February 15, 2012
Guest: Nathan Englander
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Nathan Englander, has a new collection of short stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." His subjects are often dark but his tone is often comic. He writes about tensions between orthodox and secular Jews, the aftermath of the Holocaust and conflicts about the future of Israel.
Some of the stories are drawn from Englander's life. He was raised in a Jewish orthodox family, neighborhood, and school. When he was a young man he moved to Israel for a few years, and there he quickly gave up on organized religion. So you may find it surprising, as he kind of does, that he spent the last two years doing a new translation of the tradition Jewish book, "The Haggadah," which tells the story of the exodus of Jews from Egypt.
It's read at the Seder table during Passover. The new translation, called "New American Haggadah" is edited by writer Jonathan Safran Foer and will be published next month. Nathan Englander, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from the title story of your new collection "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." Do you want to set it up or do you want to just start reading?
NATHAN ENGLANDER: That's funny. Any time I set it up I get metaphysical. It takes about 67 minutes.
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ENGLANDER: I just did an event â I did an event with Nora Ephron at Symphony Space a couple weeks ago, and she set up the story and I started talking about, like, dreaming of writing and identity issues and I went on for about 19 minutes and then she just looked there and she's like, it's about a book tour. So. Yes. So I don't think you want me to set up anything at all, especially if it's the start of a story.
Except to say this one is, you know, it's the title story of the book and it is, very terrifyingly to me, but the commitment I made in the story is I married it to Carver's very legendary story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."
ENGLANDER: They're in our house maybe 10 minutes and already Mark's lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem and people from there think it gives them the right. Mark is looking all stoic and nodding his head. If we had what you have down here in south Florida, he says, then trails off. Yep, he says and he's nodding again, We'd have no troubles at all. You do have what we have, I tell him, all of it.
Sun and palm trees, old Jews and oranges and the worst drivers around. At this point, I say, we've probably got more Israelis than you. Debbie, my wife, she puts a hand on my arm, her signal that I'm taking a tone or interrupting someone's story, sharing something private, or making an inappropriate joke. That's my cue. And I'm surprised, considering how much I get it, that she ever lets go of my arm.
Yes, you've got it all now, Mark says. Even terrorists. I look to Lauren. She's the one my wife has the relationship with, the one who should take charge. But Lauren isn't going to give her husband any signal. She and Mark ran off to Israel 20 years ago and turned Hassidic and neither of them will put a hand on the other in public. Not for this. Not to put out a fire.
GROSS: That's Nathan Englander reading the title story for his new collection "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." I can assure you I've heard that conversation many times.
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ENGLANDER: That's funny.
GROSS: Have you?
ENGLANDER: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that was actually â 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.
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.
GROSS: Israel is one subject that I think a lot of Jewish people can't talk about in their own family, because there's such disagreement within families.
ENGLANDER: Oh, my God. Yeah.
ENGLANDER: I mean, that's it. I was going to say, I am, you know, I just saw her last night but I'm so close with my sister and we are the â we look like twins. We are the same person; we have the same personality. And we disagree. We literally â it's super peaceful and everything's copasetic and we do not talk politics.
GROSS: So another thing that happens in the story in addition to the disagreements about Israel and about religion, the two couples, the Hassidic couple and the secular couple, play a game that is called the Righteous Gentile Game or Who Will Hide Me? Will you describe the game?
ENGLANDER: I will describe it - and for the audience at home and in their cars and on their Podcasts - I'm beet red with embarrassment as I explain this. It's so deeply personal, and it's not a game. And that's the point. I call it a game and it makes it easier to talk about it as a game, but it's something we play with dead seriousness in my family.
And that is, you know, with dead seriousness we would, you know, wonder who would hide us in the Holocaust if there were a second Holocaust. And I think that's sort of the interest for me, you know, as a â and again, I never know, we need to get, you know, anthropologist - I don't know whether to count myself as a fourth generation or fifth generation. I was just arguing about this.
We've been in American a long time. You know what I'm saying? I have great-grandparents born here. And that idea that my sister, because of our religious education, we were raised in a sense â we have the minds of, you know, like, survivors' kids, you know, in the States which is a very strange concept for such deeply â you know, we have no one with accents in our world.
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. And it struck me so deeply, and I put it on the neighbors in this story. But I just couldn't shake that thought for all these years because it's true. And, yeah. So I guess - I don't know. For this book is, you know, every book better be fully intimate. It better be all you have. I'm obviously not shy because I'm going to talk your ear off today.
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ENGLANDER: But I'm private, which is different. But that idea is for me to be truly intimate, for me to be naked and raw. The fiction allows me to do what I need to do emotionally. And with this book, I don't know, it was suddenly - certain stories we're looking at things - it was a chance for me to look at things that were right there. In a sense, this is totally - it's normality, this game. And I just took a step back and said my God, we're pathological.
