For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is an astonishment. Whether Nathan Englander is creating the last days of 27 condemned Soviet writers or the first in which a Park Avenue lawyer finds religion (in a taxi, no less), his gift is everywhere in evidence. Englander's specialty is the collision of Jewish law and tradition with secular realities, whether in Brooklyn, Tel Aviv, or Stalinist Russia. In one tale, a wigmaker from an ultra-orthodox Brooklyn enclave journeys into Manhattan for supplies and, more importantly, inspiration--frequenting a newsstand where she pays for the right to flip through forbidden fashion magazines. If all Ruchama wants to do is be beautiful again and momentarily free of communal constraints, others ask only to survive. In "The Tumblers," set in World War II Poland (with a metafictional twist), followers of the Mahmir Rebbe get into a train filled with circus performers rather than into a cattle car. Their only chance is to camouflage themselves as part of the troupe:
Their acceptance as acrobats was a stretch, a first-glance guess, a benefit of the doubt granted by circumstance and only as valuable as their debut would prove. It was an absurd undertaking. But then again, Mendel thought, no more unbelievable than the reality from which they'd escaped, no more unfathomable than the magic of disappearing Jews.
Another story, "Reb Kringle," is almost breezy by comparison. Each year, one Brooklynite dreads his holiday job from hell, playing Santa Claus in a Manhattan department store: "There were elves posted on each side of Itzik; one--a humorless, muscular midget--wore a pair of combat boots that gave him the look of elf-at-arms. His companion might have been a twin. He wore black high-tops but had the same vigilant paramilitary demeanor." Itzik can put up with the children's accidents and greed, with his sciatica, and even with a mischief maker's attempt to cut off his beard. But when one boy admits that what he really wants to do is celebrate Hanukkah, "the infamous Reb Santa" loses it. Though this is undoubtedly the collection's lightest piece--proof positive that you have to be a saint to be a Jewish Santa--it is no less piercing an examination of identity and obligation than Englander's more heavyweight entries. --Kerry Fried
From Publishers Weekly
"I suffer greatly under the urges with which I have been blessed," says Dov Binyamin, an orthodox Jew agonizing over his wife Chava's self-imposed celibacy, and one of several protagonists in Englander's stellar first collection who seek often ill-fitting rabbinical answers to thorny modern problems. When Dov's rebbe grants him authorization to see a prostitute, the consequences (not least of which is a case of VD) offer a moral fable of pathos and hilarity that is the signature key of these nine graceful and remarkably self-assured stories. Ranging expertly from contemporary Israel to New York and to isolated Yiddish communities in Russia and Europe, they spin a vision of 20th-century orthodox Judaism under siege from both political tyranny and the rapid pace of modern life. Englander's prose is spare and crystalline, capturing the singsong rhythms and sometimes contorted English of a primarily Yiddish cast, often striking a deliberately archaic tone, as in "The 27th Man," the Chekhovian tale of Pinchas Pelovits, a dreamy, unpublished writer in midcentury Russia. Not unlike Englander, Pinchas has "constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies." Abducted by Stalin's henchmen, Pinchas composes a miniature masterpiece, a parable of faith in spite of an absent God, which he recites to his cell mates only minutes before being gunned down by a firing squad. Despite their surface mixture of humor and horror, these are stories of ideas, offering complex meditations on Judaism through the eyes of an astonishing range of characters: a disconsolate middle-age orthodox woman imprisoned in limbo by a husband who won't grant a divorce; a Cheeveresque Park Avenue financial analyst with a taxi-cab epiphany that he's Jewish; an American navigating the streets of contemporary Jerusalem during a terrorist campaign. Englander's reported $350,000 advance for this collection has made it one of the most bruited literary debuts of the year. Such brouhaha shouldn't cloud the achievement of these unpretentious and powerful stories.
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