In the past, a number of literary texts on Jewish topics contributed to Jewish culture in various ways. Some documented and revitalized oral history and folk tales in an attempt to save them from oblivion (e.g. Martin Buber’s Tale of the Hasidim); others made Jewish topics palatable to the majority society (e.g. Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family); and still others helped to build a Jewish community around shared experiences of ritual, emigration and persecution (e.g. Friedrich Torberg’s Tante Jolesch or The Decline of the West in Anecdotes).
Nathan Englander, one of the most sophisticated and provocative current writers, shares none of these intentions. His latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, is a collection of eight short stories loosely bound together under the title of (and a quote from) the first story, arising from a heated conversation about genocide; it refers to Anne Frank not as a historical figure, but as a metonym of victimhood. Accordingly, the stories reflect on the effect of Jewish themes, such as religion, the Holocaust and Israel, on modern Jewish identities. The author’s perspective is from within – he was born in 1970 to an Orthodox-Jewish family in New York – and critical. His gripping, intimate theatre-like episodes are fraught with tense dialog questioning the validity of Jewish cultural practice:
A living room in Florida. Long-lost yeshiva girlfriends reconnect, introducing each other to their dissimilar husbands and laughing about their different lives – one is a mother of ten in ultra-Orthodox Jersualem, the other lives just outside Miami with her husband and only son. All take care to fulfill ultra-Orthodox practice in respect for Mark, who touts his religious devotion with his chosen name, Yerucham. Tenously, and with much effort, the party of four succeeds in holding a conversation, smoothing over or breaking off threads that might lead to disagreement. Alcohol and marihuana relieve a bit of the pressure, but under their influence, Mark’s wife Shoshana reveals – or rather, fails to hide – what she really thinks of her husband’s moral constitution. With one sincere glance, she calls into question her relationship, and more gravely, the sense, the ethics and the effectiveness of Jewish religious practice.
A summer camp for the Jewish elderly on the East Coast of the United States. Josh, a young ambitious counselor arranges for activities, reading circles, and coffee breaks in an effort to provide culturally-specific socializing and entertainment to Jewish seniors. This proves precarious when two campers believe they have identified one of their peers as a Nazi overseer from the concentration camp Treblinka – and resort to vigilante justice.
Unpeopled hills east of Jerusalem. Two families are settling in Israel’s as of yet dry, unyielding occupied territories. The living conditions are desolate, and the families are put to a test when the men leave for duty in the Yom Kippur War (1973). Isolated, in severe hardship, an infant falls seriously ill. The desperate mother resorts to an ancient Jewish ritual of symbolic trade to save her daughter’s life. The girl survives. Twenty-some years later she, and the hills, have flourished. The woman who has ‘bought’ the child, however, has paid a high price. Her husband and three sons have lost their lives to Israel. On the basis of Jewish law she seeks retribution in guise of the former baby, whose life as a young adult she choses to ruin.
Each of these episodes sets out with the premise that effort is to be expended for Jewish religion, for Jewish survivors and for the Jewish State. All end with a rejection of this premise. Englander’s peers call him “bold” (Dave Eggers), “brave” (Jonathan Safran Foer), and “daring” (Jonathan Franzen) for repudiating assumptions and traditions on representing Judaism in the arts. Especially for young Jews in the USA and parts of Europe, who were raised in thriving communities and nourished on Jewish cinema, exhibits and art in abundance, Englander’s voice is that of the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes who asks us, most artfully: what we really talk about when we talk about Anne Frank?
Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2012.
Naomi Lubrich, Media