GROSS: So the impression I'm getting is that, OK, you were brought up in Long Island in a prosperous suburban community, but you're brought up as if a new Holocaust is right around the corner so start preparing because you're going to be marched off to a death camp, unless you find a neighbor or a friend willing to risk their life to hide you. And it's such an embattled mentality, such a paranoid mentality, to be carrying around in a prosperous Long Island suburb in, what, the 1960s?
ENGLANDER: I was going to say, I'll make two corrections, which is not so prosperous. But, you know, hanging on to middle class. But, you know, we didn't have FM radio in the car, but we did have AM. But also, yeah, the '70s and '80s. I was born in 1970. I'm a disco kid by a month.
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ENGLANDER: But, yes, the '70s and '80s. But you know what? I think it's, A, it was a strange thing. I mean, it was, you know, I'm living back in Brooklyn and I was very resistant to doing that. You know, I live up the block from my dad's high school and my uncle went to school, you know, behind our building at Pratt.
You know, there was all these Brooklyn dads and they made this exodus. And, you know, a lot of them went to public school. They were religious, but that generation went to public schools. Like, they built these yeshivas and they spent - you know what I'm saying? You know, that's where prosperity comes in. It was this education that I so fought against and so rebelled against and worked so hard to leave was a huge, huge, you know, effort for my parents to give me that education. You know, it's just wildly expensive.
But, yeah, but the point is we had these old school rabbis. So, I think that's why I write the way I do. I studied with Marilyn Robinson at Iowa. God bless her, she taught me many wonderful things. But one thing she taught me was that I was writing all my sentences in certain transliterated Yiddish.
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ENGLANDER: So, you know. You know what I'm saying? My mom's, you know, she's at Boston and my dad's from Brooklyn, but I hear everything, you know, I should wait all day here for you to show up five minutes late? You know what I'm saying?
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ENGLANDER: That's - because we went to school. We got there at, you know, eight in the morning and left at five. You know, college was easy for us. We were in school a million hours a day with these sort of Brooklyn-raised or Old Country rabbis yelling at us, you know, yelling at us in that rhythm. And I feel like that's the rhythm in my head. So, I basically received these messages from the rabbis about what the world - my point is, as living as the Holocaust is for me as an idea of something that just happened and can happen, I feel the same way about the Inquisition. You know what I'm saying?
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ENGLANDER: My heart - seriously. I think of the poor rabbi...
GROSS: I'm sorry I'm laughing.
ENGLANDER: Yeah. I was going to say, you are - just have no empathy for the losses of the Inquisition.
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ENGLANDER: Obviously you're a Mel Brooks fan.
GROSS: Wait. Let me just stop you here. So you're brought up with fear that the Holocaust can happen any second.
GROSS: Maybe the Spanish Inquisition in which all...
GROSS: ...the Jews from Spain were expelled, changing the whole map of Jews around the world forever and ever.
GROSS: OK. So, how did that affect the rest of your mentality? Did you grow up a worrier, paranoid? Did fear infiltrate other aspects of your life?
ENGLANDER: I think we can call it a day right now.
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ENGLANDER: I believe you just reached the very core of my soul. I thought it would be a longer interview. But, yes, that is - I am constantly in a state of fear. So you know what? I was going to say, let's, you know, it's just between us, so I might as well tell you everything. But, yeah. But point is - so this is what I'm getting as an education, is this education of, you know, fear and betrayal and Jewish history, which is not, you know, amplified. It just is. But, yes, my mother raised me very clearly that if you cross the street, you will die. If you go outside, you will die.
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ENGLANDER: If you play sports, you will likely die. So that's what I was getting at home. But, you know, my point is I think it may have had a larger imprint on my soul. I don't think other people are worried about it as much. But that story of how we avenged the Blooms in the book, that is a war that we had with the anti-Semites of our town. You know what I'm saying? And those things - when you wear a yarmulke, that's the idea. It's you, you know, communing with God, this idea of making a symbol for yourself and for everyone of your relationship and your religion.
But that idea of walking down that street, you know, I call it in the story the chased home from schools. I mean, but those, you know, swastikas, I remember, you know, driving by with my dad and seeing, you know, red swastikas on the sign for, you know, the synagogue or a shaving cream one on our door on Halloween. You know, those kinds of fights and battles and curses, but that - we really had that escalated war with the anti-Semites in our town. It was insane.
GROSS: So that actually reinforced all your fears.
ENGLANDER: Yes. And I think, I mean, as long as we're - I'm going to tilt this chair back and lay down and turn this into straight up therapy.
