Short stories rise above Jewish stereotypes in new Englander collection

Reading Nathan Englander reminds me of those ’60s-era ads for Levy’s rye bread: you know, the ones with all kinds of smiling ethnic types enjoying a bite of Levy’s and the tagline, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.” Englander is—first and foremost—a gifted short story writer, and while his stories are uniquely Jewish in nature, their appeal is universal. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Nathan Englander.

His debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, caused a literary sensation in 1999. His new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Alfred A. Knopf, $25) contains eight stories, five of which were originally published between 1999 and 2011. While Englander’s stories assume a familiarity with Jewish thought and tradition, they transcend stereotypes. Interestingly, Englander (who describes himself as “deeply American”) grew up in an Orthodox household but gave up organized religion after living in Israel for a number of years.

The title story is an extended riff on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In Englander’s tale, two couples (one Orthodox, one Reform) are reunited and slowly revealed after an evening of drinking and smoking pot. Specifically, they play a game where they try to imagine which of their non-Jewish friends would risk their own lives by hiding them in the event of another Holocaust and who would turn them in to the authorities.

“Sister Hills,” set in Israel, chronicles the trajectories of two women whose lives take decidedly different paths over several decades as one family prospers and the other suffers repeatedly. The two women strike a pact under desperate circumstances with far-reaching and unpredictable results. “How We Avenged the Blums” is a humorous story about a group of young boys who are forced to deal with an anti-Semitic bully in their neighborhood. Jews aren’t persecuted in every Englander story. In “Camp Sundown,” they are the aggressors. The story takes place at an Elderhostel where several of the geriatric campers are convinced one of their members is actually a former Nazi death camp guard. In “Peep Show,” a lawyer (born Ari Feinberg, but now going by Allen Fein) who has married outside his faith visits a peep show on a whim and must wrestle with the guilt of his actions.

Englander’s stories are complicated and weighty but never gloomy. Jewish tradition is filled with levity as well as tragedy, and Englander expertly balances light and dark, bitter and sweet.

The stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank are superb, and deserve not only to be read, but to be talked about. ★★★★☆

Keep warm with “Book Jacket,” the season’s last installment of our cool-weather reading series by M. Scott Krause. Stay tuned for our poolside reading series, Bookini.