Since the release of his first story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, in 1999, Nathan Englander has been striving to outdo himself. The stories (some remarkable, others forgettable) presented a compelling, peculiar style—linguistically restrained, comic, and fable-like. Englander was raised as an Orthodox Jew, a faith from which he later turned away, and this first book sourced much of its energy from the conflict between orthodoxy and the temptations of the secular world—mining scenes from Jewish life past and present, ranging in milieu from the Soviet Union to Israel to America. Whether directly allegorical or dressed in the trappings of realism, the stories were premise-driven, structurally simple, and interested in the narrative effect of repetitions and reversals.
Two novels followed that first collection, with another book of stories between them (2012’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank). While this second collection advanced the project of the first (with far more mixed results), the novels aimed at something else. Each pushed the parameters of what Englander had accomplished with the short story to accommodate the nuances of grave political subjects: the 1976 Argentine coup d’état (2007’s The Ministry of Special Cases) and the dissolution of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (2017’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth). Both novels have their moments, but they suffer from this attempt to stretch his style to fit a world-historical scale.
Englander’s third novel, kaddish.com, tries a different tactic. Here, Englander puts the grand machinations to the side and returns to the tensions he’s explored in the shorter form. In effect, kaddish.com reads like an Englander short story gently massaged into a longer tale. The premise is characteristically captivating in its mix of narrative promise and utter absurdity: Larry, a 30-year-old lapsed Orthodox Jew, refuses to perform his religious obligation of reciting the Kaddish—the prayer for the dead, assuring their happiness in the world to come—for his recently deceased father. Larry is unwilling to fulfill the duty himself but, in classic Talmudic fashion, he’s amenable to a loophole.
The novel begins in 1999 (the same year that Englander’s debut appeared) and, as one might expect at the peak of the dot-com bubble, Larry happens upon his solution the way we all would now: by googling. He discovers a website—kaddish.com—that, for a fee, connects would-be mourners to more devout Jews to pray in their stead. Technically, Larry has been given rabbinic permission to offload his task on a “proxy.” This is obviously not what the rabbi had in mind, but it’s good enough for Larry, newly awakened to the opportunities the internet offers for casually shirking one’s responsibilities.
kaddish.com seems set up to be a searing satire of unthinking religiosity, lazy secularism, and the nascent gig economy. The novel opens with Larry arguing with his sister, Dina, about Larry’s discomfort under the judgmental gaze of the Orthodox community as they gather to mourn the siblings’ father. This first scene is full of potential. Larry finds himself forced back into the world he’d left behind, stuck between his sense of duty toward his father and the needs of his own secular grief. This conflict comes to a head when Dina reprimands him for contravening Jewish law by stepping out into the yard to read for pleasure and, most egregiously, sitting in “a regular chair,” rather than “that special shiva perch.” Larry bristles. “A stupid chair isn’t what makes it mourning,” he tells his sister. For her, of course, this is exactly what mourning is.
The intriguing tension promptly gives way to increasingly tiresome repetitions of this same conflict. It becomes clear that theres is no depth to Dina’s belief or Larry’s unbelief; each exists only to butt heads dully with the other, as if to stand in for a genuine reckoning. The same shallowness characterizes the descriptions of Larry’s relationship with his father, who, we are told, “saw his true nature, loving Larry only for exactly who he was and cherishing the man he’d become.” Such vagueness continually undercuts moments of possible emotional richness. All of this might be fine if the novel were up to something else at the level of structure. But the satirical potential is diffused into a gloss of wackiness lacquered over an otherwise plodding, uncritically sentimental story. Occasional flashes of humor cut through. Larry, receiving stories of others’ deceased family members as he tries to reckon with his own, imagines responding, “Thanks for sharing, and fuck your dead dad.” Later, in an intense debate over the sinfulness of kaddish.com, a rabbi claims that anyone who would use the site is “even lower than those who’d leave a body unburied for wild animals to eat.” But such sparks of wit, few and far between, never add up to anything of greater significance.
After Larry solves the problem of his refusal to say Kaddish for his father with the help of kaddish.com, which allows him to bequeath the mourning to a young Israeli yeshivah student named Chemi, the novel jumps ahead 20 years. Over the course of two pages, we learn that Larry has, in fulfillment of his father’s prophecy, returned to the fold. He now goes by the nickname Shuli (more formally, Shaul). What’s more, he has become a rabbi, teaches at the same Brooklyn yeshivah he attended as a child, and is now married to an Orthodox woman, raising Orthodox children. The narratively predictable if psychologically unlikely impetus for this transformation, we learn, was a photograph—sent with a note confirming the completion of the mourning of Larry’s father—of Chemi studying Talmud. Though the novel hinges on this transformation, it spends little time on it. The true intricacies of conversion and return to a faith—in all their personal and political complexities—are never really explored. Simple as that, Larry the uncomplicatedly secular Jew becomes Shuli the uncomplicatedly Orthodox Jew. In kaddish.com, one is devout, or one is not, and though the question of religiosity is fundamental, neither option contains much content.
