For the Relief of Unbear­able Urges

By – October 26, 2011

Imag­ine your­self open­ing a book by a bright, shiny, fresh­ly-mint­ed author of new Jew­ish sto­ries only to find your­self at a sym­po­sium with some of the great­est writ­ers of Jew­ish fic­tion of this cen­tu­ry. This is For the Relief of Unbear­able Urges, by Nathan Englander.

The book is a sum­ming-up of the Jew­ish fic­tion of the past fifty years. It is not at all a ques­tion of lit­er­ary influ­ence. Rather, the book should be con­sid­ered a col­lo­qui­um, a sym­po­sium in which Eng­lan­der has a series of lit­er­ary and meta­phys­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions with writ­ers – most, but not all of them Jew­ish – who have pre­ced­ed him.

One could go through the Table of Con­tents of the book and point to the authors Eng­lan­der engages in con­ver­sa­tion and to the works he uses as a jump­ing off point for his own fic­tion. A sub­ject that comes up in many of the sto­ries in Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. The back­ground of the first sto­ry of the col­lec­tion, The Twen­ty-sev­enth Man,” is the exe­cu­tion, on August 12, 1952, of 26 mem­bers of the Sovi­et Jew­ish Anti-Fas­cist Com­mit­tee – most of them Yid­dish writ­ers. As in Roy­al Gar­ments,” a recent novel­la by Allen Hoff­man, anoth­er Amer­i­can liv­ing in and writ­ing fic­tion from Jerusalem, Eng­lan­der recre­ates the ter­ror induced by the Sovi­et sys­tem of Jus­tice. Eng­lan­der writes a midrash on the his­tor­i­cal event by adding an unknown writer into the mix. Using an artis­tic tech­nique called mise en abyme,” in which a work of art cre­ates a mir­ror­ing effect, Eng­lan­der inserts a sto­ry by his fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, Pin­chas Pelovitz, into his own. Super­fi­cial­ly, cre­ativ­i­ty tri­umphs over adver­si­ty. More impor­tant­ly, per­haps, the unknown writer, like Eng­lan­der, tri­umphant­ly cre­ates a space for him­self in the lit­er­ary firmament.

Eng­lan­der’s sec­ond sto­ry, The Tum­blers,” is as serio-com­ic tale about the sal­va­tion and redemp­tion, dur­ing the Holo­caust, of a group of pious Jews from the well-known lit­er­ary shtetl of Chelm. Tak­ing the Chelm sto­ries seri­ous­ly, Eng­lan­der takes his seat at a pan­el with Aharon Appelfeld (Baden­heim, 1939), Elie Wiesel (The Tri­al of God), and Robert Benig­ni (Life is Beau­ti­ful). The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” about a case of Jew­ish metem-psy­chosis, is a round-table dis­cus­sion with the Philip Roth of Eli, the Fanat­ic,” the Bernard Mala­mud of The Sil­ver Crown,” the Cyn­thia Ozick of Usurpa­tion,” and the Woody Allen of The Shal­low­est Man.” But make no mis­take about it. For all his con­cer­tiz­ing with pre­vi­ous fic­tion, Eng­lan­der’s com­po­si­tions are not at all deriv­a­tive. Eng­lan­der’s voice and tem­po are tru­ly dis­tinc­tive and imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able as his own.

Although he him­self is a lapsed Jew” – a Jew who grew up in the bosom of Jew­ish reli­gious life but who sub­se­quent­ly aban­doned its prac­tice – Eng­lan­der is nonethe­less a cul­tur­al­ly con­fi­dent one. His sto­ries are filled with insid­er lin­go” and oth­er Jew­ish cul­tur­al mark­ers (more than forty words, phras­es and allu­sions to tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish prac­tice). He does not con­sid­er it nec­es­sary to define expres­sions like shei­t­el mach­er and trayf up and bedekken. Not only does he know the dif­fer­ence between shul and shtibl, and a meik­il and a mah­mir, he also asks the read­er to make an effort to find the sub­tle­ty himself.

It is not only a mat­ter of vocab­u­lary, how­ev­er. The geo­graph­i­cal set­tings of Eng­lan­der’s sto­ries and their his­tor­i­cal moment are no less reveal­ing. In this book, we trav­el back­wards in time from Stal­in­ist pogroms in the Sovi­et Union to the dev­as­ta­tion of an East­ern Euro­pean shtetl dur­ing the Holo­caust. From there we migrate to Amer­i­ca, mak­ing stops in an Amer­i­ca-Jew­ish sub­urb, in a fic­tion­al ver­sion of Bor­ough Park, Brook­lyn (called Roy­al Hills by the author), and in an upscale sec­tion of Man­hat­tan. We then move to Israel, to the reli­gious sec­tion of Jerusalem, with a lit­tle for­ay into naughty Tel-Aviv. Our last stop, like Eng­lan­der’s, is a locale in sec­u­lar Jerusalem. There, dur­ing and after a ter­ror­ist bomb­ing, Amer­i­can Nathan has become Israeli Natan.

