A J-Date for the dead

Emma Levy

May 21, 2019

In Shuli’s dream, there is a beautiful feast, and then cruelly, there is not. His elbows have disappeared, his dead father has developed avian features, and his fate is being adjudicated by a heavenly tribunal that includes a porn star he once saw in a spammy pop-up screen on his laptop in the late 90s. Shuli’s guilt has now taken the form of these terrifying dreams, ones that trap him in a perpetual state of repentance, a bizarre Yom Kippur he revisits each time he sleeps. Not much we do on the internet has the power to haunt us two decades later, but for Shuli, there is one purchase he wishes he never made.

Kaddish.com, Nathan Englander’s newest novel, is situated at the unlikely intersection of technology and Orthodox Judaism. It centers around how one man experiences the death of his Orthodox father after he himself has left the community.

The novel is bifurcated, the two parts helpfully signaled by a change in the protagonist’s name. Before Shuli, there is Larry is off the derech: he smokes weed, curses, watches porn, and shows visible indifference, if not total disdain, for most of the Orthodox tradition in which he was raised. And yet, according to Jewish law, the responsibility falls with him, as the only male child, to mourn his father by reciting the Kaddish each day for the first year after his father’s death.

Knowing that Larry is somewhere between unwilling and completely incapable of devoting a year of his life to such a task, his sister and her rabbi, in desperation, discover a loophole in the halachah: Larry can arrange for a shaliach mitzvah (which literally translates to mitzvah representative) to take his place. In other words, Larry’s father can be mourned in a way that is technically kosher, if only Larry can find someone who will undertake this sacred and intimate religious obligation for him.

Technologically shrewd as he is, Larry goes to the marketplace of the holy and of the profane, a place where even the most sacred is commodified, and where almost any good or service is accessible with a valid credit card number: the internet. In his grief, Larry stumbles upon a website called Kaddish.com, where he takes comfort in being matched with a young Israeli yeshiva student named Chemi, whose picture shows him diligently studying the Torah — a process that Englander cleverly refers to as “a J-Date for the dead.”

With a digital signature, Larry signs his spiritual life away. For the next two decades, this decision haunts him.

When I first began Kaddish.com, I saw it as a departure from Englander’s most recent, well-received Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Dinner is a sprawling thriller that deconstructs ideas of patriotism and nationalism in Israel, tracing a prisoner’s enigmatic journey from the Jewish community in Long Island where he was raised, to the Israeli black site where he has been held for over a decade. As Englander knows from his own Orthodox upbringing, there are strictures built into American-Jewish ideology that act to limit or simplify how American Jews engage with complex questions about Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In Dinner, however, Englander takes on the deeply entrenched ideologies on both sides of the Israel/Palestine debate.

By creating characters whose sympathies, relationships, and lived experiences do not clearly align with either Israel’s state perspective or Palestine’s, Englander is able to highlight the closeness of these countries, the way in which their national identities have been built around mutual and hopeless entanglement.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth is not as resolute as Kaddish.com, perhaps because the global political struggle that Englander explores in Dinner is still ongoing and exacerbated more each year. Because Kaddish.com is a book about a personal struggle, resolution is more accessible.

As I got deeper into Kaddish.com, I realized that what emerged from Englander’s new novel about the specifically Jewish grief and guilt of one man were larger questions that are inextricable from the conversation about global Jewish identity that plays out in each of Englander’s novels in some iteration. As Shuli becomes increasingly desperate to claim his birthright back from Chemi, he becomes deeply ingratiated in the online world; within its labyrinthine networks of digital codes and electronic fingerprints, he knows he can find a path of redemption. The internet can offer so many things that Shuli's all-knowing God cannot. In fact, Englander describes the internet as a kind of holy place, a Platonic ideal, intangible like the idea of Israel once was:

Who ever thought the solution of his, and to his sister’s, and the spirit of his father’s intractable problem might be reached by melding all of their disparate beliefs? For the Internet and new technology is the answer, and that spread-to-the-corners-of-the-earth idea of a linked and universal Jewish home ends up being the answer too.

Englander brings the problems of an increasingly technological world down to the micro-level of Jewish home life. Larry’s train of thought is representative of a problem with which the novel wrestles in nuanced ways: can the problems caused by technology be remedied with more technology? If so, where does it end?

Kaddish.com places questions of God and the internet closely alongside one another. Within the logic of the novel, both are omnipresent observers, simultaneously dooming, redeeming, and democratizing. Englander plays with the idea that the internet, rather than Israel, is the true home of the Jewish people, uniting the diaspora in a way no single nation could — digitally. In this way, Kaddish engages questions about the limits of global Jewish identity in ways equally as daring as Dinner does.

Englander never proposes an alternative to the project of Israel, nor is that his intention. Instead, in both of these novels, he considers ways in which the idealized notion of Israel materializes in the 20th and 21st centuries. What connects us Jews globally may not be a yearning for the homeland — and the homeland may not just be for Jews.

Englander has never been afraid to be a bit blasphemous, to be a bit playful with the religious tradition in which he was raised. In fact, if he has anything in common with his character Shuli, it's that doubt is at the root of his faith: "Because with rebellion, it can also be a way to acknowledge the importance of the thing we rebel against.”

As he has shown in his previous books, Englander is skilled at melding the sacred with the absurd to unearth the hypocrisies in both traditional religious life and modern secular life. For Englander, this often requires a blurring of the bounds of history, reality, and in this case, Jewish law. Although I am perhaps not the right Jew to ask about obscure scriptural laws, I am sure that even Orthodox Jews (of which I am not) who believe in the halachah as more of a mandate than as a spiritual framework experience the Mourner’s Kaddish as something too profoundly intimate to be transferred over to an emissary, even if that is technically considered legal by rabbinical law.

But it is these stretches of the realm of possibility, these devices of imagination and estrangement, that allow Englander to explore the strangeness of our cultural practices. Is there a wrong way to mourn a loved one? If your morality comes from your religious doctrines, can something still be immoral if technically kosher? Does the internet help to spread the word of God, or does it sell the word of God as a product?

Englander is one of the most thoughtful observers of contemporary Jewish life writing today. More than that, he has an uncommon talent for writing stories that sneak up on you. Page by page, his novels are compelling. His characters are at once infuriating and demanding of compassion, neurotic but exceedingly thoughtful, caricatures but also the embodiment of impulses that live inside of us all. Kaddish.com has a different energy than Englander’s last major book, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, and perhaps even a smaller one. But the intelligence of the novel works though subtle, almost insidious insights and metaphors that are carefully laced into Englander’s strange and evocative narrative world.

The allegorical weight of Englander’s words is never overbearing. It almost seems as though he allows a conflict that has never quite resolved itself — that of modernity and orthodoxy — unfold in its own natural, and sinister, way.

Books in this review:
  • Kaddish.com
    by Nathan Englander
    March 26, 2019
    224 pages
    Purchased by reviewer
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Emma is the publishing assistant at Shelf Awareness. She also writes and edits.

Follow Emma Levy on Twitter: @emmalev_

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