Skip to main content

Nathan Englander: Stories Of Faith, Family And The Holocaust.

In What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Nathan Englander writes about his own faith — and what it means to be Jewish — in stories that explore religious tension, Israeli-American relations and the Holocaust.

This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 15, 2012.

20:22

Other segments from the episode on March 22, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 22, 2013: Interview with Justin Timberlake; Interview with Nathan Englander; Review of film "Olympus Has Fallen."

Transcript

March 22, 2013

Guests: Justin Timberlake – Nathan Englander

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Justin Timberlake at age 32 is a multimedia star performer. In movies he's gotten critical acclaim as a dramatic actor in "The Social Network" and elsewhere. On television, he's one of the all-time best hosts of "Saturday Night Live" and has just completed a week of appearance on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."

In 2011, he landed on the international best-dressed list. And in music, where he first made his mark as a singer, he's released a new album called "The 20/20 Experience." Here's the hit single, "Suit and Tie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUIT AND TIE")

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I can't wait 'til I get you on the floor, good-looking, going out so hot, just like an oven. And I'll burn myself, but just had to touch it. It's so fly and it's all mine. Hey baby, we don't mind all the watching 'cause if they study close, real close, they might learn something. She ain't nothing but a little doozy when she does it. She's so fly tonight.

(Singing) And as long as I've got my suit and tie I'mma leave it all on the floor tonight and you got fixed up to the nines. Let me show you a few things all pressed up in black and white and you're dressed in that dress I like. Love is swinging in the air tonight. Let me show you a few things. Let me show you a few things, show you a few things about love. While we're in the swing of love let me show you a few things...

BIANCULLI: Justin Timberlake got his first taste of pop stardom as one of the young performers on Disney Channel's "The New Mickey Mouse Club," along with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. He hit the top of the pop charts as a member of the boy band 'N Sync then went solo as a singer in 2002.

He's hosted "Saturday Night Live" five times now. When Terry Gross spoke to Justin Timberlake in 2010, she asked him about one of his memorable appearances on that show, in a music video that soon went viral.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: So there's a "Saturday Night Live" song I want to ask you about, and this song is just so famous now. And I can't really say the full title of the song, but this is something that you did with Andy Samberg. And it's a parody of those narcissistic songs and videos in which the male singer thinks that the greatest gift he could give to a lady is his very special lovemaking.

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: Yes.

GROSS: So this song and video is about...

TIMBERLAKE: That was very eloquently put.

Thank you, thank you. This song and video is about presenting his girlfriend - I think it was right before Christmas that you did this. So the song and video is about presenting his girlfriend with his manhood in a gift-wrapped box. And it's the kind of song where the singer is singing about how great he is, not how much he loves his girlfriend but really how much he loves himself.

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: Right. Right.

GROSS: And this became one of the most-viewed online things. It just went viral. So before we hear it, just tell us about writing this and performing it. It's so much fun. Go ahead.

TIMBERLAKE: The weird thing about the couple of things, digital shorts that I've done with Andy and the Lonely Island guys is that it really - you know, for instance, we wrote this song in a delirium of no sleep on a Wednesday or Thursday of the week.

And then we recorded it that night, and we were laughing so hysterically and like I said before, probably through the delirium of not being able to sleep and trying to write something funny, this came out of it. And we knew it would be funny on some level because we were laughing with each other on the Friday that we filmed the video.

And then Saturday morning, they edited it, and Saturday - or Saturday night, it was put out on television. So interestingly enough, how you described, that these guys were so self-absorbed that there could never be a question in their mind that this wasn't the greatest Christmas gift of all time, and...

GROSS: Aren't there just, like, so many songs, performers who seem to be that?

TIMBERLAKE: Well, maybe it's maybe the song is funny to people because it speaks so much to the male population and how self-absorbed we all are.

GROSS: So did you started performing when you were so young. I mean, if you go on the Internet, people can see you at age 11 on "Star Search," singing a Country and Western song. So, like, whose idea was it to start performing on TV that young? Was it you? Was it your parents?

