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Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander (Knopf, 2012)

Nathan Englander ( doesn’t need my glowing review for his excellent 2012 collectionWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, but maybe you do. The winner of the PEN/Malamud Award for Jewish fiction, the 42-year-old writer has re-established the short story as the prime vehicle for the relating of history and the human reaction to it.

I know something about writing history in fiction. My novel 3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans (…), covers secular Jewish life during the death and rebirth of History. From the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union to the rise of violent Islamic jihad, I tell the story of three lives, up through their portentous meeting. Englander proves to be a true master in the parallel art of writing fiction in history. In particular, Englander creates the post-Holocaust traditional Jewish world in all of its pleasure, pain, and contradiction.

The collection can be divided into three themes: Direct reaction to the Holocaust, Haredism meets modernity, and coming of age in the shadow of antisemitism. The stories take place equally on Long Island, where the author hails from and where I spent the happiest years of my professional life, and in Israel, where the struggles within the Jewish community turn Jew against Jew, community against community.

The title story might be a shocker to non-Jews and the majority of Jews who lack a direct connection to the destruction of the Jewish civilization in Europe. Jews have reacted to lesser devastation, a community or a country at a time, either by abandoning the old mores or replicating their shtetl, lock, stock, and shtreimel. What would be done if the goal was annihilation, not simply exile? The “Anne Frank Game” is a macabre parlor game in which the assembled Jews ask each other that if a Nazi regime came to power in (pick one: England, the US, South Africa, Canada), what non-Jew would they hide with? Who would risk everything to do the right thing?

Another Holocaust story is at an Elderhostel bridge retreat that takes place on the same lake as a sleepaway camp. It turns out that, among Jews of a certain age, the little word “camp” is loaded. At once, it meant the Haredi bungalow colonies of upstate New York, the wider Movement camps like Ramah or Harlam, and …Auschwitz.

In New York and in Israel, the fight is between those who insist on recreating everything, including dress and language, from the home village, those who follow ritual law but dress in a way more consistent with the conservative members of the new community, and those who, whether the observe traditional Jewish law in private, are indistinguishable from the secular world around them. One story about this struggle tells of two Haredi families who establish an outpost in the Arab West Bank. One prospers, while the other falls into bereavement and madness. The outpost becomes an established city. The mad widow and bereaved mother is just as forgotten as the displaced Arabs.

The last category in this collection is the coming of age story. It’s one thing to grow up in bucolic Miller Place or Greenport on the North Shore of Long Island. It is altogether different to live on the South Shore, and fight for your right to attend the sameschools, play on the same playground, even breathe the same air as racists, antisemites, and xenophobes. The Jewish kids in this collection bear the burden of the victims of the pogroms in Europe, even if their grandparents (like mine) got out before the rise of Nazism and the end of free immigration into the US made escape impossible.

This is a collection that, taken together, paints the most complete picture of Orthodox Jewish life that I have ever read. Its themes of identity, rebellion, and dignity will connect to all readers, for “you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Englander will touch you in your own personal Egypt.

About Ronald FIschman

I am a public school teacher who had a prior career as a cantor, opera singer, and composer. My greatest notoriety comes from my settings of Dylan Thomas's "Vision and Prayer" and Percy Byssshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" for singers and large instrumental ensemble. My first poetry collection, "Generations," honors the roles of son, husband, and father, and is available at

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  1. Pingback: Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander: A Review « 3 Through Literary

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