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February 24, 2012

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, FEBRUARY 24, 2017 r Nathan Englander comes nome to short story By Eric Herschthal New York Jewish Week When Nathan Englander sat down for a recent inter- view at a hummus restaurant in the East Village, he had just come from the Public Theater. He was there help- ing stage a theater adap- tation of one of his early short stories. "The Twenty- Seventh Man." which will premiere at the Public in November. That's not news. Followers of Englander's breathtaking career--beginning with his widely praised debut story collection. "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," which came out in 1999 when he was 28--have known for some time that he's been working far beyond the bounds of traditional fiction. Next month, his transla- tion of the Passover Hag- gadah, edited by his friend and literary equal, Jonathan Safran Foer, will come out. And not long after, another, of his translations, this one a work of recent fiction by his friend, the contemporary Israeli author Etgar Keret, will also be published. You can't say Englander, 42, has been slacking off. But you can forgive those who miss the writer they origi- nally fell inlove with: the short-story athor whose morally serious tales about Jewish life never felt as challenging as they were. Humor, laced throughout them, always seemed to leaven them. But over lunch, Englander was eager to talk about short stories, There was a lot to discuss: his new collection, titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" (Knopf), was about to be published, and signaled a return to the form that put him on the map more than a decade ago. "I just missed stories and I was ready to write them again," Englander said. But the return to short fiction was less a deliberate decision than a natural progression: "It's like growing your tail back," he said. Even if he hadn't done it in a while, he added, it's a skill he didn't forget. His prior work of fiction was also a change of form. It was a novel titled "The Ministry of Special Cases," published in 2007, about a Jewish family caught in 1970s Argentina amid the Dirty War. But even if his most recent worktrans- lations, playwriting has further distanced him from the short story, it hasn't diminished his love for it. In important ways, he said, the playwriting and translations have had a strong influence on the new collection. In particular, he men- tioned the story "Free Fruit for Young Widows." It tells of an idealistic Israeli boy, Etgar Gezer, who cannot understand why his father, a fruit vendor, is so kind to professor Tendler, a man with a dubious past. As an Israeli solider, Tendler had murdered four Egyptian soldiers, point-blank, who had already been captured as prisoners of war. As a young man in Poland returning from a concentra- tion camp, Tendler also mur- dered an entire Polish family, including a baby girl, after he heard they were about to kill, him themselves. "Even so, it's murder," Etgar says to his father, after he's told of these facts. His father replies: "It is hard to-know what a person would and wouldn't do in any specific instance. And you, spoiled child, apply the rules of civilization to a boy who had seen only its opposite." Englander explained that this story was based on a true one Etgar Keret shared with him not long ago; Englander named the boy "Etgar" in homage. Another story in the collection, "The Reader" about a washed- out writer who, on his lat- est book tour, is greeted by empty reading halls save for one zealous fan also came from Keret. To be sure, each story was only a narrative kernel that Englander transformed into his own works of fic- tion. And he asked Keret's approval before adapting them for himself: "He Said to me kach take it," Englander said. Other stories show Eng- lander's continued fascina- tion with deep moral quan- daries. The title story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," deals with two Jewish couples, one secular the other religious, debating which of their neighbors they think would hide them in the event of another Holocaust. In the often-hilarious "Camp Sundown," Eng= lander writes about a group of Holocaust survivors at a geriatric summer camp who insist that a new camper, one Doley Falk, is a former Nazi. The Jewish campers con- spire to kill him, but not before they taunt him with a funhouse of horrors. That includesburning a Star of David, made with yahrtzeit candles, and planting