TIMBERLAKE: I no, I always as soon as I sort of discovered the stage, I think that it just brought out a lot of - a lot in me that I didn't know that I had. And it did it at a very young age, and it was one of the most fun things that I could ever do.

You know, I begged my mother for voice lessons and guitar lessons and anything I could do to sort of - I wanted to be really good at it. I wanted to learn how to do it the right way. I wanted to - I knew that I had a good ear, and my father, my biological father, has an amazing voice, and music kind of runs in my family. But I knew that there was a sort of a right way to sing, and I wanted to learn that.

GROSS: So your grandfather was a Baptist minister, and I think your father now directs a church choir. Did you - was the church your first stage?

TIMBERLAKE: It was. It was, actually. It was - well, my father doesn't do that anymore.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

TIMBERLAKE: But he did at the time when I was very young. But yeah, it was the first time I had sort of stepped onstage to sing, and I don't know if you know much about sort of a Southern Baptist church. But no one puts in a bad performance there, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: It's a very nurturing place to step on the stage and sing because even if you're really bad, people still say amen at the end, and...

GROSS: So what did you sing?

TIMBERLAKE: I can't remember what the songs were. I think there was something from the hymnal that I sang with my father, and I sang the harmony to something that he was singing. And that was my first sort of...

GROSS: Oh, of course. So you learned to harmonize in the church. That would make sense.

TIMBERLAKE: Right. I learned to harmonize listening to a choir sing, you know, three and four-part harmonies. And so that's kind of where I got my ear from. But yeah, like I said, that's a very nurturing place to step onstage because you don't, no one's going to get booed at church.

GROSS: So I watched the clip of you at age 11 on "Star Search" with Ed McMahon, and some really interesting things about that include that you're singing a country song, and you're dressed in kind of, you know, country clothing with the country kind of belt and the hat. And the dancers that...

TIMBERLAKE: I appreciate you reminding me of all this.

GROSS: You're welcome, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But, you know, I love, like, kiddie talent shows because what always happens on those is that the children are coached by older people to perform like performers from older generations. And there's always some, like, really weird disconnect to see, like, a 10-year-old pretending like he's Sammy Davis or something, you know.

TIMBERLAKE: Right, right, right, a 10-year-old pretending like he's Alan Jackson.

GROSS: Exactly, thank you, yeah. So what was that like for you, I mean, to...

TIMBERLAKE: Well, it was a very surreal experience. I auditioned for that show in a mall in Memphis, Tennessee, at an open-call audition. And I mean, it was a line, you know, at that time "Star Search" was our version of "American Idol." It was the biggest talent show in the world.

And I got booked on the show, and I was at Disney World, and I was 10, and, you know, I mean, it was like, it was a big deal for me. And I if not for anything, I had a blast at the theme parks, so...

GROSS: Okay, well, speaking of Disney World, you went on to be on "The New Mickey Mouse Club," and what was the audition for that like?

TIMBERLAKE: The Disney MGM Studios, where "Star Search" was filmed, was a double soundstage and next door to the soundstage of "Star Search" was the Disney Channel's New MMC.

So the serendipity of it is I lost the first round on "Star Search," and we were on our way home, and there was an open-call audition in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and it just came on the television in between commercials. And it said open-call audition at this place for the Disney Channel's MMC, and my mom said, do you want to give it a go before we go home? We're just going home.

So I went in and auditioned for it and then got a callback and went to sort of a casting camp of like a week period of casting camp where, you know, all the kids who were sort of spawned out of that show, we met for the first time: Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling.

And there were 21 kids who were whittled down by I think 20,000 that they had done auditions with all over the country. And out of those 21 kids, I think seven of us were picked to be the new part of the cast.

And when you're a kid and things like that happen and happen so fast, you know, you can't help but feel like, you know, something great was happening for you. But I look back on it and I think it was more of a fluke than anything.

GROSS: So after a couple of seasons on "The Mickey Mouse Club," you ended up being in one of the famous boy bands, 'N Sync. Did that feel like a totally synthetic, or did it feel more organic as a group?

