Nathan Englander: Stories Of Faith, Family And The Holocaust

Nathan Englander: Stories Of Faith, Family And The Holocaust

1:59pm Mar 22, 2013
Nathan Englander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. He now splits his time between New York and Madison, Wis.
Nathan Englander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. He now splits his time between New York and Madison, Wis.
Juliana Sohn

This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 15, 2012.

The stories in Nathan Englander's short collection that's out now in paperback are based largely on his experiences growing up as a modern Orthodox Jew with an overprotective mother.

In What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Englander writes about his own faith — and what it means to be Jewish — in stories that explore religious tension, Israeli-American relations and the Holocaust.

In the title story — a riff on Raymond Carver's classic What We Talk About When We Talk about Love -- a Hasidic couple and a secular Jewish couple play a morbid game called "Righteous Gentile," in which they debate who would hide them during an imaginary second Holocaust. Englander says that though he calls it a game in the story, it's not really a game — and that's the point.

"I call it a game," he says, "because it makes it easier to talk about as a game — but it's something we play with dead seriousness in my family — we would wonder who would hide us in the Holocaust."

Englander, a fourth- or fifth-generation American, says despite his family's longstanding roots in the United States, they frequently played the mind exercise when he was little.

"We really were raised with the idea of a looming second Holocaust, and we would play this game wondering who would hide us," he says. "I remember my sister saying about a couple we knew, 'He would hide us, and she would turn us in.' And it struck me so deeply, and I just couldn't shake that thought for all these years, because it's true."

Englander grew up on Long Island in the mid-1970s, where he and his sister both attended a religious day school. The rabbis at the school would tell them graphic stories about the Holocaust and the Inquisition. At home, his mom wasn't much better.

"My mother raised me very clearly that if you cross the street, you will die," he says. "If you go outside, you will die. If you play sports, you will likely die. That's what I was getting at home."

Meanwhile, anti-Semitic graffiti popping up around his town was reinforcing all of his fears. Looking back, Englander says his paranoia and fears of nonexistent threats made him want to explore his roots further.

"I think that's why I had to live in Jerusalem all those years," he says. "There's a reason ... I spend my childhood in America feeling Jewish and not American. And it's only in Israel — it was those years there — where I got to be an American because everyone's a Jew."

Personal Discoveries In Jerusalem

Englander's time in Jerusalem overlapped with a period of brutal violence in the city. He says the constant real threat of violence actually made him more comfortable living his daily life.

"That was a huge discovery," he says. "If you're paranoid and you put yourself in a place of real existential threat, then you're not paranoid anymore. It was a huge relief for me on that front. It was like living in Catch-22. ... The state of panic — I didn't stick out in a crowd anymore — the cold sweat was just general."

While living in Jerusalem, Englander also examined his own religious beliefs.

"It was the first time I saw ... deeply secular atheistic Jews who I could identify with," he says. "The first week there was when I gave up organized religion. My first Shabbat in Israel was when I broke [being Orthodox] after 19 years."

Englander remembers thinking that week that God would smite a bus he was riding on the Sabbath. When that didn't happen, he says, "it felt like I wanted a cheeseburger."

Eating a cheeseburger would have broken the Jewish law forbidding the mixture of milk and meat products. Still, Englander wanted one, he says.

"It was pretty hard to break that rule," he says. "I had to wait months to find one. My buddy and I had flown to London. I literally got out at Victoria Station and went up the stairs into Burger King and had me a Whopper."

He calls the process he went through an "active irreligiousity."

"I was trying to think of every rule that I could possibly break till I checked them all off," he says. "Because that's what a young person is going to do when they swing in the other direction. I'm 42 now; if I was complaining about something in high school, it would be time to let it go. But then, it was large and electric and active."

Interview Highlights

On why he wanted to translate the New American Haggadah (The Haggadah is the traditional story of Passover)

"Out of all the traditional Jewish documents, it's the one that's most living. There's an Armed Forces Haggadah and an Alcoholics Anonymous Haggadah and an LGBT Haggadah. Some people make a new Haggadah every year. It's a real living document. ... They're just constantly made throughout time. On the decision to translate it? It was really clear when I went back and looked at texts. I've always used the Hebrew side of the Maxwell House [Haggadah], which is a really great liturgy. The point is, I had never really looked at the English. And what committed me to it [was that] you should literally read the Haggadah and weep. It is so beautiful. It is just such a moving document to me."

On his fiction

"Every book better be fully intimate, it better be all you have. I'm obviously not shy because I'm going to talk your ear off today, but I'm private, which is different. But the idea for me to be truly intimate — for me to be naked and raw — the fiction allows me to do what I need to do emotionally. And with this book, certain stories were looking at things — it was a change for me to look at things that were right there. And in a sense, this was normality — this game — and I just took a step back and said, 'My god, we're pathological.'

