Mourning, Web-style

‘All his years of tshuva, a lifetime of redemption, had – for his father – done nothing. Not the yahrzeit candles lit, not the services led. It was twenty years of kaddish without meaning’

NATHAN ENGLANDER has a knack for traveling to ‘foreign and treacherous realms.’ (photo credit: JOSHUA MEIER)
NATHAN ENGLANDER has a knack for traveling to ‘foreign and treacherous realms.’
(photo credit: JOSHUA MEIER)
Obsession and doubt are Nathan Englander’s preoccupations. So are intensity and bewilderment. He is a serious man, consumed by the larger questions life poses: morality, religiosity, Jewish memory and, of course, the Holocaust and how it is to be best remembered.
He creates unforgettable characters who sometimes wear elaborate masks of deception and yet remain unaware of how their smallest mannerisms betray them.
He finds comfort hiding in the margins of his compulsively readable pages, giving his characters free reign; but somehow he is always still present.
Now almost 50, Englander was raised in an Orthodox home in Long Island and attended Jewish schools, but fled Orthodoxy at 19 for a secularity that seems to still vibrate with uncertainties.
In, he takes a satiric but deadly serious look at the turbulent intersections between Orthodoxy and those who have left the fold. His main character, Larry, spent years struggling to escape religious life, and Englander describes the exhilaration he felt at having finally succeeded.
“It had taken Larry years of post-religious, practiced focus to turn off the Godly eyes, and the dear-and-departed eyes, so that, steeped in his depravity, he might feel himself unseen,” Englander wrote.
But his father’s death forces Larry back home to his family of Orthodox Jews in Memphis for the shiva, and he can barely contain his disdain as he chats mindlessly with neighbors he has already forgotten. His sister Dina glares at him with contempt. Things rapidly come to a boil when Larry tells Dina he will not be saying kaddish, the sacred Jewish prayer of mourning, as is expected of him as his father’s only son.
Dina ferociously attacks him for his refusal and tells him that his neglect will imperil their father’s place in the world to come. The rabbis are called in for an emergency intervention, and it is decided that a proxy can be chosen. Larry turns to a new website,, and chooses Chemi, a scholar in Jerusalem, to perform the sacred prayers in his stead, three times a day for 11 months as is required. Larry returns to his home in Brooklyn and what we anticipate will be the continuation of his life without God.
But almost immediately after the mourning period, when he receives a photo of Chemi lost in prayer in some unknown yeshiva in Israel, Larry has a religious reckoning.
“There I was, alone on my couch in goyishe Clinton Hill, thinking ‘Over there in Jerusalem sits Chemi assimilating the Talmud – assimilating information precisely as Hashem, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, intends – and me, what am I doing in my empty life here? What kind of assimilation is mine?’”
LARRY BEGINS a spiritual return to his once-religious life. He changes his name to Reb Shuli, marries and has children. He gets a job teaching Gemara as an unlicensed teacher at the very yeshiva he attended as a boy. It appears as if his return to the religious life of his youth was seamless and almost anticipated; his father always held out hope he would come back.
But 20 years later, Shuli still felt tormented by the most egregious transgression of his youth – his failure to say kaddish for his father. He felt compelled to right this wrong. His loving and usually supportive wife tried to reason with him, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. He just didn’t feel right about himself.
“All his years of tshuva, a lifetime of redemption, had – for his father – done nothing,” Englander writes. “Not the yahrzeit candles lit, not the services led. It was twenty years of kaddish without meaning, as they were not Shuli’s to say.” He knew he could no longer continue to live a “ghost life, a spiritual existence that one could, like steam, push a finger through.”
Shuli becomes determined to go and find Chemi and ask him to return the obligation to say kaddish, so he could belatedly right his wrong. One of his students who is good with computers locates the spot in Jerusalem where his emails are coming from, and draws him a map. Shuli is off to Jerusalem, leaving his wife and children reeling.
When Reb Shuli finally manages to find the shul where Chemi once prayed for his father, Chemi is not there. In fact, no one seems to know of him. Yet Shuli remains, establishing himself in the synagogue and praying and studying with the students that are present.
He finds himself staring at the now faded picture of Chemi, wondering if indeed he really is in the right place after all. The photograph seems to verify his suspicion that he is surely in the right locale, but he can’t understand at first why no one has ever heard of Chemi or the website he speaks about.
In fact, the rabbi in charge seems put off by Shuli’s questioning. Shuli can’t figure out if he is hiding something, or if the head rabbi is simply appalled that such a website could possibly exist for men who would dare to refuse such a sacred honor as saying kaddish for their fathers.
Which is it? Reb Shuli isn’t sure. Still, something keeps him there, and when his money runs out, he sleeps at night on the floor of the shul.
Eventually, slivers of heavily disguised clues start to piece together the beginning of an almost unbelievable story; a story that will startle the reader with its mischievous complexity; a story Reb Shuli can’t fully get his head around at first, thinking maybe it is just his feverish imagination.
Englander once again travels into foreign and treacherous realms, and we remember that we have been here before. It comes naturally to Englander, both the outrageousness and the magic.
We’ve seen such morbid and horrifying yet comedic story lines from Englander before, in his novel What We Think About When We Think About Anne Frank – about friends contemplating which of their neighbors or relatives would save them in another Holocaust – and his short story “Peep Show” about a Jewish man who sneaks off to a peep show only to be confronted by his wife, his shrink and his rabbi.
It is impossible to read without thinking that Reb Shuli comes to us directly from Nathan Englander’s subconscious longings. The two men are on the surface very different, Englander a secular Jewish irreverent author, and Shuli a figment of his imagination, but there are similarities to behold.
Both Englander and Reb Shuli want to embrace life with full and open hearts and follow their impulses, unencumbered by others who chastise them for their assertiveness. Both try not to hurt others and feel for those who are suffering. Both are looking for some sort of righteous transcendence – Shuli with God, and Englander on pages of his own hard-wrought creations; but one can make the argument that these two realms share crosscurrents.
In Reb Shuli’s determination to be righteous and whole again, I hear Englander hovering on the sidelines, rooting him on, laughing and crying with him, perhaps even praying.
Englander, in ways that still remain hazy and muddled and not yet fully formed, seems to be speaking through Reb Shuli from some sort of latent desire within himself. Perhaps it is just a fleeting wish to bask for a while in God’s light, without becoming blinded by it; perhaps something more.