The imag­i­na­tion, these sto­ries tell us, may not bring hap­pi­ness; it can, how­ev­er, bring redemp­tion. The abil­i­ty to put on a play, to use their imag­i­na­tion, is what will set the Mah­mir Hasidim of the sto­ry Tum­blers” free. Curi­ous­ly, even though it is the exer­cise of his imag­i­na­tion that has set the author of these sto­ries free of his Judaism, it has also kept him firm­ly attached to his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. What Nathan Eng­lan­der teach­es us in this extra­or­di­nar­i­ly com­plex and ener­giz­ing vol­ume is that although you can imag­ine your­self free and even imag­ine your­self oth­er,” you can­not suc­ces­ful­ly imag­ine your­self in a vac­u­um, purged of your past and your people.

When the Sovi­et prison guard in The twen­ty-sev­enth Man” opens the peep­hole in the door of the cell impris­on­ing the Jew­ish writ­ers, he finds that a sym­po­sium has bro­ken loose.” even at the most extreme moments, one can imag­ine a group of Jews exer­cis­ing their col­lec­tive free­dom and claim­ing their iden­ti­ty. That’s what has hap­pened in this col­lec­tion as well. It remains to be seen what our own Pin­chas Pelovitz, the young Amer­i­can Jew­ish writer named Nathan Eng­lan­der resid­ing in Jerusalem, will cre­ate in the after­math of the present symposium.

Joseph Lowin, Hebrew lan­guage colum­nist for Hadas­sah Mag­a­zine, is the author most recent­ly of a book of lit­er­ary analy­sis, Art and the Artist in the Con­tem­po­rary Israeli Nov­el (Lex­ing­ton Books, 2017).

Discussion Questions

From Ran­dom House

The Twen­ty-sev­enth Man”

1. Is it fit­ting that Pin­chas Pelovits be exe­cut­ed along­side the Sovi­et Union’s best Yid­dish writ­ers, even though he is com­plete­ly unknown and includ­ed only by accident?

2. Ana­lyze the sto­ry that Pin­chas com­pos­es in prison. What is the rela­tion­ship of this strange tale to the frame sto­ry? What does Eng­lan­der’s sto­ry sug­gest about the inter­play of cri­sis and creativity?

The Tum­blers”

3. The so-called Wise Men of Chelm, who hap­pi­ly reshape the terms of real­i­ty when it fits their needs, are well-known fig­ures in East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish folk­lore. Why does Eng­lan­der relo­cate these famil­iar char­ac­ters into a sto­ry about the Holo­caust, some­thing ter­ri­fy­ing and his­tor­i­cal? How does the Nazi roundup of the Jews change all the terms of real­i­ty for the Mah­mir­im Hasidim, and what is sig­nif­i­cant about the par­tic­u­lar way in which they respond to this challenge?

4. What con­sti­tutes mag­ic and illu­sion in this tale? Are the Wise Men of Chelm the only ones in the sto­ry who invent their own real­i­ty? Why, of all the roles of cir­cus per­form­ers, does Eng­lan­der decide to turn his pious char­ac­ters into acrobats?

5. What is the rela­tion­ship between chance and fate in this sto­ry? Between faith and fate? What is the effect of the sto­ry’s unre­solved ending?


6. When Mar­ty brings the rab­bi’s schiz­o­phrenic broth­er along for a sur­prise reunion, the rab­bi rebukes Mar­ty with the words, You are a man with­out bound­aries.… There are lim­its, pre­scribed, writ­ten.… Nowhere does it say I must for­give” [p. 79]. Is the rab­bi a hyp­ocrite? Is Mar­ty right to chal­lenge him?

7. Is Mar­ty a dif­fi­cult per­son because he is men­tal­ly ill or because he refus­es to accept his place in the com­mu­ni­ty? Why does his wife Robin say, A sick man is not a dev­il. You, Mar­ty, are both” [p. 80]? Do you sym­pa­thize with Mar­ty or with his wife?

The Wig”

8. What does nat­ur­al hair sym­bol­ize for the women in this sto­ry, and par­tic­u­lar­ly for Ruchama? How do each of the major fig­ures in this sto­ry attempt to sat­is­fy their for­bid­den yearnings?

9. Why do Ruchama’s desires spi­ral out of con­trol? Is it sig­nif­i­cant that the hair she will be wear­ing in her new wig is that of a man, and not a woman?

The Gilgul of Park Avenue”

10. How has his con­ver­sion expe­ri­ence changed Charles Luger? How has it changed his wife Sue? Is there a sort of spir­i­tu­al awak­en­ing on her part as well as his? Is it sur­pris­ing that she wants to stay with him?

11. Rab­bi Zal­man Meintz was liv­ing in Boli­nas, Cal­i­for­nia, and was addict­ed to sor­row and drugs” [p. 116] when he dis­cov­ered his Jew­ish soul. Are we meant to take the notion of gilgulim” — rein­car­nat­ed souls — seri­ous­ly or not? How is spir­i­tu­al iden­ti­ty defined in this story?