Rather than probe questions of ritual, belief, and ethical action as its characters understand them amid the messiness of their own lives, the novel courts meaning through unconvincing narrative manipulations, conveyed in bland prose that never misses an opportunity to unpack a moment’s meaning to death or to mark an epiphany as such, as if the reader might otherwise miss it. Prompted by one such exasperatingly over-orchestrated insight occasioned by watching the ritual passing of a pen at a wedding, Shuli is sent spiraling back into his guilt over his disavowal of his duty to his father. Shuli concludes that his own spiritual situation is more dire than he’d thought. “When I signed,” he tells his wife, speaking of the digital contract on kaddish.com, “there was a digital pen that I put into a digital hand. I made a kinyan. I transferred over my rights—for real. Which means, even now, remembering my father is that other man’s job.” Despite his wife’s assurances that Shuli’s interpretation wouldn’t hold water in a rabbinic court, Shuli sets off on a quest to reclaim his birthright from Chemi. The journey takes him back online via the yeshivah computer room (Shuli has none at home, to avoid temptation) and, eventually, to Jerusalem, where he uncovers what’s behind kaddish.com and finds an unexpected way to make something of his sin.
This idea—that holiness might arrive by way of transgression—is among the novel’s driving forces. Englander attempts to link this theme to a critique of the misogyny endemic to the Orthodox community, but he ends up merely replicating what he attempts to expose.
In a conversation with Gavriel, a troubled 12-year-old yeshivah student whose recent misbehavior, Shuli discovers, is a response to his own father’s death, Shuli asks whether Gavriel knows the meaning of the Hebrew word kadosh. “Holy,” the student answers. Shuli responds with a little lesson:
Exactly. But the root of the word, it can also be used in the opposite way. In the Torah, in the book of B’reishit, our father Yehuda is looking for someone—I won’t say who, because why spread such an accusation, even now. Yehuda asks if anyone has seen this certain woman, this ‘kadeshah’ is what he says—meaning a prostitute. The same letters used to make up ‘holy’ are also used for the opposite of what is holy.
The treatment of this wordplay prepares the reader for a climactic moment in one of the final chapters. In the midst of a dream-vision of the world to come, after conversations with his father and his sister, Shuli comes face-to-face with someone else, whom he fails to recognize until he looks between her legs.
Shuli—back when he was Larry—saw this woman on the very night that he discovered kaddish.com. Back then, he closed the kaddish.com window only to find himself confronting a pornographic pop-up, left over from an earlier masturbation session. The window shows a woman “busy with” a “lubriciously large glass dildo.” Larry objectifies her with a philosophical flourish: “It’s as if, pondering death, he’s now gazing straight back to life’s start.” He then reflects on his own desensitization, half-heartedly imagines her humanity, and wonders what his sister would think (“Would she scratch out her saintly eyes, trying to unsee?”). Englander clumsily alerts us to the point—“And then it strikes him, a giant truth for Larry to absorb”—and Larry realizes that this video was playing as he fulfilled his duty to his father. This causes him to reflect on his and the woman’s shared depravity: “That downtrodden woman, a fake smile on her face, had worked her apparatus, as if she’d been turned, for whatever paltry payment, into a human butter churn, God help her. And God help me.” The reader is made to understand Larry’s encounter with his own sinful desires as part of the impetus behind his return to orthodoxy. Later, as Shuli, the mere prospect of going online conjures this image, which fills him with shame.
In his vision of the hereafter, Shuli allows the woman to turn her instrument on him, and he reciprocates (the “world to come” takes on a new meaning). The scene ends with the two in mutual, revelatory pleasure, which supplants the earlier abjection: “In this way, maintaining a rhythm, and in this way, gliding back and forth, Shuli finally understands what it is to find one’s place in Paradise.” The point is to use Shuli’s changing relationship to this woman to show a transformation in his understanding of holiness, in line with his earlier lesson in Hebrew hermeneutics. But all it reveals is that Shuli has not changed at all. Now, as then, the woman is an object to denigrate or elevate for his own purposes. So too for Englander, who conjures the character for no purpose other than to signal a change in Shuli and to telegraph a convoluted message about holiness—one wrapped up in a Jewish riff on the Madonna-whore dichotomy that the novel never contests. (The image, which clearly aims for Philip Roth-like comic profundity, is also the most prominent of the novel’s many failed punchlines, as unfunny as it is unilluminating.) The women who appear in the flesh—rather than behind a computer screen or in a vision—hardly fare better. Shuli’s long-suffering wife exists mainly to alternately nag and affirm him, while his sister merely emblemizes false consciousness as she defends the differing duties of Orthodox men and women, a role which serves first to highlight Larry’s egalitarianism, and then to justify Shuli’s shrugging it off.
With a defter hand and a more refined sense of irony, Englander’s treatment of the sacred intermingled with the profane as they manifest in images of women controlled by men—recurrently, in arenas both religious and secular, from the Torah to the novel to internet porn—could have yielded a substantial critique. Instead, the novel merely continues the tradition. With each subject it treats, from the tension between ritual and reform to the internet’s false promises of omniscience and interconnection, kaddish.com repeatedly fails to offer anything beyond canned analyses and vague gestures toward insight, all interspersed with minor comic moments. Attempting to shoehorn social satire into the shape of a parable, Englander has created something that succeeds as neither.