On going to a religious day school

"This education that I fought so wildly against was a huge effort for my parents to give me that education. We had these old-school rabbis. And I think that's the reason I write the way I do. ... [At the University of Iowa, one professor told me] that I was writing all of my sentences in transliterated Yiddish. My mom's from Boston and my dad's from Brooklyn but I hear everything [in a Yiddish] rhythm."

On living in Israel

"As someone who spent a lot of years living in Jerusalem, one of the great perks is that when you come back, and you get into these Israel arguments in your American-Jewish clan, you can really just silence them by saying, 'I lived there.' So we used it like a bludgeon."

On becoming more secularized from his Orthodox upbringing

"I've been comparing it to friends' coming-out stories. When you're in a world and your parents are one way and you're told, 'This is how the whole world is, and this is how you're supposed to be,' and you're terribly unhappy in that world, it's a very scary thing. The whole time I was so religious and so sincere and so interested in the texts, but thinking this is not the world for me. And it grew and it grew."

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This FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, writer Nathan Englander, has a collection of stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." It's now out in paperback.

The stories deal with tensions around Jewish orthodoxy and tradition, arguments about the state of Israel, and what it means to be Jewish in a modern world. Considering Englander's life, it's not surprising these are his subjects.

Nathan Englander grew up in a insular orthodox community on Long Island and attended yeshiva, where he was taught that a second Holocaust or a Spanish Inquisition even, was right around the corner. As an adult, Englander lived for a few years in Israel. It was there that he decided to part with organized religion.

But Englander hasn't left Judaism behind. In fact, he spent two years translating the "The Haggadah," the traditional book read at the Seder Table during Passover. The new translation called "New American Haggadah," was edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and was published last year, is the first night of Passover. Terry spoke with Nathan Englander last year when his collection of short stories was first published.


Nathan Englander, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from the title story of your new collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." Do you want to set it up or do you want to just start reading?

NATHAN ENGLANDER: That's funny. Any time I set it up I get metaphysical. It takes about 67 minutes.


ENGLANDER: So. Yes. So I don't think you want me to set up anything at all, especially if it's the start of a story. Except to say this one is, you know, it's the title story of the book and it is, very terrifyingly to me, but the commitment I made in the story is I married it to Carver's very legendary story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."


ENGLANDER: (Reading) They're in our house maybe 10 minutes and already Mark's lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem and people from there think it gives them the right. Mark is looking all stoic and nodding his head. If we had what you have down here in south Florida, he says, then trails off. Yep, he says and he's nodding again, we'd have no troubles at all. You do have what we have, I tell him, all of it.

(Reading) Sun and palm trees, old Jews and oranges and the worst drivers around. At this point, I say, we've probably got more Israelis than you. Debbie, my wife, she puts a hand on my arm, her signal that I'm taking a tone or interrupting someone's story, sharing something private, or making an inappropriate joke. That's my cue. And I'm surprised, considering how much I get it, that she ever lets go of my arm.

(Reading) Yes, you've got it all now, Mark says. Even terrorists. I look to Lauren. She's the one my wife has the relationship with, the one who should take charge. But Lauren isn't going to give her husband any signal. She and Mark ran off to Israel 20 years ago and turned Hassidic and neither of them will put a hand on the other in public. Not for this. Not to put out a fire.

GROSS: That's Nathan Englander reading the title story for his new collection "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." I can assure you I've heard that conversation many times.


ENGLANDER: That's funny.

GROSS: Have you?

ENGLANDER: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that was actually - as someone who spent a lot of years living in Jerusalem, one of the great perks was that when you come back and you get into these Israel arguments in your American-Jewish clan, you can really just silence them by saying, I lived there. So we used it like a bludgeon. You know, when people would say, like, you know, I'm APAC, I'm this, move that, move the, you know.

Embassy needs to be there. The embassy should have a Starbucks and be on the Temple Mount. Whatever. You know, people would do that, you'd say I lived there. And that was how we kept everybody quiet.

GROSS: So another thing that happens in the story in addition to the disagreements about Israel and about religion, the two couples, the Hassidic couple and the secular couple, play a game that is called the Righteous Gentile Game or Who Will Hide Me? Will you describe the game?

ENGLANDER: It's so deeply personal, and it's not a game. And that's the point. I call it a game and it makes it easier to talk about it as a game, but it's something we play with dead seriousness in my family.