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ENGLANDER: But I think that's why Jerusalem - was why I had to live there all those years. I mean, I've been endlessly tortured. My friends found it, you know, it was never not entertaining that I decided I was some, you know, lefty atheistic hippy and then went off to live in Jerusalem for all those years. But there is a reason. You know what I'm saying?
It was so - you know, I think about my grandfather on my mother's side who's reform, like, what it was for these, like, shtetl kids to show up at the house. You know, he loved us dearly but I just - even conceptually with the yarmulke and the tzitzit and, you know, all this stuff. I spent my time, my childhood in America feeling Jewish and not American. And it's only in Israel, it was those years there, where I finally got to be an America. You know, everybody's a Jew.
GROSS: OK. I want you to do another reading.
GROSS: And this relates to what we're talking about. It's from the story "How We Avenged the Blooms," which is about a family, two families - a group of people dealing with the neighbor anti-Semite.
ENGLANDER: (Reading) Our parents were born and raised in Brooklyn. In Green Heath, they built us a Jewish Shangri-la, providing us with everything but the one crucial thing Brooklyn had offered. It wasn't stick ball or kick the can, acceptable losses, though nostalgia ran high. No. It was equality that we were missing, a toughness. As a group of boys 13 and 14, we grew healthy, we grew polite, but our parents thought us soft.
GROSS: I think that's so interesting because obviously your parents were trying to protect you.
GROSS: And that's why they wanted to create this little Jewish Shangri-la in Long Island of people just like them.
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GROSS: You know, a kind of very insulated orthodox community, sent you to yeshiva. But then they think, well, you're soft; you're too protected. But they're the ones who protected you.
ENGLANDER: Yeah. I think - I was going to say, you know, two things. The thing I wanted to say about Jerusalem was that, you know, I lived there during this - I lived, you know, in the heart of the heart of the city during this unbelievably violent time. They once did a map of all the bombings and I feel like within, you know, a four-block radius or, you know, kilometer radius of my front door were just 90 - I mean, the whole neighborhood was blowing up and it was violent and terrible. But I think for me, I was like, it's so easy to die is how I lived my whole life. And then I finally understood it's also kind of hard to get dead. Like, my point is you can't control it one way or the other, but for me it was honestly a life-changing and head-changing discovery.
GROSS: Tell me if I'm interpreting what you're saying correctly. I think you found it a relief to go from just this, like, vague paranoia about everything that maybe some day there's going to be another Holocaust and you'll be rounded up and that'll be the end and you better start worrying now to going to Israel where there was a genuine threat and people carried on. And so, you were facing something real and knew that you could survive in the face of it like everybody else did. You could just live your life.
ENGLANDER: God bless you. Yes. That was a huge, huge discovery for me. Also, by the way, if you're paranoid and you put yourself in a place of real existential threat, then you're not paranoid anymore.
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ENGLANDER: So, it was also a huge relief for me on that front. It was like living in "Catch-22." Like every time he goes up, Yossarian ends up in the plane and he says, you know, they're trying to kill me. Yes, they are. So, I think also that idea where I'm like the state of panic - I didn't stick out in a crowd anymore. The cold sweat was just general.
GROSS: My guest is writer Nathan Englander. He has a new collection of short stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nathan Englander. He has a new collection of short stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." And a little later, we'll talk about his new translation of the Haggadah, which is the prayer book that Jews use during the Passover dinner.
So, we established that you grew up very orthodox in a very, like, Jewish orthodox community in Long Island, lived for a few years in Israel where you became secular. Now, people would probably think it would be the other way around, that you'd go to Israel and become more religious because it is, after all, the Jewish state. So, how is it that you ended up becoming secular in Israel?
ENGLANDER: You know what I've really been comparing it lately, very gingerly but sincerely, to friends' coming out stories. I think when you grow up in a world and your parents are one way and you're told this is your world, this is how the whole world is, and this is how you're supposed to be, and you are terribly unhappy in that world, it's a very scary thing.
And that's - I just - I don't even know why that the whole time I was so religious and so sincere and so interested in the text but just felt like this is not the world for me. And it grew and it grew and I really - that's why I think it's almost that idea where just because one - you know, just because your father is religious and your mother is religious doesn't mean, you know, the saying that, you know, two heterosexual parents are going to make a heterosexual child.
And for me, you know, I just thought I will be in this world and I will be unhappy because this is - you know, I'm a good kid. That's what I was supposed to do. I thought this is what I've been given and this is how it's going to be. And also, if you really love a certain thing, like I love text and I love learning, and I love, you know, a lot of stuff that goes with that life. And I think when I'd meet a Jew who was totally unaffiliated, you know, to me we didn't - there was no such thing as being a cultural Jew. So that idea, I just didn't connect.
