Nathan Englander’s first collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, is one of my favorite books ever. I’m not sure if ‘Jewish American Literature’ is still a real genre in the Henry Roth sense of the term, but, if so, Englander is surely a Jewish writer. For someone who is said to have left religious practice years ago, he still has a deeply Jewish soul. And the threads of Jewish thought and identity are looped into every story he writes. The Twenty-Seventh Man, his first story in that collection and now his first play, onstage currently at the Public Theater, is a requiem for the great Yiddish writers in post-WWII Russia who were selectively sentenced to execution by Stalin’s regime. In a jail cell that feels believably stifling, as though “lack of air flow” was part of the set description, we meet Englander’s imagined luminaries, each a Jew and each a legend of the written word.
As the writers discuss their work, their language, and the cause of their incarceration, a new prisoner arrives, this one a near teenager whose name – Pinchas Pelovits – strikes no familiar chords as a recognizable writer. Pelovits, the twenty-seventh man to be selected, is unlike the others: he is anonymous and unpublished. But he is, he assures us, a writer. His presence in the cell is the mystery of the play, and as the other men curiously question his identity, Englander brings to light how writers measure their worth: by sustaining the lifelong ritual of writing and by creating an audience of readers. Pelovits’ elation in sharing the same room as the writers he most admires is the poignant paradox of the work. It is his one chance to share a story of his own with them.
The story Pelovits writes in prison is my favorite part of the play, and I almost wish I could make everyone in the audience read Englander’s original story before seeing the production because the story needs time and potentially a reread to resonate. What Englander arrives at is that the dead cannot be remembered – their lives and their actions have no sanctification – unless those who live make their memory significant. It’s an idea whose brilliance is almost eclipsed by its simplicity.
Barry Edelstein’s direction – maybe his last at the Public Theater and certainly his last in New York for a while as he sets up a new home at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre – was so arresting that the audience seemed to hold its breath collectively after the play’s final scene before applause took over like a welcome catharsis.
Englander’s writing has kept me company a lot this year. I read his new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, as soon as it came out, and I used his new translation of the haggadah on Passover. The haggadah had received some mixed reviews, but what I loved about it was the way Englander made some of the most ordinary and familiar phrases come alive. One example was “eloheinu” which is typically translated as “our God” but which Englander translates as “God of us”. In doing so, he offers a new lens through which to view the human/God relationship, transferring any sense of ownership away from us. Whether or not that phrase works for you, it likely makes you think. It makes the speaker take pause and reconsider the meaning of familiar words. That ability is evident in so much of Englander’s work. He encourages us to rethink the things we know. Isn’t that what the best writers do?