And that is, you know, we, you know, wonder who would hide us in the Holocaust if there were a second Holocaust. And I think that's sort of the interest for me, you know, as a - I don't know whether to count myself as a fourth generation or fifth generation. We've been in American a long time. You know what I'm saying? I have great-grandparents born here. And that idea that my sister, because of our religious education, we were raised in a sense - we have the minds of, you know, like, survivors' kids.

Anyway, we really were raised with this idea of a looming second Holocaust and we would play this game. You know, that threat is always in the air. You know what I'm saying? People were comfortable in Berlin. It could happen at any time.

And we would play this game, you know, wondering who would hide us. And this is - this story I've been carrying in my head from 20 years ago. But I remember what my sister said about a couple we knew. She said, he would hide us and she would turn us in. And it struck me so deeply, and I put it on the neighbors in this story. But I just couldn't shake that thought for all these years because it's true. And, yeah. So I guess - in a sense, this is totally - it's normality, this game. And I just took a step back and said my God, we're pathological.

GROSS: So the impression I'm getting is that, OK, you were brought up in Long Island in a prosperous suburban community, but you're brought up as if a new Holocaust is right around the corner so start preparing because you're going to be marched off to a death camp, unless you find a neighbor or a friend willing to risk their life to hide you. And it's such an embattled mentality, such a paranoid mentality, to be carrying around in a prosperous Long Island suburb in, what, the 1960s?

ENGLANDER: Yeah. I was going to say, I'll make two corrections, which is not so prosperous. But, you know, hanging on to middle class. But, you know, we didn't have FM radio in the car, but we did have AM. But also, yeah, the '70s and '80s. I was born in 1970. I'm a disco kid by a month.


ENGLANDER: But, yes, the '70s and '80s. But you know what? I think it's, A, it was a strange thing. I mean, it was, you know, I'm living back in Brooklyn and I was very resistant to doing that. You know, I live up the block from my dad's high school and my uncle went to school, you know, behind our building at Pratt.

You know, there was all these Brooklyn dads and they made this exodus. And, you know, a lot of them went to public school. They were religious, but they built these yeshivas and they spent - you know what I'm saying? You know, that's where prosperity comes in. It was this education that I so fought against and so rebelled against and worked so hard to leave was a huge, huge, you know, effort for my parents to give me that education.

But, yeah, but the point is we had these old school rabbis. So, I think that's why I write the way I do. I studied with Marilyn Robinson at Iowa. God bless her, she taught me many wonderful things. But one thing she taught me was that I was writing all my sentences in certain transliterated Yiddish.


ENGLANDER: So, you know. You know what I'm saying? My mom's, you know, she's at Boston and my dad's from Brooklyn, but I hear everything, you know, I should wait all day here for you to show up five minutes late? You know what I'm saying?


ENGLANDER: That's - because we went to school. We got there at, you know, eight in the morning and left at five. You know, college was easy for us. We were in school a million hours a day with these sort of Brooklyn-raised or Old Country rabbis yelling at us, you know, yelling at us in that rhythm. And I feel like that's the rhythm in my head. So, I basically received these messages from the rabbis about what the world - my point is, as living as the Holocaust is for me as an idea of something that just happened and can happen, I feel the same way about the Inquisition. You know what I'm saying?


ENGLANDER: My heart - seriously. I think of the poor rabbi...

GROSS: I'm sorry I'm laughing.

ENGLANDER: Yeah. I was going to say, you are - just have no empathy for the losses of the Inquisition.


ENGLANDER: Obviously you're a Mel Brooks fan. But...

GROSS: Wait. Let me just stop you here. So you're brought up with fear that the Holocaust can happen any second.


GROSS: Maybe the Spanish Inquisition in which all...


GROSS: ...the Jews from Spain were expelled, changing the whole map of Jews around the world forever and ever.


GROSS: OK. So, how did that affect the rest of your mentality? Did you grow up a worrier, paranoid? Did fear infiltrate other aspects of your life?

ENGLANDER: I think we can call it a day right now.


ENGLANDER: I believe you just reached the very core of my soul. I thought it would be a longer interview. But, yes, that is - I am constantly in a state of fear. So you know what? I was going to say, let's, you know, it's just between us, so I might as well tell you everything. But, yeah. But point is - so this is what I'm getting as an education, is this education of, you know, fear and betrayal and Jewish history, which is not, you know, amplified. It just is. But, yes, my mother raised me very clearly that if you cross the street, you will die. If you go outside, you will die.


ENGLANDER: If you play sports, you will likely die. So that's what I was getting at home. But, you know, my point is I think it may have had a larger imprint on my soul. I don't think other people are worried about it as much. But that story of how we avenged the Blooms in the book, that is a war that we had with the anti-Semites of our town.

