What I appreciate most about Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (publ. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), is not only his gifts as a writer, story teller and psychologically sophisticated observer of people, but that he actually knows something about Judaism, Jewish history, modern Orthodoxy, Ultra-Orthodoxy, the secular Jewish world, the state of Israel, and the place of the Holocaust in the psyche of the Jewish people.
Mr. Englander was born in 1960 in New York, raised on Long Island and educated in Orthodox schools through high school. In his mid-thirties, he moved to Israel where he lived for five years, but returned to the states and moves between Brooklyn, New York and Madison, Wisconsin where he teaches fiction and creative writing.
His Jewish/Israeli/secular background plays itself out in all his stories. He is at once an insider and outsider, sympathetic to the Jew as victim and vanquisher, and he knows Jewish tradition, though I suspect he is no longer Orthodox himself. I sense, as well, that despite the darkness that undergird his stories, he sees the world through a comic and ironic eye as some of his stories are at once absurd and hysterical.
Englander’s eight stories, mostly involving Jewish characters and 20th century Jewish experience, touch upon many themes; the limits of love using the Holocaust as a backdrop in the title story (“What we Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”); the very different fates and destinies that befall two Israeli sisters who move into the West Bank after the 1967 Six Day War with their husbands and children to establish a settlement that eventually grows into a city (“Two Sisters”) – one sister loses her husband and all her children in war and a freak accident and the other survives with 9 children; the revenge-filled encounter with an anti-Semitic bully in America that is reminiscent of Bernard Malamud (“How We Avenged the Blums”); a dream sexual fantasy of a married protagonist who has lost his faith but is still plagued by Orthodox Judaism’s moral strictures (“Peep Show”); the influence of a person’s family history, familial bonds and memory on his heart, mind and soul long after everyone has died (“Everything I know About My Family On My Mother’s Side”); the ease towards paranoia among Holocaust survivors who, in an unlikely setting of an American seniors summer camp, accuse another survivor of being a former Nazi (“Camp Sundown”); the pain and loneliness of a once famous writer whose fan base is now old, dying but ever-demanding (“The Reader”); and the legacy of the death camps on a boy survivor who returned after the liberation as the only one left in his family to his boyhood home to discover his “governess” plotting to murder him in order that her family will keep his family’s farm (“Free Fruit for Young Widows”).
Every story is provocative, imaginative, engaging, entertaining, moving, and memorable. As a whole, they challenge the modern Jew to think about the nature of one’s Jewish identity in modernity, the role of religion, God, faith, culture, and history in forming who we are, and our capacity for evil and revenge. These stories are complex and operate on multiple levels from the real to imaginary to allegorical. They will leave you impressed by Englander’s skills, moved and wondering – who am I?