Englander, Nathan “Kaddish.com”, Knopf, 2019.
Not Honoring the Dead
Nathan Englander bring us his new book; a streamlined comic novel about a son’s failure to say Kaddish for his father. Larry is the secular son in a family of Orthodox Brooklyn Jews. It is important to understand that among most male Jews, it is expected that when a son is born it is his responsibility to mourn his father annually by saying the Kaddish prayer on the anniversary of his father’s death and this is repeated when the son has a son and so on.
Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead that does not mention death and is recited every day for eleven months after a family member’s or a loved one’s death and then becomes a prayer to be said annually Larry shocks and dismays his sister by refusing to say the prayer and therefor imperiling the fate of his father’s soul. To appease her, Larry has an ingenious if cynical plan— he hires a stranger through a website called kaddish.com to recite the prayer and shepherd his father’s soul safely to rest. This is not so strange. Jews have been known to hire Sabbath goys to do the work for them that they are prohibited from doing on the Sabbath forgetting that the Torah says that neither you nor your servant…. They somehow find a loophole by having someone different do it every week so the Sabbath goy is not a servant but simply a hiree (go figure….I never quite got it either). The word “goy” is Yiddish for anyone who is not Jewish
You can guess how sharp and irreverent this book is and even though there will be some who are offended by the premise, I believe that all will agree that it is a very funny read.
Sharp, irreverent, hilarious, and wholly irresistible, Englander’s story about Larry who makes a diabolical compromise wonderfully captures the tensions between tradition and modernity and it is such a fascinating read that I read the entire book in just one sitting which I can guess that many of you will do the same. It is no problem to guess where the book is header but I believe that only enhances the experience.
I love that humor sneaks onto the page for quick laughs and that the characters have satirical sides and especially that very serious subjects are hidden in humor while overall there is a desire for what religion and tradition mean to Jews today.
It all starts at a shiva (a Jewish ritual performed when a loved one dies that includes prayer and visits from friends) in Tennessee. Larry’s father has died and Larry is quire angry about it His sister Dina has kept her Jewish orthodoxy as opposed to Larry who is a completely secularized Jew, the book’s protagonist, and Dina, who retains her Orthodox identity. Larry is unwilling to commit to saying Kaddish and finds a website kaddish.com (“like Jdate for the dead”) that will for a small fee have someone else — a young Talmudic student in Israel, for example — say the prayer in his place. Larry clicks “Accept” and considers himself finished with an obligation he neither wants or believes in. This is what sets everything in motion when, years later Larry returns to Orthodoxy marries, has a family, and becomes Shuli, a rabbi at a New York yeshiva. (Yes, you read that correctly and by the way for those who questioned Tennessee as the setting, you should know that the largest Orthodox synagogue in the world, Baron Hirsch is in Memphis).
There is no way to summarize the plot aside from saying that due to tremendous guilt and shame, Larry/Shuli’s efforts to undo his decision throw his life into disarray, threaten his job and his marriage and take him into the world where modernity and tradition, technology and faith, coexist as best they can and uneasily. You might think that a book that is driven by the death of a father will be quite sad but there is little sad here and reverence is thrown out of the window. There are many very funny laugh aloud moments in the book and I doubt that there’s a lot of serious thought here at all. Unlike Englander’s other writing, this is open and unrestrained filled with Hebrew words and allusions to old Jewish texts and commentary with which many readers will be completely unfamiliar. Many of these can be understood by context in the book, but many aren’t. Yet they are all necessary, because everything Larry/Shuli does is at heart a matter of trying to make his way through thought and understanding that are shaped by two epistemologies that don’t quite intersect. A lot of the humor comes from Shuli struggling to apply Talmudic reasoning to events in a digital world.
Englander’s prose is insightful, poetic, and, often very, very funny. He is able to analyze the human experience in a way that pays attention to tiny detail. I was reminded of a friend in Little Rock who moved the dates of the deaths of everyone in her family to one date (which I am sure is heresy) so that she could say Kaddish for them all at the same time and just once thus allowing her more time for shopping and Mah Jonng.