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.

There are risks for the writer who imagines what a devout world is like. Nathan Englander has the apparent advantage of familiarity: he grew up in a religious family in an inward-looking neighbourhood of Long Island. His black and funny stories about the Hasidim – ‘the pious ones’ – are a slanted look back at the restrictions of his past; he writes well about the ‘rigid madness of the Orthodox’ that Saul Bellow has described, the rules that restrain ‘haughty, spinning, crazy spirit’.

Charles Morton Luger, high-flying financial analyst and ‘Christian non-believer’, has an epiphany in the opening paragraph of The Gilgul of Park Avenue’. Not a sudden, dizzying revelation – colours are ‘no brighter or darker’ as he sits in the back of a cab looking out at the street – but an insistent sense that he is now a Jew: the knowledge comes ‘like a knife against a glass’. His wife dismisses this as the passing preoccupation of a mid-life crisis, but Luger is determined to convince her that the change is legitimate and sincere: according to Hasidic beliefs in transmigration, he possesses a ‘gilgul’, a reincarnated soul. Tired of the neophyte’s obsession with study, prayer and kosher food (‘You threw out all the cheese, Charles. How could God hate cheese?’), his wife invites a rabbi to dinner, in the hope that some sense can be made of the transformation. ‘What does it mean for me?’ Charles asks, only to be met with the silence of the rabbi and his wife’s sniffy reply: ‘if you have to be Jewish, why so Jewish? ... why do people who find religion have to be so goddamn extreme?’

Charles, who has ‘not read that far into the Bible and still thought God might orchestrate his rescue’, has not yet discovered the disclaimer in the small print: ‘There is no hope for the pious.’ Englander’s characters are cowed by the relentless demands of religion and find that faith is inimical to good fortune. In the first story of the collection, ‘The Twenty-Seventh Man’, Pinchas Pelovits is an unknown writer in Stalinist Russia who has been arrested as a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ and is imprisoned for anti-Soviet activity along with ‘an eminent selection of Europe’s surviving Yiddish literary community’. Only in fiction can he imagine a ‘world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshippers’, but the story he writes in prison includes the oblique complaint of an apostate: ‘no sensible man would get up to greet a dawn that never came.’ Marty, from another story, ‘Reunion’, is in and out of psychiatric hospitals, estranged from his wife and at odds with the self-satisfactions of his community. ‘You are a man without boundaries,’ concludes the blithely uncompromising rabbi he visits: ‘There are limits, prescribed, written. You’ve overshot’ Conformity is complicated for these characters: unexpected detours in Englander’s stories take them away from their certainties and leave them ‘struggling to apply their common sense to a situation anything but common’.

That line comes from one of the most disorienting of the stories, ‘The Tumblers’, in which another of Englanders rule-bound characters experiences an unforeseen change. The transports to the concentration camps arrive: ‘The decree was elementary ... only essential items were to be taken on the trains.’ The story is about the ‘extremely strict’ Hasidim of Chelm – ‘such zealousness takes much dedication’ – and is set in a world where the certainties of myth are so protective that the narrator can wonder: ‘Who would have thought that a war of such proportions would bother to turn its fury against ... Chelm? ... These were simple people with simple beliefs, who simply wanted to be left to themselves.’ And they had been: ‘for generations, no one going in and only stories coming out.’ It’s a fictional world reminiscent of the Eastern Europe Martin Buber invented for the Tales of the Hasidim. Buber’s impressionistic anecdotes of famous rabbis preserved a tradition of Yiddish storytelling in which the rabbi is above the law; a mystical figure capable of miracles. In ‘The Tumblers’ the confusion of a crowded railway platform gives a rabbi the chance to direct his followers onto ‘a passenger train ... a train of showmen’ that isn’t bound for the camps but is ‘waiting for clear passage to a most important engagement’. With their shabby clothes and skinny frames, the Jews are taken for acrobats by the entertainers in the train. ‘Only one thing for us to do,’ the rabbi insists: ‘we must tumble.’ This is not a religious free-fall – ‘no woman was to tumble unless accompanied by another woman, and no man was to catch a woman ... though husbands were given a dispensation to catch their airborne wives’ – but a display of the ‘magic of disappearing Jews’, a performance intended for the other passengers, a way to become integrated and anonymous.