I wouldn't meet someone who said, oh, yeah. You know, my mom's Jewish or, you know, yeah, I think, you know, we did Purim one year. Like I didn't - there was no leap that I could make that I could connect and say, ah, here is a path. This is a world that I can connect with. And when I got to Israel and see these people, you know, living in Hebrew, living that life, to me it was the first time I saw Jews who were so, you know, who had the biblical references, all this stuff, deeply secular, atheistic Jews who I could identify with. And, I mean, the first week there is when I gave up organized religion. My first Shabbat in Israel is - I broke it after, you know, 19 years.
GROSS: So this was the first time you saw a community of Jews who weren't orthodox?
ENGLANDER: Well, no. I went to, you know, I was going to say for me growing up on Long Island it was this idea - I mean, it was so wild and racy from my town that I even went away. I went to Binghamton that I went away to state school. And for me that was a world crack open, because I met Jews from other parts of Long Island. To me it was like being a the U.N. It was crazy.
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ENGLANDER: You know, I loved it. I was just - that was wildly exciting. And then my real breakaway was to fly around the world and meet Jews from other countries. You know, it was just - that was my opening out.
GROSS: Just giving new meaning to the word multicultural.
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ENGLANDER: Yeah, exactly. I'm multi-mono-cultural.
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GROSS: So what did it feel like, that first Sabbath, when you did not observe the Sabbath?
ENGLANDER: It was - I remember what it was. It was taking a bus back from Tiberius. You know, certain buses can leave before the end of Shabbat. And I got on a bus with my friends before the end of Shabbat from Tiberius, you know. And I just - the experience was simply that I was sure that I had killed everybody on the bus. That God would have to throw that bus off a cliff and that it was my fault. So, I was not only going to die, but I was killing the others and I felt pretty bad about that.
GROSS: And how did it feel when you didn't die on the Sabbath?
ENGLANDER: It felt like I wanted a cheeseburger.
GROSS: Oh, mixing meat and dairy.
GROSS: Which is not Kosher.
GROSS: So, did you break the Kosher thing?
ENGLANDER: I did. This was before a million or so Russians had come to Israel and you could get, you know, pork at every, you know, that there were butchers around town. It was pretty hard to break that rule. I had to wait months to find a cheeseburger back at that time. But, yeah, we'd flown - when my buddy flown to London and I literally got out at Victoria Station, my first trip to England, and went up the stairs into Burger King and had me a Whopper.
GROSS: So, when you gave up religion - you not just up orthodox - you didn't just give up practicing orthodox religion. I mean, you gave up religion. Right? You gave up practicing the Jewish religion.
ENGLANDER: Yeah. It's funny. And I was going to say if we're - it's going to get all embarrassing when we get to the Haggadah because, you know, now what have I done? But, you know, I always like to scream about politics, I don't know why. But it's just - it's like stretching a rubber band. You know, if you stretch a rubber band that tight, you know, the energy has to go somewhere.
So my point is you don't just - it's not a light giving up. I was literally going through the Bible, I think I was looking, you know, going to, you know, tear a limb off a living animal and eat it. I was trying to think of every rule that I could possibly break until I checked them all off. So, yeah, it was an active irreligiosity for a while, because that's what a young person who's making a change is going to do is swing in the other direction. So it was very active for a while until, you know, I could say it would be like if I was on the, you know, I'm 42 now; if I was, you know, complaining to you about something that happened in high school, it's time to let it go. But then, it was large and electric and active.
GROSS: Nathan Englander will be back in the second half of the show. His new collection of short stories is called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Nathan Englander. His collection of short stories, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," draws on his experiences growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family neighborhood and school in Long Island.
As a young man, he moved to Israel, where he quickly gave up on organized religion. So it's kind of surprising that he spent the past two years doing a new translation of the traditional Jewish text, the Haggadah. His translation called the "New American Haggadah," was edited by his friend, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, and will be published next month.
I'll let Nathan Englander describe what the Haggadah is.
ENGLANDER: It's the story of Exodus. And every year on Passover, when the, you know, we all know the Red Sea getting split and the 10 plagues and all that stuff, as Jonathan Foer, who is the editor of it keeps saying, it's, you know, probably the most popular story around. But yes, so it's a way to commemorate the Jews, you know, freedom from slavery.
GROSS: And it's basically a, you know, a book that is read during the Passover Seder, the dinner or it's right before the dinner.
GROSS: Dinner's very late.
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ENGLANDER: Yeah. I was going to say, it's the Jews like to eat - if your audience doesn't know that - and it is the dinner with the biggest buildup of the year, I have to say. But...
