Fic­tion

kad​dish​.com

By – March 4, 2019

Three cheers for Nathan Eng­lan­der, back on his home turf in his best nov­el to date. In kad​dish​.com, set in the Mod­ern Ortho­dox world, a some­times-errat­ic man named Shuli strug­gles to make his life whole again after the death of his beloved father. Shat­tered by his loss, Shuli can’t cope with his unfo­cused anger. He has aban­doned the reli­gious life which his father cher­ished and rebels against the stric­tures of shi­va, the week-long mourn­ing process, for the father he loved. He can’t even bring him­self to com­mit to say­ing the Kad­dish memo­r­i­al prayer regularly.

Shuli thinks he’s found the per­fect solu­tion when he stum­bles across a web­site, kad​dish​.com, that promis­es to find some­one to say the Kad­dish prayer for him — like a JDate for the dead,” as he puts it. But no soon­er does he take that step than a sense of guilt over­comes him, and he embraces the Ortho­doxy he thought he had left behind.

As in any quest, Shuli’s suc­cess depends on the peo­ple he meets along the way. One piv­otal change comes when he meets a yeshi­va boy who has also rebelled in the face of loss.His wife also plays a sig­nif­i­cant role, as she helps him learn to mod­er­ate his obsessiveness.

Yet, Shuli is still not at peace. He can’t escape the guilt he feels for hav­ing used kad​dish​.com instead of say­ing the Kad­dish him­self, and he begins to obsess about how to undo what he has done. His guilt takes him to Jerusalem, where he learns a dis­may­ing secret but ulti­mate­ly finds the begin­nings of his own redemption.

kad​dish​.com is a more inti­mate nov­el than either of Englander’s oth­er two. Both Din­ner at the Cen­ter of the Earth, which cen­tered around Israeli pol­i­tics and politi­cians, and The Min­istry of Spe­cial Cas­es, which dealt with the dic­ta­tor­ship in Argenti­na, were deeply affect­ing but bear the weight of back­ground research. In kad​dish​.com, the set­tings and the peo­ple are sec­ond-nature to Eng­lan­der. When he writes about a yeshi­va, or the Nachla’ot neigh­bor­hood of Jerusalem, he has an espe­cial­ly keen eye and ear. He has always had an instinct for the telling detail, and it’s a con­tin­u­al delight for the read­er, as his fans — espe­cial­ly of his short sto­ries — will attest.

kad​dish​.com has many virtues: the brisk pace of the sto­ry, the appeal­ing sup­port­ing char­ac­ters, the ongo­ing sus­pense. Chief among them, though, is Englander’s abid­ing sym­pa­thy for peo­ple and the mis­takes they make, and his under­stand­ing of the aching need for forgiveness.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Vin­tage Books

  1. Dis­cuss the theme of faith as it is por­trayed in the nov­el. How does each character’s faith man­i­fest itself? Does faith always man­i­fest itself in the same way? Do you feel that any one character’s faith is more legit­i­mate” than oth­ers? Why or why not?
  2. While Lar­ry is stay­ing at his sister’s house for his father’s shi­va, he decides to watch pornog­ra­phy on his lap­top and imme­di­ate­ly feels guilty. He is haunt­ed by the image of a par­tic­u­lar actress in one of the videos for years to come. To what do you attribute this woman’s stay­ing pow­er in Larry’s con­science? What does she come to rep­re­sent to him?
  3. When Lar­ry looks at the pho­to of Che­mi, he thinks to him­self, See how this young man, alone in the beit midrash, strug­gles to assim­i­late some Tal­mu­dic idea” (44). Short­ly after, he begins to weep, and he lat­er iden­ti­fies this moment as the one in which he chose to return to Judaism. Why does Chemi’s pho­to­graph have such a pro­found effect on Lar­ry? Why is his choice of the word assim­i­late” significant?
  4. Con­sid­er Larry’s deci­sion to take on Shuli as his new name. What does this name sym­bol­ize to him? Is it his inten­tion to leave his life as Lar­ry behind for­ev­er? Is he suc­cess­ful? Why or why not?
  5. Explore the novel’s depic­tion of the inter­play between tech­nol­o­gy and reli­gion (Judaism, in par­tic­u­lar). Are the two at odds with one anoth­er? Has Judaism been, in any way, enriched by technology?
  6. Why is Shuli so affect­ed by the news of Gavriel’s father’s death — and by the boy’s refusal to say Kad­dish at school? To what extent does he iden­ti­fy with Gavriel? Why does this boy’s sto­ry inspire Shuli to try and make con­tact with Chemi?
  7. Com­pare and con­trast Shuli and Miri’s obser­vance of Jew­ish law. How does Miri make sense of Chemi’s guilt? His past? Does she agree that Shuli’s search for Che­mi is jus­ti­fied? To what do you attribute any key dif­fer­ences in their understanding?
  8. What does the Inter­net rep­re­sent to Shuli? Why is it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly so allur­ing and so repul­sive to him? As you answer this ques­tion, con­sid­er Shuli’s beliefs about where knowl­edge comes from.
  9. Explore the dream Shuli has about his father in the hotel in Jerusalem. How do you inter­pret the absence of each man’s elbows? How does this dream deep­en our under­stand­ing of Shuli’s con­nec­tion to his father? Of his sense of guilt?
  10. On page 151, Eng­lan­der alludes to the bib­li­cal nar­ra­tive of Jacob’s lad­der: Reb Shuli lies down, with a bag under his head for a pil­low, bet­ter off than Jacob and his stones.” He again ref­er­ences this sto­ry on page 176, writ­ing, Shuli knows just when to turn and when to go straight, when to climb or descend a stair­case.” In what ways is this allu­sion significant?
  11. Exam­ine the dream Shuli has after he dis­cov­ers the truth about Che­mi. Which rit­u­als does he per­form at the begin­ning of the dream, and what do they sig­ni­fy? Who appears to him in the dream? How does each per­son present him­self or her­self, and how would you char­ac­ter­ize the inter­ac­tions Shuli has with each of them? What is the Heav­en­ly Tri­bunal, and why does Shuli sus­pect that the three indi­vid­u­als he encoun­ters con­sti­tute the Tri­bunal? How do you inter­pret the con­clu­sion of this dream sequence?
  12. Why do you think Shuli decides to spend the last of his mon­ey on an elab­o­rate Kid­dush cup for Gavriel? What does he hope to com­mu­ni­cate with this gift? Do you think his mes­sage will come across to Gavriel? Why or why not?
  13. Dis­cuss Shuli’s deci­sion to remain in Israel and say Kad­dish for all of the peo­ple for whom Che­mi neglect­ed to do so. Do you think Miri will agree to move there with him, or has their mar­riage reached a break­ing point? Is this the end­ing you expect­ed? Why or why not?