September 21, 2019

A Man’s Search Leads Back to His Flock

Nathan Englander was born and raised in an Orthodox community in New York, but he reinvented himself as one of America’s leading Jewish authors (“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” among other works) by writing about the points of friction between religious practice and secular life. And that’s exactly what is going on in his latest novel, “Kaddish.com” (Knopf), a sharp-edged and slyly comic account of a Jew who finds himself bouncing back and forth between the many competing versions of contemporary Judaism.

The story he tells in “Kaddish.com” focuses on a young man named Larry. Like the author, Larry is no longer observant; he embraces “Zazen mindfulness” and various other beliefs and practices that his father dismisses as “narrishkeit and bunk stuff,” but he’s also a kind of updated Portnoy, searching the internet for “the world’s filthiest filth.” As an advertising man, he spends his days “selling junk” and his nights “trying to catch an STD.” 

When his father dies, Larry dutifully sits shivah in his sister’s home in Memphis, Tenn., but he is so estranged from the traditional obligations of a son in mourning that “he keeps raising his hand to the top of his head, checking for the yarmulke, sitting there like a hubcap for all its emotional weight,” as Englander puts it. But the weightiest challenge is the duty of an only son to say Kaddish eight times a day for a full year. “Tell me you get that the Kaddish is on you,” warns his older sister, Dina.

Dina is dubious that Larry will carry the burden, and she turns to her rabbi in despair. “Fix it, Rabbi,” Larry says. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” The rabbi, in fact, comes up with a solution: “You could assign a kind of shaliach mitzvah — like an emissary. A proxy to say it in your stead.” And Larry “begins googling his way toward a solution for all that ails,” quickly finding his way to kaddish.com, “a website based in Jerusalem, and behind that website was a yeshiva, and behind that place of study was a group of deeply committed students who — for a fee — would say the Mourner’s Prayer.” As Englander jokes, kaddish.com “was like a JDate for the dead.”

Thus does Englander invite us to follow Larry down the rabbit hole into a series of comic and tragic encounters with Judaism. “I do not share the story to brag, or show off, or even to make excuses for all the years of lost time,” Larry is made to muse out loud. “I only share it to say, it’s never too late to live one’s true life.”

“What Shuli finds — and what he does — will come as a shock to the reader, a blow to the heart that leaves a lump in the throat.”

Larry’s true life, or so he believes, is his old life. He adopts his Hebrew name and returns to the study of Torah and Talmud, and we come to see him as Rebbe Shuli, a charismatic rabbi and teacher. But even so, “all his years of t’shuvah, a lifetime of redemption had … done nothing.” Suddenly, and shatteringly, he plumbs the depth of the deal he had made so many years ago when he signed up at kaddish.com. “Shuli was living a ghost life,” Englander writes. “After all the years of teaching and outreach, all the effort dedicated to t’shuvah, it was as if he’d been saving money for twenty years only to find that he’d been depositing it into someone else’s account.”

Larry — or Shuli, as we now know him — finds himself tortured by his memories of Chemi, the yeshiva student who had been assigned by kaddish.com to say the Mourner’s Prayer for Larry’s father. He is no less tortured by the plight of one of his students, a boy named Gavriel, who is also troubled by the duty of saying kaddish for his late father. Between these two sources of affliction, Shuli is confronting yet another crisis. “Gavriel is the one to tip you over,” warns Shuli’s wife, “but I’ve watched, for too long, as you teeter on the edge.” Yet it is Gavriel, an expert in navigating the internet, turns out to be Shuli’s savior: “Here, it all waits to be plucked out of the air by a child.”

Now Shuli experiences yet another revelation. “Shuli recognizes the source of it all,” Englander writes. “The flashes of pure energy through cables under the ocean, soaring up, and making their way to satellites turning in the heavens. All the world’s understanding transformed into waves of light and sound, to modulated impulse and frequency, everyone’s deepest desires broadcast in an ever-expanding and invisible net.” It is the internet, “a singular Godlike mind,” that holds the answer to Shuli’s quest for meaning and connection.

At the climax of Englander’s book, we follow Shuli to Jerusalem, where he hopes and prays to find Chemi. “He watches everyone darting about with their plastic shopping bags, filled with hippy-dippy Tzfat candles, and DON’T WORRY AMERICA, ISRAEL’S GOT YOUR BACK T-shirts, and candy bars with Hebrew names,” Englander writes. “If he was going home without the one thing he’d come for, at least he should bring gifts.” What Shuli finds — and what he does — will come as a shock to the reader, a blow to the heart that leaves a lump in the throat.

“Kaddish.com” is funny but also profound, a saga of spiritual transformation that is deeply rooted in Jewish thought and practice. Englander seeks to explain the real function of religious observance. “This is what ritual does,” Larry/Shuli says. “It binds us from chaos.” Amid the chaos in which we all live nowadays, “Kaddish.com” is a bright light in a dark world.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.