TIMBERLAKE: Well, everything that we did was based around a cappella harmonies. That's what we wanted to be in the beginning. We sort of wanted to be an a cappella group, and so that was why we put five guys in the group. And when we were forming the group, there wasn't a boy band phenomenon.

You know, Nirvana was - and Pearl Jam were the, were probably the top two acts in the world at the time. And, you know, we never knew at what capacity everything was going to work out for us. I don't think that we thought it was going to be as big as it became.

BIANCULLI: Justin Timberlake, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. We'll continue their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with performer Justin Timberlake. He's just released his first solo album in seven years called "The 20/20 Experience" and has confirmed that before the year is out, he'll release a companion volume.

GROSS: You've talked a little bit about singing and learning to sing when you were young. What about dancing? Like, did you study dancing? Did you study with break dancers or with more traditional choreographers?

TIMBERLAKE: I wish that I would've taken more - I guess there's still time - but I wish that I would've taken more technical dance. I never - I've taken a couple of technical dance classes, but I learned more how to dance just as a product of watching MTV and being around, like you said, break dancers in clubs.

I really started getting into break dancing very hard and learning the technicality of it. I broke my thumb twice in a row, and I think that's when I said, you know, I think I'm just going to stay on my feet. I'm going to keep my feet below my head as it's intended.

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: So then...

GROSS: Were you trying to spin on your head or something when that happened?

TIMBERLAKE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. My head spun me instead of me spinning on my head. It wasn't a pretty sight. So I think right then and there I decided that I would - that sort of, you know, I find that every time I write music or come up with an idea for a record, that whatever it is that I come up with I feel like I have a specific aesthetic that goes with it, very much like creating a character.

I find that I describe that to people and sometimes they respond to it and sometimes they don't. But, for instance, my last album, "FutureSex/LoveSounds," was a character that I created much like, you know, obviously not the same way that David Bowie would create something like Ziggy Stardust, you know, but, you know, something that aspired to be a character. And...

GROSS: What was the character that you were seeing?

TIMBERLAKE: I don't know. I just saw it as someone who I saw - I guess for some reason I saw some mixture between like 007 character.

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: But also an ode to like Fred Astaire, in a way, or Gene Kelly. I think I saw it as an ode to that, but how could I take that and make it sound modern? And so when the aesthetic of it came into play, I wanted to play the part. I wanted to play it.

But it was - I did feel like I was creating sort of a character that could maybe fall into a Kubrick film or a Helmut Newton photo or, you know, I just saw a lot of images in my mind after we had looked back and created it.

GROSS: Well, let's take "Sexy Back," as an example. Your voice is processed on part of that. Why did you want that?

TIMBERLAKE: You know, I, it was a song - not actually even singing on the song, you know, so I remember when...

GROSS: What does that mean?

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: Well, I'm more sort of talking in tone, more than singing in that song. And I don't know where that line came from. I sometimes regret it.

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: Because I feel like people feel like it's an extension of who I am, but when I feel like when I get the opportunity to tell them that I felt like I was playing a character, sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don't. You know, for whatever reason, when we started recording it, I wanted the vocal to sort of almost slap you in the face.

I wanted it to sound like it was distorted. And so I just got the idea that what if we put it through a simulated guitar amp or an effect like that. It's a very sparse sounding record because there's no - in between the parts that I'm actually performing the record, there's not - there's just the sound of these weird, quirky, computerized gimmicks.

I felt like if anyone ever took dance music and applied a rock-'n'-roll frame of mind to it, with bravado and sort of rock star-ism, that's what we were trying to capture, and it was just a moment. And like I said, I sometimes regret that I wrote it that way but also not because it was a moment, and it was fun, and I had fun writing it.

And when I see people sing it back to me, you know, when you cut to me standing on stage in Copenhagen for 80,000 people, and they're all singing the song, and there's something so unabashed and fun and unbridled about their feeling with that song. So I felt like it was mission accomplished.

