- Expected 25 Jun 2020
Ruchama, a wigmaker from an ultra-orthodox Brooklyn enclave, journeys into Manhattan for inspiration, frequenting a newsstand where she flips through forbidden fashion magazines. An elderly Jew with a long, white beard reluctantly works as a department store Santa Claus every year - until he can take it no longer. And a Hasidic man, frustrated by his wife's lack of interest, gets a dispensation from a rabbi to see a prostitute for the relief of unbearable urges.
"I suffer greatly under the urges with which I have been blessed," says Dov Binyamin, an orthodox Jew agonizing over his wife Chava's self-imposed celibacy, and one of several protagonists in Englander's stellar first collection who seek often ill-fitting rabbinical answers to thorny modern problems. When Dov's rebbe grants him authorization to see a prostitute, the consequences (not least of which is a case of VD) offer a moral fable of pathos and hilarity that is the signature key of these nine graceful and remarkably self-assured stories. Ranging expertly from contemporary Israel to New York and to isolated Yiddish communities in Russia and Europe, they spin a vision of 20th-century orthodox Judaism under siege from both political tyranny and the rapid pace of modern life. Englander's prose is spare and crystalline, capturing the singsong rhythms and sometimes contorted English of a primarily Yiddish cast, often striking a deliberately archaic tone, as in "The 27th Man," the Chekhovian tale of Pinchas Pelovits, a dreamy, unpublished writer in midcentury Russia. Not unlike Englander, Pinchas has "constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies." Abducted by Stalin's henchmen, Pinchas composes a miniature masterpiece, a parable of faith in spite of an absent God, which he recites to his cell mates only minutes before being gunned down by a firing squad. Despite their surface mixture of humor and horror, these are stories of ideas, offering complex meditations on Judaism through the eyes of an astonishing range of characters: a disconsolate middle-age orthodox woman imprisoned in limbo by a husband who won't grant a divorce; a Cheeveresque Park Avenue financial analyst with a taxi-cab epiphany that he's Jewish; an American navigating the streets of contemporary Jerusalem during a terrorist campaign. Englander's reported $350,000 advance for this collection has made it one of the most bruited literary debuts of the year. Such brouhaha shouldn't cloud the achievement of these unpretentious and powerful stories.