Promise, Nathan Englander

Larry exhibits obsessive-compulsive behaviour. When he was a young man, its manifestations were more prevalent, the urges to follow the inclinations directed by this disorder more compelling. Now he is a mature adult, the expressions of the disorder have receded, are in check. My obsession—of a milder, readerly sort—is with the author of the book kaddish.com, which houses the character Larry. It’s Nathan Englander and it’s this book and the others by the same author. I find myself falling, as I read, into the gentle comforting trance of finding the familiar, and better—the familiar of my childhood. So, Nathan Englander again, and eager for the next book. He isn’t a science fiction writer or a fabulist; he draws on what he knows best, with subject and setting thoroughly commingled. In other words, he draws on, and gives us, the contents of his head, certainly his spirit, the crosssectioned, thoroughgoing Englander, third- or fourth-generation Jewish Brooklyner, educated in orthodox religious schools. A DNA reading would confirm this.

Here is the story; it starts with a funeral and, without question, funerals bring out the worst in everyone. No need to cite examples. At the shiva, the period of mourning following his father’s death, Larry’s overwhelming sense of loss and the bewilderment experienced in a faithless age have brought him to a state of infantile helplessness and anger. A tantrum almost, in facing his older sister in whose pious home the shiva takes place. Here she is, the older sister married and living in Memphis, while he has stayed closer to their roots, in Brooklyn. He has been assigned to his nephew’s narrow bed in an over-air-conditioned room, illuminated even at night by the green light of the boy’s aquarium. Some time ago Larry had ceased to believe and counts himself secular. A week of nights in a skinny bed and days in the company of the praying devout have him loose his hold on civility and reason, and, located at bedtime next to his oxygenated companions, he is himself a fish out of water. His bossy, smug and pious older sister, if owning the authority she asserts, should have been able to prevent the death of his beloved father and, years earlier, their flaky mother from running off with a podiatrist. He rages or is petulant and self-involved. In either case he feels himself infantilized and acts accordingly. Even he is alarmed with his regressive slide, unable to stop it. Nor can he accept, as the adult male in the family, his duty to undertake saying Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, for the 11 months necessary to ensure his father’s safe home in Paradise. However many times he assures his sister and the small rabbinical delegation who back her at the conclusion of the week-long shiva that he will do his duty, they remain unconvinced, as is he, that he will fulfill his holy obligation. Pressed by the situation, the rabbi reveals that under such rare circumstances a proxy can be found to undertake the task. It is Larry’s remaining duty to find this reliable, honourable proxy.

I referred earlier to falling, as a reader of Nathan Englander’s books, into the happy, trance-like state induced by the comfort of familiarity and the compelling writing. It is an apt description of the way in which I receive his books, but I also choose trance, because of the varied realms and layers the book inhabits at once, a veritable and rich gateau of a telling. The book begins in 1999, on the brink of the millennium. That’s one present. The current present is some two decades later when Larry, now returned to religiosity, is the respected Rebbe Shuli, married and with children, although still visited by some few controlled obsessions. There is cyberspace, another realm into which Larry and later a reluctant Shuli drift and engage, and there is the heavenly afterlife, which is present for Shuli and his devoted, generous and wise wife who dwell as equivalently there as they do in their daily Brooklyn setting. It is into the realm of cyberspace that the petulant man-slidback- to-boy goes to fulfill his promise to the rabbi, to his older sister and, most importantly, to his beloved father. On the Internet he finds the services of a yeshiva in Jerusalem, a school for the orthodox training of devout young men, an Internet yeshiva that will commit to the necessary prayers for squiring the souls of Jews to a heavenly eternal life. Find it under kaddish.com. They will, for hire, say the Mourner’s Prayer. Larry fills out the form, presses Send and he’s done—his duty, his obligation, his promise. The transaction is complete and, “for the first time since he’d left the fold—a personal, heartfelt prayer escapes his lips. ‘God protect my father’s soul.’” Some of the torment and bad-acting must find its source in the ambivalence with which Larry wrestles.

