Nathan Englander is a young American writer, brought up as an Orthodox Jew in West Hempstead, New York, who moved to Jerusalem. This, his first book, consists of nine short stories, six of them previously published in Story, The New Yorker, Atlantic, and American Short Fiction, mostly about Orthodox Jews in a secular environment.
In “The Twenty-seventh Man,” Joseph Stalin determines in 1952 to purge twenty-six Jewish writers, all of whom are suspected of being anti-Soviet. Unaccountably, one more becomes a victim, an unknown writer who has never published anything. Stalin does not even know the names of all the writers but signs their death warrant anyway, insisting that they be rounded up and executed simultaneously, no matter how difficult that might be. The writers are all men with quite different personalities. Y. Zunser, the oldest and most distinguished, contrasts with the poet Moishe Bretzky, “a true lover of vodka,” who is “huge, slovenly, and smelly as a horse.” Many of the others are bitter rivals. Their situation somewhat resembles that of the prisoners in Arthur Miller’s playIncident at Vichy (pr. 1964), although they make no attempt to escape or even think of it.
The twenty-seventh prisoner is Pinchas Pelovits, who habitually writes all day and never publishes anything. Bewildered when the agents come for him, in prison he meets his idol, none other than Y. Zunser. While the others engage in arguments, Pinchas composes a story in his imagination about a character named Mendel Muskatev who tells his rabbi that he thinks he has died, because everything has disappeared from his room and the sun has not risen. Curiously, the rabbi’s study is of the same dimensions as Mendel’s room, and no one has come for morning prayers. The rabbi, with his books of Talmud, a desk, a chair, and a reading table surrounding him, is not disturbed, for he has an eternity of Talmud to study. Mendel, though, only wants to know which one of them is to say the mourner’s prayer.
Pinchas’s story has been compared to those of Isaac Bashevis Singer or the nineteenth century Russian Nikolai Gogol. Like many in Englander’s collection, it ends with an apparent non sequitur. However, when Pinchas recites his story to Bretzky and Zunser, they get the point and praise him. They thus permit Pinchas to go to his death pleased that he has increased his “readership” threefold.
“The Tumblers” recalls Singer’s short stories about the village of Chelm, Poland, famous for its wise fools. Set during World War II, it describes the adventures of a group of Hasidim who mistakenly get on the wrong train. Instead of being shipped to Auschwitz, they find themselves heading elsewhere with circus people. Before boarding the train, the rabbi has taken the precaution of having his people shave their beards so that they are not immediately recognized as Hasidic Jews. Their black garments, ironically enough, identify them instead as acrobats. They quickly learn some routines and thus save their lives when called on later to perform—farcically, as it turns out, but nonetheless successfully.
“The Tumblers” is not merely ironically comic. Like his mentors, Englander blends bitter reality with unusual or extraordinary aspects of experience. For example, he includes the death of Yochoved, a little girl shot by a Nazi sniper as she watches in terror while her favorite uncle is brutalized by soldiers. Her friend Mendel, horrified, is haunted by the memory, which helps push him beyond endurance to save the Hasidim when they board the wrong car.
In “Reunion,” Marty is again in a psychiatric ward. He tells some of the patients there of his problems with his wife and family, and on this occasion he meets a vagrant brought in as a “John Doe.” He becomes friendly with Doe, who turns out to be the brother of Marty’s rabbi—a black sheep in the family with whom the rabbi wants nothing more to do. Determined for each of them to start a new life, Marty returns home with Doe only to find that his wife has left him and taken their children. He cleans up himself and Doe and they go to the rabbi, hoping for a family reconciliation for all; but the rabbi furiously renounces his brother, who ends by knocking him down, and Marty’s wife rejects her husband forever. In a non sequitur, Marty, looking at the rabbi’s children, wonders how long they will have to fast because their father, like a scroll of the Torah (which requires a forty-day fast), has been knocked down.
Among Orthodox Jewish women, the custom of shaving their hair and wearing a wig, or...
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