GROSS: Okay. So after that great description, we have to hear it. This is my guest, Justin Timberlake singing "Sexy Back."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEXY BACK")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I'm bringing sexy back. Yeah. Them other boys don't know how to act. Yeah. I think you're special, what's behind your back? Yeah. So turn around and I'll pick up the slack. Yeah. Take 'em to the bridge. Come on.

(Singing) Dirty babe. Uh-huh. You see the shackles baby I'm your slave. Uh-huh. I'll let you whip me if I misbehave. Uh-huh. It's just that no one makes me feel this way. Uh-huh.

(Singing) Take 'em to the chorus. Come here girl. Go ahead, be gone with it. Come to the back. Go ahead, be gone with it. VIP. Go ahead, be gone with it. Drinks on me. Go ahead, be gone with it. Let me see what you're working with. Go ahead, be gone with it. Look at those hips. Go ahead, be gone with it. You make me smile. Go ahead, be gone with it. Go ahead child. Go ahead, be gone with it. And get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. I'm bringing sexy back. Yeah.

GROSS: That was Justin Timberlake recorded in 2006, one of his big solo hits. So that's really fun to listen back to.

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: Oh good.

GROSS: What was it like for you going solo as opposed to, like, being in a group, you know, being more - having all the responsibility - the main responsibility - on your shoulders?

TIMBERLAKE: Well, I mean it was comfortable. I think growing up as an only child probably had more to do with that than anything. But I had music that I was ready to express, and I don't think it was an extension of the other guys in the group, and so I think it was a natural progression.

There was timing that was involved with some of the other guys wanting - aspiring to do other things, as well, and so there was a little bit of serendipity to that. But also, I think naturally it still would've taken its course that I would've ended up doing solo work just because I think that I had different music inside of me that I wanted to express.

GROSS: So you are so lucky. You were a child star and survived. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Seriously, like the things that you learned as a child star were probably, like, so helpful in learning, you know, like show business and dancing and singing and acting. But at the same time, it ruins so many people, like so many people who are lucky enough to have that kind of early fame never recover. So do you have any sense of what it was that has kept you...

TIMBERLAKE: I think I would just chalk that up to, I would chalk that up to amazing parents, an amazing mother. You know, my parents...

GROSS: I hope she's listening.

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: I'm almost positive she's listening right now.

(LAUGHTER)

TIMBERLAKE: She's very proud. But I would chalk that up to an amazing mother. She's, you know, my biological parents divorced when I was right - I think right around the time I turned one, and my mother remarried my stepdad when I was five and - right after I turned five.

And so, you know, there was a period of time where I had to get used to sort of a man that didn't - that wasn't related to me by blood. And you know, she always made everything so comfortable for me, and she always spoke to me like I was her peer.

I think the thing that she sort of embedded in my brain is if you have the ability to do something, one or two things great, it doesn't mean that you're a better person than anyone else. And the accolades that I receive personally from what I do are more of comments you would get from people that say your music helped them through a rough time or saying that you made them laugh rather than, you know, materialistic awards or things like that.

And, but just I would chalk it up to a great mother who has always taught me that we all put our pants on one leg at a time, so...

GROSS: Well, Justin Timberlake, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for being on our show.

TIMBERLAKE: Thank you. I'm such a fan and I...

GROSS: Oh, wow.

TIMBERLAKE: I was so excited to be on the show, so...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm very excited to here you say that.

BIANCULLI: Justin Timberlake, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. His new album is called "The 20/20 Experience." Here's an excerpt from one of his appearances last week on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," part four of their continuing history of rap medleys. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, writer Nathan Englander, has a collection of stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." It's now out in paperback.

The stories deal with tensions around Jewish orthodoxy and tradition, arguments about the state of Israel, and what it means to be Jewish in a modern world. Considering Englander's life, it's not surprising these are his subjects.

Nathan Englander grew up in a insular orthodox community on Long Island and attended yeshiva, where he was taught that a second Holocaust or a Spanish Inquisition even, was right around the corner. As an adult, Englander lived for a few years in Israel. It was there that he decided to part with organized religion.

