Book review: Nathan Englander on forgiveness, redemption and finding faith

April 8, 2019

Nathan Englander’s new novel “kaddish.com” is a contemporary fable of redemption and forgiveness. It quietly pays tribute to classic works of Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, as well as Englander’s own exquisite novel from 2017, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth.”

There’s a kind of magic about Nathan Englander’s works. He has published two collections of short stories, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”and the remarkable “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,”along with the penetrating and arrestingly Kafka-esque novels “The Ministry of Special Cases” and “Dinner at the Center of the Earth.”

Just as “Dinner at the Center of the Earth”encourages us to meet “in the middle of our middle. In the center of our dinner at the center of the earth,” so does “kaddish.com.”

The novel falls into four short sections. In the first, Larry (we don’t know his last name), at the turn of the millenium, has travelled from his home in New York to his sister Dina’s home in Memphis to attend his father’s deathbed and subsequent funeral. When Larry was his nephew’s age, “Dina, older, wiser, hadn’t been able to stop their flaky mother from running off to Marin County with Dennis, her ridiculous, new-age husband.”

Larry, at 30 years of age, is still not having an easy time of it. His family are Orthodox Jews. Dina and her husband, Avi, have become permanent transplants from Brooklyn. They and their friends are people Larry unceremoniously characterizes as “these southern, Memphis, Gracelandian Jews who’d never give up or go away.”

Even worse, because he is the only son, Larry is charged with saying Kaddish, the prayer of remembrance, for his father each day for the next 11 months. Larry resists — actually, he refuses — and quickly initiates an alternate scheme. At the website kaddish.com, Larry uses his credit card to sign up an Israeli rabbinical student named Chemi to bear the responsibility of reciting that daily Kaddish, thereby laying the soul of Larry’s father to rest and allowing it to enjoy the eternal feast of the afterlife.

By the second section of the novel, it is 20 years later, and the former Larry is now Reb Shuli, a seventh-grade teacher at the same Yeshiva he (as Larry) once attended. Shuli is married to Miri, and they have a 9-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son. No matter what he tries to tell himself, Shuli cannot believe that his coming back to his religious orthodoxy constitutes redemption. He tells Miri, “Just because I returned to the fold doesn’t mean I brought everything back with me. On that website, a lifetime ago, I gave up what was mine.”

Shuli knows that he has been living “a ghost life, a spiritual existence that one could, like steam, push a finger through.” In some of the best and most moving passages of the book, he discusses the matter with Gavriel, a pre-Bar Mitzvah student of his, a young man who is probably as intractable as “Larry” was at the same age.

Vestigial guilt turns to obsession as Shuli’s journey takes him to Jerusalem, where he studies scripture and suffers through learning the discomfiting truth about kaddish.com.

Like his forebear Bernard Malamud, Nathan Englander loves the deeply flawed characters he creates. The novel ends with acts of redemption, both large and small, that are unequivocally right and undeniably touching, as Shuli understands what Miri has told him often before: “It’s permissible to forgive oneself, too.”

It is permissible, too, to read “kaddish.com” in one sitting; it is certainly short enough. Perhaps that is the right way to assess the cautionary assertion at the heart of this compassionate new work from Nathan Englander: “How easy it is to fool people with one’s outside, even if the work hasn’t been done within.”

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.