Jewish voices tell inventive, unpredictable stories

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The old advice to wannabe authors is “Write what you know.” Novelist Nathan Englander prefers to write what he doesn’t know. Or, at least, what he doesn’t know yet.

In the past, he delved into the junta-ruled Argentina of the 1970s in his 2007 novel “The Ministry of Special Cases,” though he knew little about the subject beforehand.

With his new short-story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” the PEN/Malamud Award winner cooks up other unfamiliar worlds, from a hilltop Jewish settlement during the Yom Kippur War to a Borscht Belt summer camp for aging Holocaust survivors.

One thing his stories have in common: Each is about the Jews.

Nathan Englander photo/juliana sohn

“Yes, I’m Jewish and there’s a lot of Jewish stuff [in the stories],” Englander said from his Brooklyn home. “But write what you know? What if I grew up in a cul-de-sac? Do I set all my work in a cul-de-sac? You can easily figure out what the weather is like in Madagascar.”

If that sounds like a non sequitur, get used to it. Englander’s mind is like a bag of microwave popcorn at peak pop, thoughts tumbling out at warp speed. His most-often used phrase in conversation: “My point is …”

Englander will read from his stories and meet admirers at two Bay Area appearances, Tuesday, Feb. 14 at the JCC of San Francisco and Wednesday, Feb. 15 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

Though the eight stories in this latest collection span a decade, most of them are new, with five composed in the last year. Englander says he’s glad to write stories again after 10 years’ labor on the novel. Though each story stands alone, he hopes readers absorb them as “one experience.”

He leaves it to readers to perceive any common threads in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” but it could be this: Just when you think you’ve got things figured out, something comes along to knock you off your stride.

In “Sister Hills,” the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War causes two Orthodox women to make a terrible bargain that, years later, shatters their lives in their West Bank settlement. In “Peep Show,” the accidental scuffing of his “fancy oxblood wingtip” shoes causes a New York Jewish lawyer to enter a seedy 42nd Street strip joint, with devastating consequences.

In “Camp Sundown,” haunted Holocaust survivors are convinced the elderly bridge player in the cabin next door was their former Nazi guard.

“I am so obsessed with [the concept of] story again,” Englander said. “That’s what’s nice about the writing life. It always seems like you’re just starting.”

Englander, 41, lived in Israel for a few years as a college student and speaks Hebrew. That helped sharpen his ear for “voice,” which is why no two stories of his sound like they came from the same writer.

For example, “Sister Hills” reads as if translated from the Hebrew. The title story, though prose, reads like a taut Edward Albee psychological drama. The author also has a flair for Yiddish inflection, making comic reference in one story to English words that sound like Yiddish — “far-flung” being one of them.

“Those are the rhythms I grew up with,” he said of Yiddish. “It’s one of the voices in my head.”

A native of New York, Englander grew up in an Orthodox home on Long Island and later attended a yeshiva in Israel. It was there that he shifted to a more secular outlook, though he has always drawn on his Jewish roots for his material.

His 1999 debut collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” brought him widespread attention and earned him a Guggenheim fellowship. Then came the long, hard slog with his novel.

Englander moonlights as a professor, teaching creative writing to MFA students at Hunter College in New York. He also is a budding playwright, as he reworked a story from his debut collection, “The 27th Man,” for the stage. It premieres at New York’s Public Theater in the fall.

But fiction writing is still his principal day job, and it’s one he seems happy to keep doing.

“I love a learning curve,” Englander noted of his writing process. “I picture a really smart reader, and I like to give the respect that’s due them. What I truly love [as a reader] is experiencing a world that’s new to me.”

Nathan Englander, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14, JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St. $10-$20.; also 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $10-$15.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”
by Nathan Englander (224 pages, Knopf, $24.95)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.