GROSS: And it's also - so you have a new translation and the book is called the "New American Haggadah." It's about to be published.
GROSS: The editor is Jonathan Safran Foer, who I think initiated the project.
GROSS: You did the translation. And I'm sure our listeners, who heard the beginning of this interview, are thinking why did they choose this guy? This guy used to be Orthodox then he became really secular. He rebelled against religion. So who is he to be translating a very important religious text? So why you?
ENGLANDER: I have to say that I was going to say and Jonathan's, you know, I've been working on the translation for three years. I think Jonathan has been working on this project for six. But I think it's just, I don't think anybody else could've talked me into it. He really sort of knows how my synapses fire, he's got a good read on my brain, but it was I thought it was a really bad choice on his part as well. You know, my point is, I've never translated before, I've left religion, everything you've said and, you know, he just made it clear - he just had a vision for this book and he really wanted me to translate it. And he just made it clear that it would be something that we'd really be proud of at the end. He was really adamant about that. And I have to say, it's informed my writing. It's changed the way I think. And I am having the book here, I'm really thankful for it. And it ended up being, I thought it would be, I was going, you know, I thought it would be this hipster Haggadah and take me six weeks; I have been working on it for three years.
GROSS: What language did you translate from?
ENGLANDER: Oh, well, this is the point I thought also, you know, I speak Hebrew and I'm very familiar with this text. And I, you know, so that's it. I had the religious education and then I lived in Israel for all those years, so I've got old Hebrew and I've got old Hebrew and new Hebrew. So, yeah, it's translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic. It's translated from primary sources.
GROSS: And what was your ambition? What did you think needed changing? I mean why do we need a new Haggadah?
ENGLANDER: We need new Haggadahs and they'll be endless. It's sort of I think out all the traditional Jewish documents, it's the one that's most living. People - there's, you know, there's an Armed Forces Haggadah and an Alcoholics Anonymous Haggadah and an LGBT Haggadah. There are Haggadahs for everything. Some families make them new every year. People, it's a really wonderful living document. And, you know, even Jonathan's choice of the "New American Haggadah," they're always have a place. A very legendary one is the Sarajevo Haggadah. They're just constantly made throughout time and he felt it was time for a new one.
But about what made the decision for me to translate it? It was really clear when I went back to think about it and look at texts, you know I've always used the Hebrew side of the Maxwell House, which is a really great liturgy, that is a very traditional great liturgy. The point is, I had never really looked at the English and, you know, what committed me to it is that back to loving texts, which is, the Haggadah, you should literally read it and weep. It is so beautiful. It is just such a moving document to me. And I looked at - I guess I'm always a naive, you know, back to living in Israel it's when I think I understood that governments were run by actual people. I thought presidents and prime ministers knew more. There were these great moments and I just didn't understand, oh my God, translators are people too, they're human beings. I just didn't understand that, even as someone who writes books but about religious texts. You know, that people were making decisions, you're always making decision. And the line that I can tell you is that really clinched it for me is in Hebrew, it says, you know, (Hebrew language spoken). And in English it was translated, which is what it means, to differentiate between the Sabbath and the holiday. But in Hebrew what it says is, you know, to differentiate between holy and holy.
And I was like someone made this decision to for clarity and understanding. It means between these two days. But to me the poetry, the metaphysical space, the space between holy and holy, for that to not be there in the English was just, it made me understand that I wanted to do, you know, it turned it from this what I thought would be a six-week project into me working with a study partner head-to-head. It's called Havruta style, face-to-face, we studied. You know, I don't even want, my girlfriend says we can't have a Mezuzah on the door but I have to come home to you with the Talmuds and haggadot piled to the ceiling arguing. You know, it was like living in a study hall for her. But, yeah.
GROSS: So I'd like you to choose a passage from the "New American Haggadah," which you translated. That you're, a passage that you think is particularly beautiful.
ENGLANDER: Oh sure. My pleasure.
GROSS: And after you read it, maybe you could tell us what you changed and why you changed it from the translations that you were familiar with.
ENGLANDER: Super. This is actually - this is not just - this is from Nishmat kol chai, which is not just in the Haggadah, but it's considered a very beautiful Hebrew passage. And so give all credit to the original.
Were our mouths were filled with a singing like the sea, and our tongues awash with song, as waves-countless, and our lips to lauding, as the skies are wide, and our eyes illumined like the sun and the moon, and our hands spread out like the eagles of heaven, and our feet as fleet as fawns. Still, we would not suffice in thanking you, lord God of us and God of our fathers, in blessing your name for even one of a thousand, thousand, from the thousands of thousands and the 10,000s of 10,000s of times you did good turns for our fathers and for us.