it in front of Falk's cabin a sort-of Holocaust-survivor ruse straight out of the Ku Klux Klan playbook. It might be dismissed as a cruel parody of Jewish suffering and revenge if the story were not girded by a serious moral dilemma. The Jewish campers demand that thedirector stay silent. After all, the director recently dismissed a rabbi from the camp who was caught fondling younger campers, without notifying the police. "You can make it go away if you want, same as with the rabbi," one old camper threatens the director. "That crime, your board can swal- low? Then let them swallow this--justice served. A rav- age avenged." Commenting on the moral quandaries found through- out the new book, Englander said: "I'm obsessed with this idea that we live in the gray." Englander grew up in an Orthodox home on Long Island. But while at college at SUNY-Binghamton, he became less religious. By the time he decided on be- coming a writer, after being selected for the renowned Iowa Writers' Workshop, he had separated almost entirely from the Orthodox community, except for his family. He has been writing for publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic for years now, and teaches creative writing at New York University, Hunter College and elsewhere. But his fic- tion remains deeply engaged with Jewish life, as well as Israel, where he lived while writing his first collection of short stories. All this helps explain Englander's focus on Israel, Orthodox Jews and the ethi- cal dilemmas posed by fierce religiosity even once it is renounced. "Peep Show," for instance, follows a lapsed Jew married to a Christian who sneaks out to a strip club on his way home from work. He thinks no one will see him, but then the dancer keeps transforming into someone he knows--his rabbi, his mother, his wife. That these stories deal with issues like guilt and repressed memory, while also being wickedly funny, is a trait few fail to notice. "He's one of the most mor- ally engaged writers of our generation, and also one of the funniest writers I can think of," said Chris Adrian, another prominent fiction writer and close friend of Englander. Englander's editor at Knopf, Jordan Pavlin, put it this way: He's often writ- ing about mercy, brutality, dignity, humanity,  she said. "And he uses humor to ex- press what is essentially a tragic view of life.  Perhaps the new col- lection's most wrenching story, "Sister Hills,, has al- most no humor at all, how- ever. It's set in a fictional Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and follows its growth from a tiny village besieged during the Yore Kippur War, to its current status as a booming town with many non-religious Jews moving in on govern- ment subsidies. Like many of Englander's stories, the central drama acts as a kind of parable, this one for the larger problems raised by settler ideology. The story revolves around a mother named Rena who has lost all three chiMren: two were killed in war. and another came out as Wey and has long since fled. As an embittered okler woman, Rena demands control of her best ffiond's daughter, who technically belon to her. Rena's friend "sold" the girl to her when she was facing death as a newborn--a Jewish folk  meant to cheat the Angel of De.ath, but tlhmt no one ever thinks will be taken literally. The story is so gnant that even Enflandex said he was disturbed after it was finishe& "I did not sleep aflmr I wrote that sto7 he sa It's just that i knew lwro something that urns a ve enmtional " Though the sUmy ka yon with an  view ofsettler their iolAscare- fully explored- said thatis  doesn want his mudk ta be ! as a one-skied pdemic. "1 feel iilue it reads blue a Rorschach test: hesakL qy Oblitm is  thes, show it fn all le" That is not to say he doem have from pemm vm, num of tluma c c of do  belief. But. k Fidelity is uiob and his  m horn wrn  mmt- in td his gut t same thi he tei lgmet -rhe klea is l maim wm4k that yon can sml I wlm you're dead. ! woulldnt do it if it didn't tl mld to me_. Hy poim," he en on, "is that nm have to an more than anything" Er/c H/s a M" uter for The e Y4 Jewish Week. from hic this arh'cle was by  New books capture of immigrant experiences By Vicki Cabot Jewish News of Greater Phoenix Even as the Statue of Liberty beckons from New York Harbor with promise. and the words at her feet proclaim refuge, the subject of immigration continues to roil the waters of the American body politic. A trio of contemporary Jewish authors, each an exceptional writer, offer compelling in- sights into the