Sheryl Pockrose latest

“ A novel,” by Nathan Englander

This short novel is presented in four sections, and while they are not named, they easily could be called obligation, guilt, obsession, and reparation. Nathan Englander is well-known as a short story writer, and this spare tale owes quite a bit to that genre.  

As the novel opens, the family is gathered at Dina’s house to sit shiva for the family patriarch. Larry, a non-observant Jew and the only son, has travelled from Buffalo to attend at his sister’s home in an Orthodox neighborhood in Memphis. The parents had been observant all their lives, and Larry finds himself as the outsider. He is there only out of obligation, and since many of the traditions are meaningless to him, he doesn’t do the proper thing such as sit on the low stool, or refrain from taking walks or reading books during shiva.  

Eventually Dina corners Larry to let him know that as the only son, he must say kaddish for their father every day for 11 months. She forces him to promise that he will, only to then accuse him several times of lying about his intentions. He loses his temper in the face of her repeated expressions of doubt and admits that, no, he has no intention of saying kaddish every day, and there is an unpleasant scene of yelling and profanity in front of the shocked Orthodox mourners. A rabbi who witnesses this provides Larry’s way out — he suggests that in terms of the life to come for the deceased, which is the concern of the family, it would be acceptable to pay someone else to say kaddish.

It is 1999, and Larry heads straight to the internet, where he discovers a kaddish website, where one can provide a photo and some facts about the deceased, and, for a reasonable fee, someone will match you up with a yeshiva student who will fulfill the kaddish requirement. He is matched up with a student and pays the fee.

The novel then jumps right to 2019. Larry has changed his name to Shuli, having become observant, a rabbi, a husband, and a father. He teaches Gemara at a boys’ middle school. When he is counseling a troubled student who has recently lost his father, the memory of how he paid to get out of an obligation begins to weigh on his conscience. He wonders if he could find Chemi, the name of the student that was sent to him 20 years ago. 

Shuli is no longer computer literate. He has never had internet access at home or even a smart phone, in part because he is trying to avoid his compulsion to look at pornography. He enlists his troubled student to help him with the computer and see whether kaddish website still exists. Unfortunately he gets so obsessed with this that he spends too much time with the student and disrupts classes in the computer room, and he is put on a leave of absence from teaching.

He did get the information he wanted, though, and the website still exists, but there is no contact information at the website. No address, telephone number, or direct e-mail address is provided, but Shuli’s student is able to pinpoint the exact location of the site based on the ISP address and other techie details, and it is in Jerusalem.

Shuli decides to go to Jerusalem during his enforced leave, to see if he can find Chemi and get back his kinyan. His wife hopes that he can get some closure and give up his obsessive thoughts by making the trip. He goes with a rudimentary map of the exact location he is looking for, and by talking to locals nearby, he is able to locate a small, private yeshiva, and he begins attending daily prayers and studies. No one there seems to know anything about the kaddish website, but when he sees a particular name inside the torah cover, he is sure it is a sign and refers to Chemi. There is a benefactor who supports the yeshiva and visits every few months, and Shuli is certain that it must be Chemi, so he extends his visit.

At this point it becomes apparent that this entire novel is some sort of parable or black comedy, with Shuli finding Chemi, and the list of thousands of the deceased who were paid for via the website, but for whom kaddish was never said — the money went to support the yeshiva, but there never were students saying kaddish. Shuli decides to make it his remaining life’s work to properly say kaddish for all of them, figuring that if he can memorize enough of their names, he should be able to do 100 per year. He invites his wife to move the family to Jerusalem where he intends to continue his efforts for the next 30 years, and she is considering agreeing.

If you like fiction that looks at Jewish life and customs from an unconventional angle, you may enjoy this brief novel.

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