Nathan Englander’s ‘Kaddish.com’
Kaddish.com By Nathan Englander (Knopf, 224 pp. $16, paperback)
Transforming the particular into the universal is one of the most challenging tricks in writing fiction. In Kaddish.com, Nathan Englander partially succeeds at this task with his Jewish protagonist. Larry is an angry ex-believer who feels trapped while sitting shiva for his father at his sister’s house in Memphis, far from the Orthodox Brooklyn world where he grew up. He argues with his sister and—purposefully—offends his fellow mourners by transgressing the rules of shiva. Even as the 20-something Larry rebels, he still privately mourns for his deceased father, acknowledging his father’s love and acceptance, despite Larry’s rejection of the Jewish teachings of his youth.
As the only son in the family, Larry is asked by his sister to recite the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish mourning prayer, for the customary 11 months. Larry resists fulfilling the obligation but knows that it would have been important to his father. While still in the period of mourning, he goes online and finds—while checking out online porn—a Jerusalem-based website that offers to have a student fulfill the Kaddish obligation for a fee. Without telling his sister, Larry makes the transaction—and feels relieved.
Fast-forward several years. Larry has come back to Orthodox Judaism. Married and with a family, he teaches at the Brooklyn yeshiva that he himself attended, where he is known as Reb Shuli. “Return and redemption were the most conventional things that could happen to the stray child in any family,” Englander writes. But an encounter with one of his students dredges up the guilt Larry still feels at having “sold off” his mourning birthright—and sends him on a chase to Jerusalem to find the student he sold it to and regain that right.
Englander first burst onto the literary scene in 1999 with For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, a collection of short stories—and Kaddish.com has both the strengths and weaknesses of that literary form. His scenes are strong and his depictions of the world of yeshiva students, both in Brooklyn and in Jerusalem, ring true, as do his descriptions of Jerusalem (where Englander lived for several years). In the Holy City, he writes, there are “mansions tucked behind rotted metal gates, and hovels where one expected a mansion to loom.”
At times, however, Kaddish.com lacks a novel’s depth: Englander fails to depict convincingly how Larry transitioned from young rebel to yeshiva teacher. To his credit, Englander shows us how our youthful decisions never truly leave us. That is a lesson for all of us, no matter our religious leanings.
Peter Ephross is the editor of Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players.