For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander (Knopf) 191 pp., $22
His lips are drawn and taut. His eyes are deep-set with remembrances. His mouth is turned up at the corners. But don’t mistake the expression for a smile or the eyes for wistful reminiscing. This is the grimace of a man with dark haunts all too recent to be called memories. His name is Nathan Englander and he has delivered a much heralded, personal and passionate debut collection of nine short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
Englander grew up as an Orthodox Jew in New York and now lives the life of a secular Jew in Jerusalem. Plenty of symbolism right there. He trains his dark eyes unsparingly on the Orthodox community of his past and writes engaging fiction that is no fiction at all. He exposes the seamy side of Orthodox life with all the bile of an insider who has walked away in great anguish. Many authors have depicted this community with such warmth and romance that Englander’s portrayal seems all the more jarring, even heretical. Yet it rings all the more true. Mr. Englander could be Potok’s evil twin. Certainly his prose is every bit as engaging and his characters are tangible, believable and so very human. They enable us to peer into the private passions and quiet indignities of those who live in this often closed and cloistered community.
The first two stories deal with the past: Englander invites us to eavesdrop on a discussion between Yiddish literary greats inside a grimy Russian prison while they await their certain death at the hands of Stalin’s purges. Next, we witness an unlikely twist of fate for a tiny sect of Hassidim from Chelm who temporarily escape Hitler’s death trains by pretending to be tumblers in the circus. Tragic irony is his closest brush with humor.
These are not your typical shtetl” stories, not only because they deal head on with the pain of Jewish life during the dark times of the past but because they show the darkness that can exist within the Jewish soul as well. The bulk of the stories are modern day tales, mostly set in a section of Brooklyn which he calls Royal Hills (read Crown Heights). Each one is darkly entertaining and disturbingly irreverent. We are introduced to an Orthodox rabbi who is forced, by circumstance and a controlling wife, to play a department store Santa Claus in order to make ends meet. We encounter a woman who makes “sheitels” (wigs) for Orthodox women, overcome by vanity and the sorrow of her own loss of hair. Another story introduces us to a woman trapped in a desperately destructive marriage because her sadistic husband refuses to give her a “get” (divorce). The final two stories transport us to Jerusalem. The story from which the book derives its name tells of a man who receives a “heter” (a special dispensation) from his rabbi to visit a prostitute???from whom he contracts a venereal disease. The book ends with what appears to be a true first person account of Englander’s fearful brush with a terrorist bomb. He leaves us mired deep in his own doubts about the future and with a pervasive sense of hopelessness. He is a man of our times.
As the rift between the Orthodox and the rest of the Jewish community grows ever wider, these dark stories do little to build bridges. Yet there may be a positive side to Englander’s critical examination of the orthodoxy in which he was raised. An aura of holiness has been attributed to the ultra-Orthodox. They have been held in awe by the rest of us as the modern day repository of our sacred past. Englander exposes their feet of clay, acknowledging that all of us, even the most Orthodox, stand in need of redemption.