Book Review | Grieving with a Modern Twist


Nathan Englander

Alfdred A. Knopf

The simplest response to being taught the story of Jacob and Esau as a child is to wonder which of them you are. Are you sensitive, thoughtful Jacob, who cleverly — perhaps sneakily — acquires his brother’s birthright? Or are you the virile, dull Esau, a physical genius who neverthleless gives up his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup?

The answer, as Nathan Englander posits in his newest novel,, is that you are, in fact, both. Even at the peak of Jacob-ness, Esau lurks, and vice versa.

It’s 1999. Larry, who left the Orthodox Judaism of his family, arrives sullen, surly and (worst of all) tattooed to his father’s shiva, held in the house of his sister Dina, who stayed on the derech, in the parlance of Larry’s former life.

Following the predictable clashes, Larry is cornered by Dina and their religious betters with a request. Will Larry take on the responsibility of saying Kaddish for their father? He hems and haws, screams back and forth with Dina, until the rabbi steps in to offer a solution: what if Larry found “a kind of shaliach mitzvah — like an emissary. A proxy to say it in your stead.”

Though he loved his father dearly, Larry is more than ready to give up his birthright, and like any good modern man, he looks to the internet for a solution, where he stumbles upon an answer to his bitter prayer: The site offers its customers the chance to pay dedicated, honest-to-God yeshiva boys to say Kaddish on your behalf for the requisite 11 months.

What’s an Esau to do? He signs a digital kinyan, symbolically giving away his right to the Kaddish. If the book ended right here, it would have already been an excellent read, which speaks to Englander’s strength as a writer of short stories.

But there’s too much of Larry’s story left to tell. Twenty years later, Larry is now Reb Shuli, a ba’al teshuva who uses his former life as a cautionary tale for whoever happens to crowd his Shabbos table that night. He’s a rabbi, a teacher, a husband and a father, and he couldn’t be happier. With regards to the story, Shuli says, “I only share it to say, it’s never too late to live one’s true life.”

We’ve spent too much time at Shuli/Larry’s nadir to believe that this is his one “true” life, whatever that means. Soon, he’s tasked with finding the root of some un-yeshivish behavior from Gavriel, a pre-Bar Mitzvah boy in his class. He stumbles on a terrible conclusion: though he’s been saying Kaddish for his father all these years now, the kinyan he signed away, even if it was in Flash, renders his prayers irrelevant. Shuli, who thought that he left the world of obsession and impulse behind with Larry, soon finds himself consumed with a need to re-obtain his birthright.

Englander’s sense of humor and willingness to wallow in Shuli/Larry’s basest moments aren’t out of the ordinary for him, and neither are the extended dream sequences. What does feel new is the stereoscopic effect of breaking the story up into 28 chapters over just a scant 200 pages. Just as everything starts to settle into 3-D, click! Next slide. It’s an interesting effect.

One quibble. Though the title seems to promise a more thorough interrogation of what the internet has done to Judaism (and to everyone), Englander, so wordy and willing to take his time on other themes, seems to want to let the reader do the work when it comes to the Web. This task, in some ways, feels not unlike the experience of furiously Googling in search of a single result, only to be stymied by a simple fact: you’re gonna have to figure it out yourself.

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