Judaism is not merely a religion, but a culture, a way of life. Many of us living in Ann Arbor can attest to this fact. And so, for anyone that has always wanted to take a class on this ubiquitous culture but has yet to find a class that fits into the “no class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday” schedule, Nathan Englander’s “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” comes thoroughly recommended.
This collection of short stories is both heart-wrenchingly funny and tragic. Englander documents the Holocaust, as well as the issues Jews face today. The opening story, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” takes the reader to WWII-era Soviet Union, where twenty-seven well-known Jewish authors are rounded up for execution.
Their crime: Speaking against the state. In the cell, a great discussion ensues, involving topics ranging from love to writing. The twenty-seventh man is not really famous at all, but rather the victim of rumors that started at his mother’s dinner table. The story evokes several smiles and a laugh or two, despite the tragic aura that lurks in the background.
This same juxtaposition of humor and tragedy is present in “The Tumblers,” “Reunion” and “The Gilgul of Park Avenue.” “The Tumblers” once again addresses WWII, but more specifically, the Holocaust. A group of Hasidic Jews avoid the trains meant to take them to the concentration camps by accidentally boarding a train of circus folk. The group is mistaken for acrobats and they are forced to keep up the disguise in order to stay alive. “Reunion” examines a modern day man’s descent into madness and his misadventures in and out of a mental hospital, while in “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” a once Gentile man must deal with his wife’s reaction after he discovers his Jewish soul in the cab ride home from work.
Jewishness aside, Englander has produced a set of fantastically entertaining stories for readers of all denominations (or lack thereof). His voice is distinct throughout each story, keeping each character real and multidimensional. No character is merely tragic or good-natured. The stories are neither long-winded nor do they leave the reader with a plethora of questions at the end. In short, they are perfect for an enjoyable read while observing the Sabbath or during an insanely boring Anthro 101 lecture.
Nathan Englander himself is a juxtaposition of sorts. He grew up in an Orthodox house with very right-winged views. Religious for most of his childhood, he adopted a secular view upon visiting Jerusalem. He now lives his secular life in the most religious city in the world. His latest work has propelled him into a very unreligious spotlight, yet for the time being, his home is Israel seems to suit him just fine.
So, for the relief of your unbearably boring classes and/or life, pick up Englander’s “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” and start learning, crying and laughing about one of the world’s most interesting religions.