GROSS: So in your translation, how different is that from ones that you knew?
ENGLANDER: I was going to say that, you know, there's maybe - first of all, I didn't know any and that's the point. I literally, you know, it's just from the Hebrew. That's it. I have no familiarity with translation except for, you know, during the project, you know, after it's finished, may be looking to see it, you know, other stuff. So, but yeah, so yeah, it is â sorry, I know I'm stuttering through, it seems a strange thing to say, but yes, the English is simply unfamiliar to me.
GROSS: My guest is Nathan Englander, and he's just translated what's called the new American version of the Haggadah, which is the prayer book used during the Seder, the Jewish holiday. And he also has a new collection of short stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about your new Haggadah and other things. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Nathan Englander. He has a new collection of short stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." And he's also translated a new version of the Haggadah, which is the prayer book that's used on Passover during the Seder. And it's edited by the writer Jonathan Safran Foer.
Now you use the term in your translation in referring to God to king of the cosmos. Now I can't say that I remember hearing the word cosmos in any services or prayers...
GROSS: ...and or in the Bible. I mean not that I'd necessarily know.
GROSS: But it seems to me an interesting choice. I think I've heard like king of the universe but cosmos? So tell us about choosing the word cosmos.
ENGLANDER: You are such a generous reader, as I know both as a listener, but here I am. But, thank you. You know what? It's been so long it just becomes part of you, these projects, but I guess I hadn't thought about it. Those choices were the most wrestled over. You know, it's maybe that one and also God of us, (Hebrew language spoken).
ENGLANDER: You know, it's just, it's always our God. So it's always this idea, I think back to language, the things we don't hear anymore. You know, it's something like friendly fire or something, these things that are very loaded and they have meaning and you know the meaning, that's how we get through life in a speedy fashion. You know, words have meanings and we already have them at the ready and we move through them. And I thought people say these things in English and I think they're forgetting what they're saying and it, you know, it means the world to me that you asked that question because that's the point. You know, because you say, you read past it. But that's what it's saying, you know, of the cosmos and it makes you think and that's it. And that was really it.
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.
If you are, you know, a lot of people - that's the weirdest â again, this choice of me doing it. But I could not take it seriously. And Jon, I thought we were going to be ironical and sassy, you know, sassy guys. But the point is we ended up taking it so deeply seriously and I, you know, and I just felt people are going to be - because I speak the Hebrew I just always assumed have people the same knowledge base as me. I suddenly thought my God, people are going to be praying from this sincerely and I owe, you know, I owe them a debt. I better think.
GROSS: So why cosmos and not universe or all?
ENGLANDER: It's - I was going to say we need a whiteboard or something. These, I can't even tell you how many hours of arguing for things like that. But again, I think because it did make you think, A. And I think because to me, you know, just really looking at the Hebrew and thinking about what that word means and just thinking it encompassed the cosmos. And also even that, the biggest point of translation is choice. Every word you're choosing rhythm, clarity, communication, meaning, intent. And I think maybe, you know, even that one can be feel of king of the cosmos does it justice.
GROSS: Now one of the times you used king of the cosmos. I'm going to do the larger reading there. Like you are blessed, lord God of us, king of the cosmos, God, our father, our kind, our majesty, our creator, our redeemer, our shepherd, shepherd of Israel, the good king who makes good for all.
You know, when you read something like that â when I read something like that, part of me wonders does God need to be praised that much? Like, why is there so much praise for God? Is it just a kind of thanksgiving for life, thanksgiving for, you know, whatever it is, that animating force that we call God?
GROSS: Or is God like this egotist and we need to say, hey, man, you're number one. You are great. You are the God of all â do you know what I mean?
ENGLANDER: Yes. I was going to say I am going to answer that question for you now but I'm sure you'll get a bunch of emails answering it for you. But I guess this is the point of also, you know, of doing a translation of what you hear in Hebrew, exactly that it's not cloying â that's the point of wanting to make it sound the way it sounds in my head which to me is very beautiful.
Right? There can be over-cloying thanks. You know, that's what weâright? Nobody wants that. Nobody even enjoys it when they get it. It's often just acknowledging a power structure. I know what you're saying where, like, you know, someone gives you a job. Oh, thank you. You saved my life. This is the best. You know, it's over the top and trust me, I'm an over the top thanker.
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ENGLANDER: So I know what you're saying. But I guess I find this â you know what? This is about freedom from slavery. This is about being redeemed. This is about getting your homeland that was, you know, promised to you. This is about return. It's actually â it is a deeply sincere text. I think it is truly thanking God for the food that we are eating, for the freedom that we have, for the, you know, for the family around us.
