and fuck your dead dad.’ ”
Young, rebellious, antagonistic, even at his most vulnerable, Larry holds tight to an obnoxious sense of loathing. However, it is here that the story becomes interesting, for he hires Kaddish.com on line in Israel to say kaddish as he,himself, at this juncture rejects the orthodoxy of the ritual, but in the wake of his sister and rabbi’s hysterical but heartfelt recriminations in not fulfilling the mandate of eleven months of prayer for the dead, allows himself an alternative of assigning the prayers to another.
It is here that a single decision, made in a moment of angst and anger will upturn his life and come to haunt him. This is early Larry who is ironic, and sarcastic, retorting, “Why does everyone keep acting like I’m not Jewish? . . . You think I don’t know the rules? You think, without you watching, I’d cremate him and stuff his ashes in a can? That I’d plant his bones in some field of crosses and pour a bottle of bourbon on the mound?”
Abrasive, annoying with a smart answer, he does not draw our sympathy or even understanding : of how the death of his father has effected him.
Now, I’m not sure if Englander feels his new Shuli is a better, improved model in spite of the fact that he has married Jewish, produced two Jewish children, and teaches at the yeshiva: that somehow returning to the fold has yielded a better person. That as a Jew who davens frequently, blesses brides, and quotes scriptures somehow enhances the model of a loving son. In truth, he was always a loving son, just not one who followed the orthodoxy of living as a Jew. Maybe I am as opinionated as Larry because my prior judgement had not been altered by his donning a big black hat and dispensing advice from biblical quotations.
For example, should I cheer when the new Larry/Shuli revisits remorse for not saying Kaddish when Gavriel, (one of Shuli’s students ) reveals his own dilemma regarding the death of his own father? What follows is Shuli’s attempts to right this wrong, open the gates of paradise for his father, and be forgiven. Yet Shuli uses others and unacceptable means such as forbidden technology along the path, knowing but equivocating to himself when he transgresses. Although old Larry was outright honest, cynical and blasphemous in his behaviour, this Shuli wears the cloak of Judaism that includes the trappings of a good Jew to further his quest and attempt to assuage his soul.
For me, Shuli’s hubris is real, but the story is limited by the focus Englander provides, particularly of Larry-Shuli himself. In spite of having been out in the world during his reprobate days, all references, save the computer ones, are now biblical, provincial, self-serving, narrow. But then, Larry’s world has been returned to a specific community that believes in the absolute truth of the words of Torah. Horrifically , even as the new reconstituted good Jew, when Shuli dreams, he transposes the Torah literally onto his father so his arms have become, without elbows, the straight poles that hold the holy book in place.
Ironically in an NPR interview, Englander,who considers himself secular, says,
If a story is functioning, it is universal. Like, that’s it. If this can only be read by Jews, it’s an utter failure … that’s how I feel about story. That’s the beauty of reading, that’s why it’s subversive, because it just crosses time and space and culture. So really, you read science fiction, read it like, I don’t know, dystopian kosher…and I do think there is a responsibility to what we say, an ethical responsibility, and I think if you’re writing from the heart, that’s all you can do, and I really, I think if anything, you’re creating empathy if you’ve created a person others can connect with.
And again for me, my issue centres on a character definitively described as Jewish who has not demonstrated growth or insight and although non- Jewish readers may embrace him, he does not serve as a human who has developed or shown much difference from the rebellious kid we met at the beginning of the novel.
And as myself, the kid who sat in darkened Hebrew school classes shivering at Hitler’s propaganda and scenes of bones and bodies heaped onto more pits of ashes, I fear this portrayal of the recalcitrant only lends more fodder for stereotypical reinforcement of the sarcastic ridiculed Jew kvetching and pursued by guilt. Another notch for the anti-Semite who yells, “See what they’re like.” It’s not that creepy Jews are not allowed to exist in literature, for Philip Roth gave us many, but somehow I could relate to them, and yes, they transgressed and mingled sacred and profane, but I could see myself in some of what they did, and how they battled the crossovers in life. Again, for me, the characters were more fully formed, in spite of some actions and behaviours of which I did not like or approve . Yet I did not construe them, such as Portnoy or Merry, Swede’s daughter, in American Pastoral or the bumblers in Goodbye Columbus. These characters were not just Jews, but maybe Jews or others in a world I could recognize and although I did not condone their behaviours, I could perhaps stand back, sympathize or intellectualize with them beyond their being birthed into a particular religion.
On the other hand, what does redeems the story for me is the relationship between Shuli and his father who always maintained his belief in Larry even when he rejected Judaism. The father is not idealized but humanized as a sweet and loving man. Englander might have demonized the father or ridiculed his devotion to his faith. Here he does not, and I can empathize with one single strand of the book: in Larry’s unfaltering and abiding love for the good man. Yet undermining the love is Larry’s father’s belief that eventually Larry will find his true life, the one Larry has searched for. Again, the narrator records,
Larry’s father told him he was confident that Larry would eventually “come home.” To Larry’s father and sister, home meant “anywhere on the planet that held like-minded, kosher, mikvah-dipping, synagogue attending, Israel-cheering, fellow tribespeople, who all felt, and believed, and did the very same things in the very same way — including taking mourning so seriously that they breathed up all the air in the room, suffocating the living, so that the survivors might truly end up one with the dead.”
Yet, we have no details of Larry/ Shuli’s way back to Judaism, except the spark of fresh- faced Yeshiva boy, Chemi, who appears on Kaddish.com to perform the rite of kaddish: that ignites Larry to become the son his father imagined him to be.
Englander pushes forward 20 years with no details of the apostate’s conversion back to devoted child. This too limits the reader’s ability to connect with the protagonist. We don’t always have to like the people we read about and recently I wrote about The Girl Who Smiled Beads and her belligerent attitude towards those who were kind to her but there, the writer, I felt, provided sufficient insight to allow understanding and compassion. She did not become for me the Greedy African Saved by Americans. She radiated out as a person with believable needs, wants, sadness and complaints. Some might disagree, but that was my thought.
However, Shuli, for me, does the opposite. He becomes, in spite of the ending ( which I will not reveal) narrowed, again the stereotype who plots, twists truths, lies, to reach his goal. And as I confess, perhaps it is my Hebrew school days of fear of reinforcing the stereotype, my lack of knowledge regarding the focus of the Hasidism and my bias towards people whose thinking feels fundamental and unyielding that has caused me to write this piece.
Or more likely, it is a world where ant- semitism in no less than six violent acts this year, and a president whose remarks about Jews, particularly in their loyalty to Israel or their money grabbing behaviours as real estate agents, makes me very nervous as a Jew. It’s always there. And in that light, Englander’s book has cast an uncomfortable shadow of a devoted Jewish parishioner and through that lens, I unkindly condemn Larry/Shuli, not permitting myself to believe in his conversion.
When we read, we find spaces to unite ourselves with the characters: to laugh, to cry, to comprehend their flaws and perceive the human condition that should be universal, no matter the telling of the tale is in a nunnery, a shtetl, or baseball stadium. In Kaddish.com, it’s an interesting excursion into a small world with small people, written in excellent prose with interesting details, but lacking the broader insights that make books relevant and deepen my knowledge of myself.
So Go figure.