But Englander hasn't left Judaism behind. In fact, he spent two years translating the "The Haggadah," the traditional book read at the Seder Table during Passover. The new translation called "New American Haggadah," was edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and was published last year, is the first night of Passover. Terry spoke with Nathan Englander last year when his collection of short stories was first published.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: 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.

(LAUGHTER)

ENGLANDER: 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."

GROSS: OK.

ENGLANDER: (Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

(LAUGHTER)

ENGLANDER: That's funny.

GROSS: Have you?

ENGLANDER: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that was actually - 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: 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: 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, we, 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 - I don't know whether to count myself as a fourth generation or fifth generation. 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 - we have the minds of, you know, like, survivors' kids.

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. 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 - 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: Yeah. 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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 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.

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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?

(LAUGHTER)

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?

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

ENGLANDER: Obviously you're a Mel Brooks fan. But...

GROSS: Wait. Let me just stop you here. So you're brought up with fear that the Holocaust can happen any second.

ENGLANDER: Yeah.

GROSS: Maybe the Spanish Inquisition in which all...

ENGLANDER: Yes.

GROSS: ...the Jews from Spain were expelled, changing the whole map of Jews around the world forever and ever.

ENGLANDER: Yes.

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

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...

GROSS: GROSS: So... that actually reinforced all your fears.

ENGLANDER: ...we really had that escalated war with the anti-Semites in our town. It was insane.

BIANCULLI: Author Nathan Englander speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2012 interview with Nathan Englander, author of the short story collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." It's now out on paperback.

GROSS: 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, 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 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, this, 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: Now you've also written a new translation of the Haggadah. And why don't you explain what the Haggadah is?

ENGLANDER: Yeah. 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.

ENGLANDER: Right.

GROSS: Dinner's very late.

(LAUGHTER)

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: So you have a new translation and the book is called the "New American Haggadah." It's about to be published.

ENGLANDER: Yes.

GROSS: The editor is Jonathan Safran Foer, who I think initiated the project.

ENGLANDER: Yes.

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, 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: And what was your ambition? What did you think needed changing? I mean why do we need a new Haggadah?

ENGLANDER: It's sort of I think of 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? What committed me to it is that back to loving texts, which is, the Haggadah, you should literally, you should read it and weep. It is so beautiful. It is just such a moving document to me. And the line that I can tell you is that really clinched it for me is in Hebrew, it says, you know, (Foreign 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 for three years.

GROSS: 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 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, for eloheinu.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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, 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 suddenly thought my God, people are going to be praying from this. I better think.

GROSS: 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 king, 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 - when I read something like that, part of me wonders does God need to be praised that much? 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?

ENGLANDER: Yes.

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 - 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 - 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 we-right? 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.

(LAUGHTER)

ENGLANDER: So I know what you're saying. But I guess I find this - you know what? This is about freedom from slavery. This is about getting your homeland that was, you know, promised to you. This is about return. 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 - my brother-in-law - 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 - 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 - this is also probably, 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 - he literally had been a slave and that freedom, there's a lot of thanks for survival and freedom that goes into that.

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.

BIANCULLI: Author Nathan Englander speaking to Terry Gross last year. His collection of short stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" is now out in paperback. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Olympus Has Fallen," a new action movie that takes aim at the White House. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: The White House is seized by terrorists in the new action thriller "Olympus Has Fallen." It stars Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, and as the hostage president of the United States, Aaron Eckhart. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: What surprises me about the ongoing discussion of violence in cinema and whether it influences violence in the real world is how people fail to engage with the male fantasy behind these films. There's a template for them, a theme. It hinges on violation and vengeance. A seminal action picture of the last 50 years is 1988's "Die Hard," in which a lone male cop operates behind the scenes after an ingeniously orchestrated foreign attack on American soil.

He's symbolically emasculated. He has no gun, or even shoes. His wife is now going by her maiden name. Arrogant bureaucrats from the city and FBI castigate him for breaking protocol, but he's an all-American hero. And so is Mike Banning, the fallen Secret Service agent of this year's "Die Hard"-ish vigilante fantasy, "Olympus Has Fallen.