The rabbi dispatches Mendel, a member of his rudimentary troupe, to bring back needle, thread and scissors from the entertainers in the next carriage (‘These costumes, as is, will surely never do’) and to find out the ‘secrets’ of a routine: ‘There are secrets behind everything that God creates.’ There have been Jewish acrobats: an 18th-century rabbi was shocked by the Russian Jews he came across who ‘constantly performed somersaults in the marketplace and streets’; he believed that their determination to bring new life to all aspects of their faith, to ‘turn the world upside down’, led to ‘wildness and buffoonery’. But the Hasidim in ‘The Tumblers’ depend on their topsy-turvy logic: ‘There were so many good things lacking and so many bad in abundance that the people renamed almost all that they had ... they called their aches “mother’s milk”, and darkness became “freedom”.’ If they can conceal the truth so well, the rabbi argues, ‘then why not pass as acrobats?’ Progress is slow – the tumblers prove ‘to be almost completely useless when it came to anything where timing was involved’ – but the rabbi orchestrates Half-Hanlons and Full Twisting Voltas, the cartwheels and flips that will keep them out of danger. ‘ “Hup,” he said. “From the top,” he said, exhausting all of the vocabulary that he had learned. They made a space for themselves and ran through the routine, the Rebbe not letting them rest for a moment and Mendel loving him with all his heart’ The story of their escape is a complex miracle that has its own difficulties; it is the kind of fable that you might find in the later Buber. Buber came to believe that fervent love for the rabbi had descended to ‘a coarsened form of reverence on the part of those who regard him as a great magician, as one who is an intimate of heaven and can right all that is wrong’. He felt that a faith in magic ‘relieves the Hasidim of straining their souls’ and that this relief turns all the outward signs of observance into an illusion.

Woody Allen makes fun of the false piety of the Hasidim in ‘Hasidic Tales’ in Getting Even: the man who ‘journeyed to Chelm in order to seek the advice’ of the sage finds out that ‘the rabbi is in over his head with gamblers, and he has also been named in a paternity case by a Mrs Hecht.’ Woody Allen’s parody captures the absurdity of anxious reverence with the same kind of comic detail that Englander gives his restless and helpless Hasidim. In ‘Reb Kringle’, for instance, the eponymous rabbi is a failure, washed up as an old-style Jewish paterfamilias. Behind with the rent and struggling with shopping bills, he needs another job and his long white beard qualifies him for the position of Santa Claus in a department store’s Christmas grotto. At first the work is easy: ‘Granting wishes that you don’t have to make good on is simple.’ He is angered by the escalating demands of importunate children (‘Force Five Action Figures’; ‘Mountain bike’; ‘Doom – the Return of the Deathbot; Man Eater; Stop That Plague; and Gary Barry’s All Star Eye on the Prize – all on CD-ROM’) but his final outburst is caused by a single, uncovenanted request. A boy asks for a candle-holder for Chanukah: ‘I’m Jewish, not Christian. My new father says we’re having a real Christmas and a tree, and not any candles at all.’ In full costume, Kringle pushes past the holiday shoppers as he looks for the boy’s parents, an antic Santa who is furious that tradition is being traduced.

The symbols of this tradition are shown to be empty, however, unconnected with the truths they are supposed to represent Kringle is seen in the synagogue ‘changing the bulb in the eternal light’. And in ‘The Last One Way’, the Queen Esther masks worn by children during the spring carnival of Purim disguise the faces of religious criminals set on confrontation. This story concerns a woman who is trapped, ‘anchored to a foul husband’ by Orthodox marriage laws: divorce depends on her husband’s consent and Berel is recalcitrant. Grim is desperate and threatens Little Liebman, her matchmaker. Worried about the loss of leverage as a marriage broker – ‘What parent would trust a matchmaker caught up in a scandal?’ – Liebman decides to apply some pressure to the husband. With the swagger of Pretty Levine, Tick Tock Tannenbaum or any other Lower East Side gangster of the Thirties, Liebman and his accomplices force Berel into the back of a car:

This time when Berel was lowered out of the door he felt the car speed up and the grip tighten on his hair. The one with his legs used maximum control. And like artisans attending to that final detail, Berel’s head was forced to the grindstone, his face to the road. For an instant. For a touch. The Esthers took off a perfect circle, a sliver – not deep – of Berel’s nose.

The Hasidims’ essential differences from their secular neighbours are blunted in the collection’s title story, in which the religious are rarely beyond reproach. Dov Binyamin is unhappy in his cheerless and celibate marriage and gets a dispensation from the rabbi to see a prostitute. He comes from a community in which sex is hardly discussed and baulks when confronted with the prostitute’s directness: ‘Don’t worry ... I know how to treat a black hat.’ He turns out the light of the hotel room and takes off his clothes; still uncomfortable, ‘boiling in the heat and shame’ of his ignorance. (There is an account in the Talmud of a desultory student so frustrated by his lack of sexual knowledge that he hides under the rabbi’s bed in order to hear him ‘converse and jest and perform his needs’.) When Binyamin returns for a guilty and awkward reconciliation with his wife, he feels like ‘the one under scrutiny’. The attention of a group of tourists increases his sense of isolation: they see him in the street and are keen to take ‘pictures of real live Hasidim, like the ones from the stories their grandparents told’. But real live Hasidim look very different in Englander’s stories.