Friday, February 17, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk to Nathan Englander

This week, I heard an interview on NPR's Fresh Air that I liked so much I listened to it twice.  Terry Gross and the writer Nathan Englander cover a wide range of topics, and many of them circle back to issues of religion.

Englander was brought up by Orthodox Jews, and he even lived in Israel--he's got credibility:  "As someone who spent a lot of years living in Jerusalem, one of the great perks was that when you come back and you get into these Israel arguments in your American-Jewish clan, you can really just silence them by saying, I lived there. So we used it like a bludgeon. You know, when people would say, like, you know, I'm APAC, I'm this, move that, move the, you know. The embassy needs to be there. The embassy should have a Starbucks and be on the Temple Mount. Whatever. You know, people would do that, you'd say I lived there. And that was how we kept everybody quiet."

He was raised in a community that truly expected the Holocaust to happen again at any moment, and he describes a game (except they were deadly serious about it) that his family played:  "Anyway, we really were raised with this idea of a looming second Holocaust and we would play this game. You know, that threat is always in the air. You know what I'm saying? People were comfortable in Berlin. It could happen at any time.  And we would play this game, you know, wondering who would hide us. And this is - this story I've been carrying in my head from 20 years ago. It must have been 20 years ago, but I remember what my sister said about a couple we knew. She said, he would hide us and she would turn us in."

Somewhere along the way, he became a non-observant Jew, but that hasn't prevented him from writing/translating a Hagaddah (the Passover Seder service).  He has fascinating insights about word choice:  "I think maybe the most dangerous choice in the whole book was God of us instead of our God because we say our God, our God. It's not our God that we own like our God, our TiVo, or our lunchbox. You know what I'm saying? God, it's, you know, it's our God means the God over us and I really thought about that a ton, and I think that's, you know, I'll see how people respond. But to me, I wanted people to be thinking about what they're saying."

The conversation made me wish that I could hear a conversation between him and Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message version of the Bible).

Englander talks about his new short story collection too.  I have fallen in love with the title, with its allusion to Raymond Carver:  What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.  It's on my list of books to read soon.

The interview is a delight, and if you want to listen to it or read it, go here.

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