The picture is vile, but it hits its marks harder than anything I can remember, and it works. It makes you sick with suspense on the most primitive level imaginable. In the opening, Banning, who's played by Gerard Butler, makes a split-second decision to save the life of the president, played by Aaron Eckhart, but at the expense of the first lady. It's the right call, but not protecting one's women is a big stigma in this kind of movie.

Banning takes a job outside the White House, so as not to remind POTUS and his son of the loss. But then comes the hideous violation. During a presidential meeting with South Korean diplomats, some kind of souped-up hovercraft invades D.C. airspace, riddling people with bullets.

Half the Washington Monument crumbles - symbolic on several different levels. Olympus - Secret Service code for the White House - falls. Terrorists shoot almost everyone, except for Banning, who drives like mad to the scene, dodges bullets and gets inside, alone, but on his game.

Director Antoine Fuqua made "Training Day," and other films that made a pretense of using violence as more than a means to work you over, but the carnage here is both cruel and crude. Waves of people go down in showers of gore. The audience is primed to cheer when a pretty Asian terrorist gets her head blown off. The Stars and Stripes is shot full of holes and torn down. It drifts to the ground in slow motion.

Waiting for word is what's left of the government, including Angela Bassett as the Secret Service director and Morgan Freeman as the speaker of the House turned acting-president, a job he practiced for as the president in "Deep Impact." That's when they hear from our hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have contact from inside the White House. A trace confirms it's the president's sat phone.

MORGAN FREEMAN: (as Speaker Trumbull) Put it through. Mr. President?

GERARD BUTLER: (as Banning) Negative.

FREEMAN: (as Speaker Trumbull) Identify yourself.

BUTLER: (as Banning) Echelon four.

FREEMAN: (as Speaker Trumbull) It's one of yours?

ANGELA BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) Designator.

BUTLER: Oscar, Zulu, three-zero-niner.

BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) Jesus. Banning? Where are you?

BUTLER: (as Banning) In the Oval Office. Mr. President's in the bunker.

BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) He...

FREEMAN: (as Speaker Trumbull) Can we trust him?

BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) Banning was one of our best agents.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Speaker, I just have to say, this is Mike Banning. This is the same guy that was removed from the president's detail after the accident...

BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) Right, right, right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...when we lost the first lady.

BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) You want to add something...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, what's he doing in the White House right now?

BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) ...I suggest you get your facts straight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I mean, how do we know we can trust this guy?

BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) Banning is ex-special forces, Ranger Battalion. He will move mountains or die trying. I know him.

FREEMAN: (as Speaker Trumbull) Does anyone else in this room have any intelligence coming out of the White House? Then we have no choice.

EDELSTEIN: He will move mountains, or die trying. Well, he doesn't move mountains, but he shoots, stabs, strangles and tortures bad guys. And though Gerard Butler doesn't have much personality, he's solid - by which I mean he carries himself well and he's all muscle.

The terrorists are led by a North Korean psychopath who mouths leftist-sounding slogans. He's aided by an assemblage of Asians, Middle Easterners and people of darker hues, plus a turncoat agent played by Dylan McDermott. What we Americans - personified by Banning - do best is defend ourselves, in one case using a bust of Lincoln to bust a foreign terrorist's head.

OK, lots of not-sick people enjoy violent junk like "Olympus Has Fallen," including, on occasion, moi. I'm just tired of these tropes and their sway over large segments of the populace. Sure, we face threats. But the disproportionate number of movie scenarios like this - violation and vengeance - suggests a kind of addiction. I don't know what it means, but I know these aren't movies, really. They're fixes.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org, and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Questlove spins the soundtrack of his life in 'Music is History'

In his new book, Roots co-founder Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson starts in 1971 and moves year-by-year through his life, writing about memories, turning points and the songs he listened to.

42:18

In 'Maid,' a single mother struggles to make it on minimum wage

While raising her young daughter, Stephanie Land cleaned houses to scrape by. It was back-aching work for low pay. Her memoir inspired the Netflix series, Maid. Originally broadcast Jan. 29, 2019.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue