For someone who writes about sobering topics — the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges and the persecution of Jews during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” among others — novelist and short-story writer Nathan Englander can be downright funny.
“I was this miniature, 2-foot Borscht Belt comedian in my yarmulke and three-piece suit,” he said, recounting his suburban New York, Orthodox childhood.
But for those who know Englander only through his books — and not the witty, breezy banter he has playfully engaged in during interviews over the years — his new work of fiction will not disabuse them of the belief that he is a very serious guy. “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” which Englander characterizes as “part political thriller, part love story,” ostensibly centers on an American Jewish intelligence operative working for the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, and deals with issues of loyalty and treachery.
The book, Englander said in a recent interview, was a long time coming. It grew out of his “heartbreak” over the failure of the Middle East peace process, and the urgency to highlight a “painful, historical cycle we need to break,” said Englander, who will be in the Bay Area for events next week.
How did a nice yeshiva boy from Long Island, who was groomed for a job as an accountant and was told that his college options were to live at home and attend either Queens College or Yeshiva University, deviate so far from expectations?
“My rebellion was to study literature,” he said. Englander attended SUNY Binghamton in upstate New York — against his family’s expressed wishes. When he’d asked if he could go away to college, he said, the answer was “absolutely not.”
“I said, ‘See you later.’ ”
At Binghamton, Englander studied with poet and novelist Liz Rosenberg, who had been married to one of Englander’s literary heroes, John Gardner, who had also taught at the school.
It was a pivotal time for Englander. “It was a perfect school for me,” he said. “There was a family of great writers, and the literature and creative writing departments were very special to me.”
But it was more than a nurturing academic environment at Binghamton (which recently awarded him an honorary degree) that changed Englander’s notion of who he might be. He spent his junior year in Israel, where he “came out” as a non-Orthodox Jew.
Up to that point, Englander said, he lived in “a complete Orthodox universe … a whole world. And I was unhappy. I had a weird inkling that this was not a good fit.”
Likening the experience to a gay person’s vain attempts to fit into a heteronormative paradigm, Englander said he didn’t know how to go about finding a comfort zone where he could be himself. Ironically, he said, he discovered it in Israel, where many others have gone on to adopt a more traditional form of Judaism — and where he shed himself of it.
“It was mind-boggling,” he said, to learn that Israeli Jews expressed their Jewishness in a seemingly infinite variety of ways. “These were new ideas” and completely liberating. “I became so happy.”
After college, Englander returned to New York, where he made ends meet at low-end jobs and wrote stories. A serendipitous introduction to the late book editor Deborah Brodie, the mother of a friend, proved transformative. “She changed my life,” said Englander. “She’d make me dinner and I’d bring over a draft of my writing” for her to review.
On the strength of what Englander calls his “first adult story,” “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” Brodie encouraged him to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, perhaps the most venerated graduate program in writing in the U.S.
“The Twenty-Seventh Man,” which reimagines the Night of the Murdered Poets — the 1952 Stalin-ordered execution of writers who had been part of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee — earned him a coveted place at Iowa and later served as the anchor of his 1999 debut short story collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” which won him two prestigious literary awards and transformed him into a literary luminary.
Englander subsequently turned the “The Twenty-Seventh Man” into a play, and he went on to publish another highly touted short story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” as well as the much-praised novel “The Ministry of Special Cases.”
Englander is now well ensconced in the literary scene of Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, Rachel Silver, and their 2-year-old daughter. He teaches at NYU, where he is a visiting professor and distinguished writer-in-residence, and he remains a keen observer of the intersections of politics, history and Jewish life.
Most recently, Englander has become an outspoken critic of ultra-right-wing nationalist groups in the United States. In a New York Times op-ed last month, “What Jewish Children Learned in Charlottesville,” he movingly wrote of the anti-Semitism he faced as a child.
Though he no longer dons a skullcap, Englander said, “I am wearing 10 yarmulkes high” in solidarity with those who face bigotry and oppression.