But that idea of walking down that street, you know, I call it in the story the chased home from schools. I mean, but those, you know, swastikas, I remember, you know, driving by with my dad and seeing, you know, red swastikas on the sign for, you know, the synagogue or a shaving cream one on our door on Halloween. You know, those kinds of fights and battles and curses, but that...

GROSS: GROSS: So... that actually reinforced all your fears.

ENGLANDER: ...we really had that escalated war with the anti-Semites in our town. It was insane.

BIANCULLI: Author Nathan Englander speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2012 interview with Nathan Englander, author of the short story collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." It's now out on paperback.

GROSS: So, we established that you grew up very orthodox in a very, like, Jewish orthodox community in Long Island, lived for a few years in Israel where you became secular. Now, people would probably think it would be the other way around, that you'd go to Israel and become more religious because it is, after all, the Jewish state. So, how is it that you ended up becoming secular in Israel?

ENGLANDER: You know what I've really been comparing it lately, very gingerly but sincerely, to friends' coming out stories. I think when you grow up in a world and your parents are one way and you're told this is your world, this is how the whole world is, and this is how you're supposed to be, and you are terribly unhappy in that world, it's a very scary thing.

And that's - I just - I don't even know why that the whole time I was so religious and so sincere and so interested in the text but just felt like this is not the world for me. And it grew, you know, I just thought I will be in this world and I will be unhappy because this is - you know, I'm a good kid. That's what I was supposed to do. I thought this is what I've been given and this is how it's going to be. And I think when I'd meet a Jew who was totally unaffiliated, you know, to me we didn't - there was no such thing as being a cultural Jew. So that idea, I just didn't connect.

I wouldn't meet someone who said, oh, yeah. You know, my mom's Jewish or, you know, yeah, I think, you know, we did Purim one year. Like I didn't - there was no leap that I could make that I could connect and say, ah, this, here is a path. This is a world that I can connect with. And when I got to Israel and see these people, you know, living in Hebrew, living that life, to me it was the first time I saw Jews who were so, you know, who had the biblical references, all this stuff, deeply secular, atheistic Jews who I could identify with. And, I mean, the first week there is when I gave up organized religion. My first Shabbat in Israel is - I broke it after, you know, 19 years.

GROSS: Now you've also written a new translation of the Haggadah. And why don't you explain what the Haggadah is?

ENGLANDER: Yeah. The story of Exodus. And every year on Passover, when the, you know, we all know the Red Sea getting split and the 10 plagues and all that stuff, as Jonathan Foer, who is the editor of it keeps saying, it's, you know, probably the most popular story around. But yes, so it's a way to commemorate the Jews, you know, freedom from slavery.

GROSS: And it's basically a, you know, a book that is read during the Passover Seder, the dinner or it's right before the dinner.


GROSS: Dinner's very late.


ENGLANDER: Yeah. I was going to say, it's the Jews like to eat - if your audience doesn't know that - and it is the dinner with the biggest buildup of the year, I have to say. But...

GROSS: So you have a new translation and the book is called the "New American Haggadah." It's about to be published.


GROSS: The editor is Jonathan Safran Foer, who I think initiated the project.


GROSS: You did the translation. And I'm sure our listeners, who heard the beginning of this interview, are thinking why did they choose this guy? This guy used to be Orthodox then he became really secular. He rebelled against religion. So who is he to be translating a very important religious text? So why you?

ENGLANDER: I have to say that I was going to say and Jonathan's, he just had a vision for this book and he really wanted me to translate it. And he just made it clear that it would be something that we'd really be proud of at the end. He was really adamant about that. And I have to say, it's informed my writing. It's changed the way I think. And I am having the book here, I'm really thankful for it. And it ended up being, I thought it would be, I was going, you know, I thought it would be this hipster Haggadah and take me six weeks; I have been working on it for three years.

GROSS: And what was your ambition? What did you think needed changing? I mean why do we need a new Haggadah?

ENGLANDER: It's sort of I think of all the traditional Jewish documents, it's the one that's most living. People - there's, you know, there's an Armed Forces Haggadah and an Alcoholics Anonymous Haggadah and an LGBT Haggadah. There are Haggadahs for everything. Some families make them new every year. People, it's a really wonderful living document. And, you know, even Jonathan's choice of the "New American Haggadah," they're always have a place. A very legendary one is the Sarajevo Haggadah. They're just constantly made throughout time and he felt it was time for a new one.