What Larry/Shuli comes to recognize as the book goes on is that the transaction he thinks he’s completed, blessed or at least made kosher by his sister’s rabbi, is a burden that can’t be undone. Nathan Englander has referred to the mind-knotting notion of something being the opposite of the opposite, of things being the reverse of the reverse—a circular method of reasoning. In its unfolding, unravelling or maybe unwinding to the central issue, the book seems to follow this means, too. Shuli, for the sake of his sanity and soul, for the soul of his father for which he has been praying deeply, earnestly since his own return to faith, must properly complete and make good the obligation he thought he’d discharged years earlier on kaddish.com.

In this book Nathan Englander is addressing two issues. What does it mean to make a promise? What is a promise? And the other is the critical subject of writing. What is the story? What is the book? I go to Joshua Abraham Heschel’s Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity for the first—and Larry could have saved himself a lot of anguish if he’d consulted there before acting. For the second I go to Cynthia Ozick’s Art & Ardor in the way that Englander goes to John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction.

Early in kaddish.com Larry visits his father in the hospital. His death is near. He reassures Larry of his own worth. “I want you to know, that you, in this world and the next will be fine.” To which Larry had responded, “You think?” In other words—you promise? An eager kid looking to his father, the only one, as he’d said, “who saw his true nature, loving Larry for exactly who he was and cherishing the man he’d become.” Who looks to a parent for more of a promise of worth and future well-being than that?

In the chilled bedroom of his nephew, he thinks about his father and recognizes how much he’d loved his father and how his father had loved him, “had accepted him, and displayed—for a religious man—a different kind of faith. He’d believed in Larry’s Larryness.

He’d held sacred his son.” And even acknowledging this mutual and sustaining love and gift, Larry had unburdened himself, for a fee, of the filial promise their faith had required. If he’d checked first with Heschel, as I’d said, he’d have known before he pressed Send that succeeding with this task wasn’t possible. In “Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul,” from Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), Heschel says, regarding critical issues requiring debate, “One may not appoint a proxy to engage in spiritual struggles.”

In spite of living his life well according to the dictates of his faith, and with a true and loving heart, and in the accumulation of two decades of devotion and practice, a doubt niggles still at the edges of Shuli’s consciousness. Some things goad an unease that blossoms with overblown nuclear proportions into an obsession, which can’t be set aside. It happens this way. Reb Shuli, acting in his capacity as rabbi, has performed a wedding ceremony. To physically manifest the weight of the spiritual contract, a handkerchief—a token—has been exchanged between the parties, and Shuli is off as if ignited by a fuse. The wedding contract brings back to him the one made with his dying father, with his pious sister and her synagogue cohort, with his own temporarily lapsed faith, with his people’s history, with God, and with his place in the continuum of the universe. There couldn’t be more parties to this contract and he has abandoned and betrayed them all. It has to be righted.

Heschel would concur. He writes further in “To Save a Soul” that whether we detest it or not, the idea of holiness resides in everyone. He moves toward the promise, saying that everyone knows the power of the spoken word and he asks, what is it that happens when someone utters a promise? And then he moves with the speed of a wolverine and abandons debate. He’s telling it; it’s not really a question. “Why do we assume that loyalty to one’s word is the basis of all human relationships? The promise that is given, the contract that is made—is sacred, and one who desecrates it destroys the foundation upon which all of communal life is established.” Heschel is a learned, revered, holy man. This sounds to me like a gentle, irrevocable curse and as effective and unshakable as the sternly waggling, metronomed finger of a parent, upright and standing big, or more—a grandparent predicting dire outcomes, if. “Until the moment I speak, the choice is mine,” Heschel says, “but once the words have left my mouth, I may not rescind or desecrate them. Willingly or unwillingly, the word spoken by me controls me. It becomes a sacred power which has dominion over me, lurking at my door and compelling my compliance.” Here stands Shuli/Larry.