You know what I can tell you? This is so personal and will, you know, probably make my family cry but, you know, I remember â my brother-in-law â as I said, I'm like fourth or fifth generation and sitting there with my sister's husband, you know, his father is an Auschwitz survivor. And, you know, he â and sitting there with him, I remember one Seder with his family.
I don't know if they'll remember it but this is when we all became one family. But sitting there â this is also probably, you know, 15 years ago or more. You know, 15 or 20 years ago. But all of us sitting together and just seeing this guy. That's what makes it a living document. He sat there and he looked at the table and he started to cry.
And he said I have been a slave. And I thought about it. I said this man was in Auschwitz. I don't know if I've ever met â he literally had been a slave and that freedom, there's a lot of thanks for survival and freedom that goes into that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Nathan Englander. He has a new collection of short stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" and he's also translated a new version of the Haggadah which is the prayer book that's used on Passover during the Seder.
The Haggadah tells the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, a story that if you don't know the Bible, maybe you know from the movie "The Ten Commandments."
ENGLANDER: Which is awesome.
GROSS: Do you like that movie?
ENGLANDER: Who does not love that movie? That and "The Wizard of Oz," you know, for those of us, you know, before TiVo and all that stuff and on demand. Those were big watches for the year, were "Ten Commandments" and "Wizard of Oz."
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Which I don't know if they still do it, but they used to show it, like, every year on either Easter or Passover.
GROSS: Yeah. So one of the most famous parts of that story is when God inflicts the 10 plagues on the Egyptians who have enslaved the Jews. So I would like to have you read some of that from your new translation. And then we'll talk about it.
ENGLANDER: With pleasure. Here are the 10 plagues. Everybody dip your fingers at home. Blood, frogs, lice, a maelstrom of beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail full of fire, locusts, a clotted darkness too thick to pass, a killing of the firstborn.
GROSS: That's some scary stuff. Hail full of fire? Not just darkness but a clotted darkness â that's C-L-O-T-T-E-D. So have you gone back to English translations? I should've brought one so I can compare it.
ENGLANDER: Oh. This? I was going to say, you would make an excellent rabbinical student. You sort of picked out â as I said, it's a hyper-literal translation. There are a few chances I took in this translation and that was one of them because I thought about this section is for - it's for adults but it's also really for children.
I think that's, you know, aside from, you know, hunting for the Afikomen, I think this is a huge, huge part of the Seder for children and as orthodox children we were taught â we were not, you know, yes, you're saying them at the Seder but you're taught this stuff in school and at shul and the ideas â we were always told, yes, the hail came but it wasn't just hail, it was a ball of ice with...
It was fire and ice living together. There was a fiery center. Or when God made it dark it wasn't dark, it was so thick that you couldn't even move. Everybody was - if you were walking in the street you were frozen. And I thought when I heard those words, back to translation, if you're asking me to be translator when I hear hail that's what I see. When I hear darkness that's what it means. And I decided to commit to that for the translation.
GROSS: So you're saying this wasn't a literal translation; this was your understanding of it?
ENGLANDER: The whole translation is hyper-literal and this one instance is what it literally means to me.
GROSS: You are no longer an observant Jew. Will you have a Seder and use your own Haggadah this year?
ENGLANDER: I was â Jonathan and I were joking about this. We're like if we don't find our Haggadahs at the Seder people are going to be in trouble. But, you know, at least our families can use them. But, yeah, I have to say of all the holidays, I really don't do anything. I really do go to â if I can get to my family I get there or I've been going to a friend's the last few years.
But, yeah, I do do the Seder every year. I really â I was going to say I don't know if I'm softening or finding comfort or some different â my point is, it's OK to live in conflict with yourself. That's a nice thing that I've discovered. It's OK for me to be really secular. That's the idea, you know, people can just, you know, I'm trying to calm down.
The point is I really enjoy that holiday and, yes, I go to a Seder every year and I, you know, drive there and a keep a house full of bread and all that stuff. But I really do enjoy that meal and this book.
GROSS: What were your Seders like as a child?
ENGLANDER: As you say that, actually, it's really rare for me to have a brain that only records â I can never remember. I only retain negative memories. It helps with my worldview.
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ENGLANDER: But I can literally be like â you know, my girlfriend Becky, you were never happy in childhood? I'm like not that I recall. You know, when I see a picture of me smiling or my mother â I sort of can't remember being happy but it's â my grandparent's house was happy to me. And I think, yeah, I do remember the Seders.
