February 15, 2012
The stories in Nathan Englander's new collection 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.
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.
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."