Antic Santa

James Francken

  • For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander
    Faber, 205 pp, £9.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 571 19691 8

A nervous young lawyer leaves a rabbi’s house with a sinking feeling. The arguments that he had prepared now seem hopeless: he couldn’t persuade the immigrants that their old-fashioned clothes were out of place in a New York suburb. The other Jewish inhabitants of Woodenton had warned him: ‘there’s a good healthy relationship in this town because it’s modern Jews and Protestants.’ They had known that the newcomers would be implacable: ‘Making a big thing out of suffering, so you’re going oy-oy-oy all your life, that’s common sense? ... They live in the medieval ages, Eli – it’s some superstition, some rule.’ But Eli wants to accommodate the rabbi; he changes out of his new tweed suit and wanders into town in an Orthodox get-up – black hat and gabardine. In ‘Eli, the Fanatic’, the transformation helps Philip Roth connect up some of the leading themes of his short stories: anxiety, desire, separation, the odd, unsettling consequences of changes that are incomplete.

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