It's also the idea of the work behind â you know what? What I remember more it's the switching of dishes. You have to switch your dishes, and this idea, you know, the Old Country stuff that comes over, the dishes that survive. But it's getting, you know, these boxes of China. You know, we ate on Corningware like everybody else did then. Good white plates that you could drop down the stairs and they'd bounce back up.
You know, but this idea, suddenly delicate plates would come up from the basement and these big sort of 1920s spoons. And really remember the stuff of it and the switching of the house. I mean, it is such a huge deal getting the house ready. I mean, it's really obsessive, the hunt for, you know, bread.
GROSS: Well, Nathan Englander, thank you so much for talking with us.
ENGLANDER: This has been a great pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Nathan Englander's "New American Haggadah" will be published next month. His new collection of short stories is called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: Award-winning British writer Helen Simpson has said that her only rule for short story writing is that something's got to happen but not too much. Her fifth collection, called "In-Flight Entertainment" has just been published and book critic Maureen Corrigan says that there is, in fact, a lot happening in Simpson's stories but most of what's taking place is elegantly tucked under the surface.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The Brits: You've got to hand it to them. The Empire may be long gone, but they still reign supreme when it comes to effortlessly exuding mordant wit. For anyone who savors the acerbic literary likes of Evelyn Waugh or the Amises, father and son, Helen Simpson is just the ticket.
Her latest short-story collection, "In-Flight Entertainment," is filled with crisp observations about mortality, infidelity and the looming apocalypse of climate change. Melancholy subjects, to be sure, and Simpson accords them their emotional weight; but one suspects that even as the ice caps melt, Simpson's hardy strain of Brit wit might well be wheezing out a rueful quip or two.
The title story, "In-Flight Entertainment," is alone worth the price of this book. In it, a businessman named Alan is riled because his flight to Chicago has been delayed by what he derisively calls Heathrow nutters, environmentalists protesting airplane carbon emissions.
He's somewhat mollified by being upgraded to first class; but, just as he settles in to sip his champagne and watch the old Hitchcock movie "North by Northwest," the old guy across the aisle begins making quite a fuss. An announcement then goes out asking if there are any doctors onboard.
The brilliance of this story lies in the way Simpson compresses so many worlds into the tiny space of that first-class section. Here's a snippet where Alan is ordering dessert from the flight attendant when suddenly he hears the whump of a defibrillator being used on the struggling man nearby:
Alan realized the flight attendant had failed to take his pudding order. Now Cary Grant was climbing up Washington's granite nose. Pudding was the best part of the meal for him. He allowed himself to be distracted by the Mount Rushmore chase sequence for a few minutes, and the next time he looked up he saw the doctor shaking his head and rolling down his sleeves. Did that mean? Apparently it did, because a tartan blanket was being pulled up over what must now be the corpse.
That's only the start of the grousing in first class as the plane is diverted to Goose Bay, Canada. We're all on the same one-way flight to the abyss, Simpson implies here, but many of us, like Alan, are so armored by luxury and our own self-regard that the warning sirens barely penetrate.
"Squirrel" is another triumph of multiple points of view shrink-wrapped into a small space. A family of three gathers in a garden. The middle-aged mother, named Susan, suffers her teenage daughter's scorn and her husband's bullying. He's occupied trying to kill a squirrel he's trapped under a dustbin lid.
As daughter and father joke about Henry VIII and the various forms of torture appropriate for the furry prisoner, Susan keeps up an anxious internal monologue, wondering if her husband has caught onto her extramarital affair. Her fate and the cornered squirrel's become drolly, but movingly, entwined.
Sometimes Simpson, herself, wants to take a mental health break and flee from earthly concerns into the realm of fantasy. "The Festival of the Immortals" is a satirical piece about a literary festival featuring only those writers whose work is out of copyright. What that means under British law is dead.
Superstar Shakespeare arrives by helicopter; George Eliot gets tetchy when she's introduced as the author of "The Floss on the Mill"; and Emily Bronte charms everyone with her frankness about the disease that finished her off in a round-table discussion entitled "T.B. and Me."
All in good fun, but Simpson's range is best displayed in the more apocalyptically minded pieces here, like "Geography Boy." It's a tale of two British college students, in love, cycling around France and arguing, sometimes pompously, about climate change and activism.
The boy and the girl stop at a chateau to tour some famous medieval tapestries, filled with ghastly images of the end of the world. In the final sentences of the story, the quarrelsome lovers call a truce and hold each other as they look up at the night sky. Simpson gives them â and her readers â the gift of a moment's elegiac reprieve:
They stood in the fathomless dark, Simpson writes, and stared saucer-eyed beyond the stratosphere into the night, as troupes of boisterous planets wheeled across the blackness all round them.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Helen Simpson's latest short story collection called "In-Flight Entertainment." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nrpfreshair.
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