And he knows what he has to do, as the story continues. He will contact Chemi, who dutifully, so many years ago, signed off on his obligation with a letter he’d sent at the end of the 11-month mourning period, writing, “It’s been an honour to be your emissary, mourning the dead in your name.” He will contact him and secure the return of the token they’d exchanged—in this case a cyber pen and the hand receiving it on the kaddish.com website page. He will once again own his birthright, which would entitle him and validate his prayers for his father. Twenty years he’d spent making things right, praying for his father’s soul when all that time he hadn’t had a direct line. But contacting kaddish.com to enable this simple, holy transaction isn’t possible and Reb Shuli enlists the assistance of his young student Gavriel (like the Archangel Gabriel, the messenger), who dwells, as most youth do, with equal facility in the dual realms of cyberspace and an orthodox Brooklyn school. Gavriel has not yet had his Bar Mitzvah, is therefore still a child and incapable of sin. After much effort the boy finds a way to correspond with the site so Reb Shuli can make his request. With a GIF and through the agency of Google Maps, the modest yeshiva is located, tucked almost into a crevice in the winding, up and down ancient streets of Jerusalem, pinpointed with an X. It’s there. And from this point Englander takes Shuli to the Holy City to recover what is his, so his soul can be at peace and his prayers for his father effective.

The second issue central to kaddish.com, central in making literature and particularly so for Nathan Englander, is what is the story? What is the book? The writer who I think best answers this is Cynthia Ozick in her essay “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” published in Art & Ardor (E P Dutton, Inc, 1984). She wrote, “Of the stories and novels that mean to be literature, one expects a certain corona of moral purpose: not outright in the grain of the fiction itself, but in the form of a faintly incandescent envelope around it.” She goes on, “The tales we care for lastingly are the ones that touch on the redemptive.” She disentangles the idea of redemption from notions of virtue and fate and places it instead in our capacity to make choices. For her, the redemptive means “the freedom to change one’s life.” (Oh Larry/Shuli, read this.) Think of the lightness and illumination that are carried in Ozick’s identifying something as weightless but essential as “the nimbus of meaning that envelops story.” When Nathan Englander says, as he did in a video conversation at the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, “You should go into a book and just think,” it parallels Ozick’s writing “What literature means is its meaning.”

Through some stealth and close attention, and driven by faith and a good heart, Shuli does find Chemi, the man with whom he’d bartered away his birthright, and he’s recognized. “It’s you!” Chemi says. “The madman from Brooklyn who doesn’t give up.” To give up when what’s at stake is the eternal soul? He’s travelled from Brooklyn to Jerusalem, through the endless black void of the Internet and to the edges of sanity. He’s come, he tells Chemi, “for my father in heaven—for his soul and mine.” It’s nothing to Chemi, who returns the birthright in the form of a tin amulet he exchanges for the 50-shekel note he’d earlier given Shuli when he thought Shuli had come for money, saying, “I hereby return what you came for. Mourning again belongs to you.” It’s a tidy wrapping of the story, but Englander is sly, too, and there’s good and not good. On his website Chemi posts a constantly amplifying number. “2784 souls served” is what the site boasts. Other golden arches come to mind here, not a heavenly arcade but still, golden and growing. He says, “For each a premium paid, and then—,” and Shuli responds, “A kaddish unsaid.” And in my head I hear a somewhere-lodged rhyme, which is—of all things—tied to the Reformation and papal indulgences and accompanied by “As soon as coin in coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Same chilling transaction. But saved, in Englander’s work, in the way Ozick defines the redemptive in literature.

Do we still make promises today? And if we do, is there an expectation they’ll be met and kept? Yes. On what would we base a future if there were no promises. Seeking is a promise, too.

Volume 38, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #150, published June 2019.

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