Englander, Nathan. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
Following my Bar Mitzvah, I journeyed off forty years in the American Wildness.
America affords every man this much: a smorgasbord of employments and leisure activities that have nothing to do with one’s cultural, ethnic, historic, and religious identity or legacy.
The way I got to see it in my U.S.A., we are free to dance as we are, and, truth to tell, no one cares until . . . . the matters concerning the ring, the babies, the intimate operations, outlooks, and values of a household come into play.
To eat the wafer (and create happiness) or refuse it (and put everybody but one’s self back in medieval hell)?
Such a modern question.
Being the sort of prodigal son returned to the tribe that I am, also, cogent, American born and bred, I’ve no great sense of kinship to the genre literary tradition of hitting the great Jewish key notes: Brooklyn, Israel, the Holocaust. Still, they are part of me — and I did have the mother, God rest her soul, who arrived from Poland at Ellis Island when she was four years old, taught Yiddish at a small school in Silver Spring, Maryland a fair part of her life, and, quietly, alone, slipped into the dining room on Friday nights to put a napkin on her head and light the Sabbath candles while her family watched television in a den down the stairs.
As a Jewish reader, I can access Nathan Englander’s short stories but not call them by experience, geography, social class, and so on, my Jewish stories. It is still more enjoyable for me to read, say, The Old Man and the Sea, which I was doing at 2:30 a.m. over a bottle of beer last night, than to lurch through the literary theater of my “peeps”.
Nonetheless: I’d place still young Englander on par with Philip Roth for the possession of a genius of a talent.
My basis drawn from this first visit with the writer: the remarkable, twisting, deeply ironic, and still religious — or steeped in religious argument — short story, “Sister Hills”. The bargain: two women, settlers on the land in 1948, twine their lives into not quite “best friends forever” when one with a very sick infant, a daughter, sells it to the other to confuse the demon stalking its life.
Of course, the birth mother gets her daughter back.
For a while.
Through the window of the relationship, the narrative builds the history of modern Israel in 37 riveting pages, returning the same to an old bargain.
For once, I borrowed a book from the library, but, as most often proves the case, I may add it to the collection I so far whimsically refer to as “The Oppenheim Library” — 2,000 volumes, some inherited, some hoarded since childhood, some recovered from boxes in basements after long storage, some purchased for less than a dime on the dollar through the thrifts, some from Borders (like good ol’ mom, R.I.P.), and, inevitably, inescapably, many new, albeit some old and rare, some via Amazon.
I’ve wandered in books a lifetime, and much of that lifetime is here on the shelves surrounding me.
I’ll miss having Englander’s book around (while I attempt to gin up some money via music and photography — or other things I can do — to afford it and more of the same but always different). It’s a keeper for sure, but check it out of the library if you have to.