immigration experience that can help to inform our perspectives. Jewish and otherwise, on the pressing national issue. David Bezmozgis, whose first book, "Natasha and Other Stories," entranced critics with its keen under- standing, not to mention Bezmozgis' sly humor and deprecating style, expands his short-form take on the Soviet Jewish emigre to long form in his first novel, "The Free World, A Novel" (Far- rar, Straus and Giroux, $27 hardcover). Continuing to plumb his personal experi- ence as an immigrant from Latvia to Canada in the late 1970s, Bezmozgis offers a beautifully nuanced read that impresses with its in- nate sensitivity. Set during five months of 1978 in Rome, the way sta- tion for thousands of Russian Jews fleeiflg from repression during a brief softening of Soviet policy, "Free World" turns on the story of three generations of the Krasnan- sky family, as they set out on their journey. There's Samuil, the fam- ily patriarch, ardent Com- munist and atheist, who would proudly display his military medals across his chest, would they not have been cruelly snatched by a government official as the family escaped; Emma, his long-suffering and senti- mental wife, who longs for the comfort and security of home and family; their son, Karl, practical and entrepre- neurial, his wife, Rosa, and their two young children; and their son Alec, a hand- some womanizer and now communal bureaucrat, and his non-Jewish wife, Polina, who left her first husband after a traumatic abortion. Bezmozgis seamlessly weaves together their sto- ries on the teeming streets of Rome as they wait, with hundreds of others, to gain passage to their new lives in a new land. When the promise to follow relatives to Chicago falls through, the even in a temporary location. Dislocation colors each of their experiences, and the very real, very human emo- tions that color human life, no matter where it unfolds. Bezmozgis has a bead on it all, from religion to politics, from marriage to infidelity, allowing thelrama of the emigre story to provide a compelling backdrop for it to play out. "Free World" dazzles in its breadth, asweil family decides on Canada - . as its intense humanity, and the weather is most like the Latvian climate of home, they reason - even as Emma and Rosa begin to dream of Israel. Theywait, as Samuirs health slows the process, or may in fact impede it, and as each finds his or her own way ofaccommodatingto the challenges of acculturation, Bezmozgis' lucid writing and consummate skill. Another immigrant, an- other story, another genre, and this one, a memoir, is as engaging and enlightenin as Bezmozgis' fictive Ruian saga. Lucette Lagnado fol- lows up on her brilliant he Man in the White Sharkskin Suit," which depicted her family's flight from Egypt in 1956 during the rise of Abdul Nasser and the Lag- nados' precarious existence in Brooklyn where they ultimately resettled. The first book told the story through the eyes of Lagnado's older, incredibly handsome and very suc- cessful father, Leon, who went from his role as a boulevardier, or man about town, in Cairo to a poor merchant selling ties on a New York street comer; the second, "The ArrogantYears, One Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn," (HarperCollins, $26 hardcover) tells the same story but through the eyes of Lagnado's delicate and literary mother, Edith. Lagnado, whose own story is entwined with that of her parents, more fully inserts herself into her mother's telling, tracing her own evolution from a young girl inching her chair  and closer to the other side of the mechitza in the family's Brooklyn synalgue to an enterprising inwtigativ reporter breaking first for the New York Post and then the Wall hreet Journal H rg writing a1 she, but it is Ir ntimm attadl- merit to her mother, her empathy for the heartbreak- ing choices she made as a woman in Egypt who gave up career for marriage andthen as the wife and mother of a large family struggling to fit in and progress in America that illuminate her story. A very honest and moving book, it makes for compel- ling reading. And a third, this one seething with dark humor and cutting resonance, Franin Pro's 16th novel, 1 New Ameri- can Life" (i $26 hardcover) telL the y of Lulu, a 2-yr-dd  wnan, livi in _ New York Cty on a on- Ixexre tonr visa, who lands a job as 1t canadk for the teenagesonasmle father in an afllue  Yok suburb aml mlJh it ll promofremle status.The takmm Lulu is vistemealemmm by mee m mm m hide a Im. A vil lmy a on Ihe cwre stale d I an Amegca "Amcm PImm