Let My People Go
In 1819, Joseph Perl wrote the first Hebrew novel, a vicious satire on Hasidism called Revealer of Secrets. A faithful Jew, Perl did not want to threaten his standing in the community, so he published the book in Vienna under a pseudonym. Nearly two centuries later, a Jew who satirizes other Jews need not resort to a pseudonym. He doesn’t even have to fear reprisals from the angry targets of his satire. What he must do, in fact, especially if he was raised Orthodox, is to break with the community. His break will become the basis of his reputation.
Nathan Englander made a terrific splash in 1999 with his first collection of stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, nine portraits of the Orthodox Jewish world he had abandoned only a few years before. His second collection is What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Knopf, 207 pages). In the title story, two Americans “who ran off to Israel twenty years ago and turned Hasidic” are visiting friends in South Florida. They drink (“Whiskey’s kosher, too, right?”); they smoke marijuana; they discuss Jewish identity. When Lauren and Mark, who now call themselves Shoshana and Yerucham, emigrated to Israel, they “went from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox.” That sounds to the story’s narrator, the husband in the other couple, “like a repackaged detergent—ORTHODOX ULTRA®, now with more deep-healing power.” He and his wife, Deb, are secular Jews who are offended by “the Mormons going through the Holocaust list,” converting the dead.
About the Author
D.G. Myers, literary historian at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, writes our fiction chronicle and is the author of the Literary Commentary blog.