But about what made the decision for me to translate it? What committed me to it is that back to loving texts, which is, the Haggadah, you should literally, you should read it and weep. It is so beautiful. It is just such a moving document to me. And the line that I can tell you is that really clinched it for me is in Hebrew, it says, you know, (Foreign language spoken). And in English it was translated, which is what it means, to differentiate between the Sabbath and the holiday. But in Hebrew what it says is, you know, to differentiate between holy and holy. And I was like someone made this decision to for clarity and understanding. It means between these two days.

But to me the poetry, the metaphysical space, the space between holy and holy, for that to not be there in the English was just, it made me understand that I wanted to do, you know, it turned it from this what I thought would be a six-week project into me working with a study partner head-to-head.

It's called Havruta style, face-to-face. We studied for three years.

GROSS: Now you use the term in your translation in referring to God to king of the cosmos. Now I can't say that I remember hearing the word cosmos in any services or prayers but it seems to me an interesting choice. I think I've heard like king of the universe. But cosmos? So tell us about choosing the word cosmos.

ENGLANDER: You are such a generous reader, as I know both as a listener, but here I am. But, thank you. You know what? It's been so long it just becomes part of you, these projects, but I guess I hadn't thought about it. Those choices were the most wrestled over. You know, it's maybe that one and also God of us, for eloheinu.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ENGLANDER: You know, it's just, it's always our God. So it's always this idea, I think back to language, the things we don't hear anymore. You know, it's something like friendly fire or something, these things that are very loaded and they have meaning and you know the meaning, that's how we get through life in a speedy fashion.

You know, words have meanings and we already have them at the ready and we move through them. And I thought people say these things in English and I think they're forgetting what they're saying and it, you know, it means the world to me that you asked that question because that's the point. You know, because you say, you read past it. But that's what it's saying, you know, of the cosmos and it makes you think and that's it. And that was really it.

I think maybe the most dangerous choice in the whole book was God of us instead of our God because we say our God, our God. It's not our God that we own like our God, our TiVo, our lunchbox. You know what I'm saying? God, it's, you know, it's our God means the God over us and I really thought about that a ton, and I think that's, you know, I'll see how people respond.

But to me, I suddenly thought my God, people are going to be praying from this. I better think.

GROSS: One of the times you used king of the cosmos. I'm going to do the larger reading there. Like you are blessed, lord God of us, king of the cosmos, God, our father, our king, our majesty, our creator, our redeemer, our shepherd, shepherd of Israel, the good king who makes good for all.

You know, when you read something like that - when I read something like that, part of me wonders does God need to be praised that much? Why is there so much praise for God? Is it just a kind of thanksgiving for life, thanksgiving for, you know, whatever it is, that animating force that we call God?


GROSS: Or is God like this egotist and we need to say, hey, man, you're number one. You are great. You are the God of all - do you know what I mean?

ENGLANDER: Yes. I was going to say I am going to answer that question for you now but I'm sure you'll get a bunch of emails answering it for you. But I guess this is the point of also, you know, of doing a translation of what you hear in Hebrew, exactly that it's not cloying - that's the point of wanting to make it sound the way it sounds in my head which to me is very beautiful.

Right? There can be over-cloying thanks. You know, that's what we-right? Nobody wants that. Nobody even enjoys it when they get it. It's often just acknowledging a power structure. I know what you're saying where, like, you know, someone gives you a job. Oh, thank you. You saved my life. This is the best. You know, it's over the top and trust me, I'm an over-the-top thanker.


ENGLANDER: So I know what you're saying. But I guess I find this - you know what? This is about freedom from slavery. This is about getting your homeland that was, you know, promised to you. This is about return. It is a deeply sincere text. I think it is truly thanking God for the food that we are eating, for the freedom that we have, for the, you know, for the family around us.

You know what I can tell you? This is so personal and will, you know, probably make my family cry but, you know, I remember - my brother-in-law - as I said, I'm like fourth or fifth generation and sitting there with my sister's husband, you know, his father is an Auschwitz survivor. And, you know, he - and sitting there with him, I remember one Seder with his family.

I don't know if they'll remember it but this is when we all became one family. But sitting there - this is also probably, you know, 15 or 20 years ago. But all of us sitting together and just seeing this guy. That's what makes it a living document. He sat there and he looked at the table and he started to cry.

And he said I have been a slave. And I thought about it. I said this man was in Auschwitz. I don't know if I've ever met - he literally had been a slave and that freedom, there's a lot of thanks for survival and freedom that goes into that.

GROSS: Well, Nathan Englander, thank you so much for talking with us.

ENGLANDER: This has been a great pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

BIANCULLI: Author Nathan Englander speaking to Terry Gross last year. His collection of short stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" is now out in paperback. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Olympus Has Fallen," a new action movie that takes aim at the White House. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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