12. Sue asks, Well, if you have to be Jew­ish, why so Jew­ish? … Why do peo­ple who find reli­gion always have to be so god­damn extreme?” [p. 122]. Why would­n’t Luger be sat­is­fied with being what Sue calls a West Side Jew” rather than a scrupu­lous­ly obser­vant Ortho­dox Jew? Does the idea of being a real Jew stand for the need for rit­u­al obser­vance and spir­i­tu­al mean­ing in dai­ly life?

Reb Kringle”

13. In what ways is the Jew­ish boy who cel­e­brates Christ­mas but longs for a meno­rah in a posi­tion sim­i­lar to that of Reb Itzik? What is Eng­lan­der sug­gest­ing about the chal­lenge to reli­gious iden­ti­ty in a con­sumer culture?

14. Is the rab­bi a sym­pa­thet­ic fig­ure? Is his wife betray­ing some­thing sacred by send­ing him out to make mon­ey in this way? Does the sto­ry leave open the pos­si­bil­i­ty that he will refuse to return to the store the next day — or are we to assume his wife will force him to do so?

The Last One Way”

15. Why does Git­ta’s hus­band Ber­el refuse to give her a divorce? Is Git­ta jus­ti­fied in forc­ing Lieb­man, the match­mak­er, to help her? How does this sto­ry high­light the lack of pri­va­cy with­in Ortho­dox communities?

16. Why does Git­ta end up telling Ber­el the truth about the preg­nan­cy? How is he able to extract this infor­ma­tion? Did he real­ly intend to give her a divorce, as he says he was ready to do?

For the Relief of Unbear­able Urges”

17. What kinds of vio­lence are there in this sto­ry? Is the emo­tion­al vio­lence Ber­el employs more or less vicious than the phys­i­cal vio­lence to which he is subjected?

18. How does this sto­ry high­light the dif­fi­cul­ty of rec­on­cil­ing the demands of reli­gious obser­vance with the real­i­ties of sex­u­al and emo­tion­al life with­in a mar­riage? How does it com­pare to The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” in the ways it exam­ines a mar­riage in crisis?

19. How good is the rab­bi’s advice? What do you think of the fact that Dov gets a vene­re­al infec­tion because of his attempt to obey the bib­li­cal injunc­tion that it is a sin to spill seed in vain” [p. 188]? Why can’t he tell his wife what has happened?

In This Way We Are Wise”

20. Why does Eng­lan­der choose to end the col­lec­tion with a ter­ror­ist bomb­ing in present-day Jerusalem, seem­ing to shift into the realm of non­fic­tion? Why does he use his own name for the pro­tag­o­nist of this story?

21. What is he say­ing about the dis­tance between the Jerusalem in this sto­ry and the Zion­ist ide­al of Jerusalem nes­tled away like Eden” [p. 203] on which he was raised? Or between the ideals fos­tered in Jew­ish tra­di­tion and the con­tem­po­rary nation of Israel? What is the mean­ing of the sto­ry’s title?

22. Often when read­ing fic­tion we don’t have a sense of the pres­ence of the writer, but this sto­ry seems to move us clos­er to Nathan Eng­lan­der. How does it change your per­cep­tion of the sto­ries that have come before? 23.The char­ac­ters in this col­lec­tion are near­ly all of one reli­gion and eth­nic­i­ty, but this has­n’t pre­vent­ed the book from win­ning wide praise and inter­est in the lit­er­ary press. What is it about Eng­lan­der’s themes and con­cerns that his work can be shared and enjoyed by a far more diverse group of readers? 

For gen­er­al dis­cus­sion of For the Relief of Unbear­able Urges 

24. In sev­er­al of these sto­ries, a char­ac­ter is removed from a com­fort­able, homo­ge­neous world and placed in a new and bewil­der­ing sit­u­a­tion. Eng­lan­der him­self, who has bro­ken with his Ortho­dox upbring­ing, has said, I’m a fourth-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can. I lived in a shtetl with strip malls around it. Every­thing was so for­bid­den. But when you know noth­ing else, it gets to be a real adven­ture to find anoth­er world.” How do his char­ac­ters respond to these challenges? 

25. Many of the sto­ries in this col­lec­tion are quite fun­ny, though in dif­fer­ent ways. How would you char­ac­ter­ize Eng­lan­der’s sense of humor and the way it affects the style of these stories? 

26. At the heart of sev­er­al sto­ries is an explo­ration of the prob­lems of mar­riage and inti­ma­cy. What sorts of trou­bles arise in the mar­riages in this nov­el? Do mar­riage and sex­u­al inti­ma­cy seem to inten­si­fy rather than bridge bound­aries? Why? 

27. What is the rela­tion­ship between reli­gious ortho­doxy and con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can cul­ture in these sto­ries? What are the eth­i­cal con­flicts, for the faith­ful, that arise out of their collision?