This collection of short stories by Nathan Englander got rave reviews “An astonishment….brilliant….daring….funny” when it debuted. I don’t know if I would go so far as to give this books such accolades but it was a thought provoking, enjoyable read.
The book consists of nine different short stories set in locations from Jerusalem, to Brooklyn, to a train on it’s way to a concentration camp in WWII Poland. I was expecting the book to be a much lighter and funnier read but as soon as I started the story in the book “The Tumblers”, I knew my assumptions were wrong. This story describes a group of Hasidic jews who accidently get on a train filled with circus performers rather than a cattle car and decide that their only way to survive and not get sent to the camps is to pretend that they are an acrobatic troupe. While there are some humorous scenes (….who knew that Raizel the widow had double-jointed arms, or that Shmuel Berel could scurry about upside down on hands and feet mocking the movements of a crab.), and I’m sure Englander was trying to show the strength of the human spirit, I found the story terribly depressing.
The title story of the book “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” describes a rebbe granting Dov Binyamin, an Orthodox Jew, authorization to visit a prostitute when faced with his wife’s self-imposed celibacy. The outcome of Dov’s choice to not wear a condom (according to Jewish law “It is a sin to spill seed in vain”) and end up having some veneral disease highlights the juxtaposition of modern day life with ultra-orthodox Judaism.
My other two favorite stories in the book were “Reb Kringle” in which a famous rebbe works in a department store dressed as Santa every year and “The Last One Way” in which Gitta a woman who was miserably married for 18 years and then separated for 18 years will do anything (including murder and/or torture) to get her husband to agree to a divorce.
It seemed that all of the stories were Englander’s thoughts on Judaism through the eyes of his different characters. I have to believe that Englander hoped the book would appeal to a cross-section of readers but I can’t imagine a gentile enjoying or having interest in this book.
Does anyone want to test my theory?