Nathan Englander
Nathan Englander (Photo: Joshua Meier)

As Nathan Englander was speaking, members of the audience used an onscreen chat box to express their enjoyment of his latest book or comment on their own relevant experiences.

Author Nathan Englander’s digital book presentation fit right in with the online programming initiative offered by the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit (JCC).

Central to the talk was his fifth and latest book, kaddish.com, which explores issues involved with reliance on the web. Accustomed to many in-person visits to the annual Detroit Jewish Book Fair, Englander appeared June 8 through the Zoom platform.   

Kaddish.com, published in hardcover by Knopf and in softcover by Penguin Random House, details the journey of a lapsed Jew, Larry, who chooses to observe kaddish for his father by assigning it to a website.  After Larry returns to his religion, he learns about the dark web and makes an effort to rid a small part of it.

Unfortunately, the web could be of no help for another Englander project. Because of COVID-19, his play What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is not running at The Old Globe in San Diego. Commissioned by the Lincoln Center Theater in New York, the play won the 2019 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award and the 2020 Blanche and Irving Laurie Theatre Visions Fund Prize.

“When I got the idea for [the new] book years ago, the first thing I did was go to the web to see if there was a kaddish.com website available, ” said Englander, who told his audience of some 125 listeners about eventually getting the site from someone who had read the novel.

“I have never had anything as strange as me dreaming up this site to pay someone to say the kaddish and someone reading the book and making [the website] real. Maybe I can buy my way to heaven because I gave someone the idea to teach people how to say kaddish.”

As Englander was speaking, members of the audience used an onscreen chat box to express their enjoyment of the book or comment on their own relevant experiences.

“It’s a joy to get people’s read,” he said about what was being posted as he spoke. 

Jaemi Loeb, JCC senior director of cultural arts, introduced the speaker, gave her impressions of the serious and humorous aspects of the book, and questioned him about his approach to writing.

“One of the ideas that really drives this book is thinking how we live our whole lives inside this machine,” Englander said. “My work emails that I ignore are in here. My friends’ emails that I sometimes answer are in here. The news is in here. People’s sex lives are in the machine. Their finances are in the machine. Our whole universe is in the machine.”

Englander, whose professional projects emerged through short stories, compared his own life to his character Larry by pointing out that he turned to secular Judaism while his sister remained Orthodox.  In the book, Larry turns to the web after his Orthodox sister insists that he must provide for kaddish in tribute to their father.

Englander, 50, referred to early projects, such as a short story that has a very observant Jewish man working as a department store Santa Claus, and he addressed the issue of individuals getting a “flip in identity” or maybe more than one flip.

“Growing up in a black and white world, I’m fascinated by gray space,” he said. “I love an idea to live and [motivate] discussions.”

An important influence on Englander was the late writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, who liked his first book of short stories, contacted him, encouraged that a story be turned into a play and led his way into different media.

Englander’s other books include Dinner at the Center of the Earth, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and The Ministry of Special Cases. He has been anthologized in O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories and 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories.

Englander, a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University, delved into many of his writing intentions, such as creating a sense of empathy. He also revealed aspects of his personal life.

“I hope we’re all able to sit together soon and shake a lot of hands,” he said from his Toronto home, where he and his wife are raising their two children.

A replay of this event is available through YouTube. Upcoming digital events will feature Jamie Bernstein, author and filmmaker, with Ted Chapin, president of Rodgers & Hammerstein, on June 25 and winners of the National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction on July 6. To learn about future events, go to jccdet.org/culturalarts.

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