Book Review | JDate for the Dead
by Nathan Englander
2019, 224 pp, $24.95
It’s a testament to the plausibility of Nathan Englander’s satire that the first thing I did after finishing his new novel, kaddish.com, was to open my laptop and see if there was such a website. Luckily, my unbearable urge was relieved: There isn’t. Yet.
Kaddish.com is a slim novel in four parts, and its premise is echt Englander. Larry, a secular Brooklynite who works in branding, can’t imagine the burdensome commitment of saying Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, in shul daily for 11 months. So he finds a website that offers to do it for him, for a fee, and he happily pays a yeshiva student in Israel to assume the responsibility of speeding his father’s soul. With many shuls in real life now live streaming services, and some branches of Judaism offering virtual minyanim, it’s no wonder Englander decided to push this particular envelope, and out of it he shakes many comic situations.
The novel opens on the day of Larry’s father’s funeral in Memphis. We learn that the father was suddenly taken mortally ill while visiting his daughter, Dina, for Passover. While the rest of the family has remained frum, Larry has long since forsaken his Hebrew name, Shaul, and now is about as lapsed as it’s possible to be. Larry keeps checking his head to see if his kippah is still on—“sitting there like a hubcap for all its emotional weight.” He roils with impatience and discomfort during the seven days of mourning. He can’t stand the judgmental enforcers of his sister’s community—“these southern, Memphis, Grace-landian Jews” who are shocked to their core when Larry goes out for a breath of air, sits in a regular chair or picks up a secular book.
This first section of the novel is Englander at his brilliant best, holding a comic equipoise between the sacred and the profane. Remarkably, he is able to show the ridiculousness of traditions as they appear to Larry and their essential beauty in the eyes of believers like his sister Dina. This deft emotional legerdemain is the kind of craftsmanship that makes every Englander novel or story collection a gift to his devoted readership. Kaddish.com sits alongside his debut story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges; his Pulitzer finalist, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank; and his 2017 novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, as part of his ongoing chronicle of contemporary Jewish life, both in the United States and in Israel, where he has also lived. Like Assaf Gavron, whose latest book, The Hilltop, has been hailed as “The Great Israeli Novel,” Englander deploys a finely honed modern comic sensibility in the service of profound and timeless moral scrutiny. Like Gavron, he achieves great emotional resonance. As Larry recalls his last, tender conversation with his father, Englander drops the satire and creates a scene of immense warmth and pathos.
But we soon learn that Dina’s version of their father’s last words is not so warm and fuzzy toward his only son. Afraid that Larry won’t say Kaddish, Dina reports that their father implored her: “Don’t let your brother let me down.” Taking this to heart, she confronts Larry with her rabbi—“Rabbi Rye (of all the ridiculous rabbi names!)” and the head of the Chevreh Kaddishe, her local burial society. At first, Larry pretends to accede to their démarche. He is all in, he claims; he will go to shul back home in Brooklyn, make minyan and say the prayer for the required 11 months. But when they press him, he cracks and blurts out his true feelings: “It can’t possibly matter to our father’s afterlife.” In the maelstrom of recrimination that ensues, Larry is thrown a life raft: He learns that it can also be kosher to delegate the prayer. That leads him to the website that promises to find a perfect Kaddish match, “like a JDate for the dead.”
Section two of the novel opens 20 years later. Larry is now once again Shaul—Shuli, in fact—signaling his rediscovered comfort in his Jewish identity. He has forsaken millennial-rich Clinton Hill for his old neighborhood, Royal Hills; “traced his way back the three subway stops, toward the stand-alone aluminum-sided houses, toward the worser restaurants, and his fellow Jews.” He is once again Orthodox and a reb to boot, teaching Gemara to reluctant adolescents. Testifying repeatedly about his miraculous Jewish rebirth to countless audiences of the faithful, he credits the note from his hired Kaddish-reciter. He recalls how the student wrote to him precisely 11 months after his father’s death, saying that it had been an honor to be his emissary in mourning. He enclosed a photo of himself studying in an austere Jerusalem beit midrash. Larry, gazing at that picture, admiring how deeply the youth was immersed in learning, found himself brought to tears. First he cried for the beauty of the image of study, then for his dead father, then for his own lost self.
Like the novel’s first section, this one is beautifully observed and deftly told. Shuli, now with his frum wife and kids, struggling with a recalcitrant student, is as wittily drawn and as engaging as his secular alter ego. But Shuli’s new life is thrown into tumult when he suddenly realizes that he never undid the contract with that long-ago yeshiva student. Since his return to observance, he has punctiliously followed all the rules for mourning his father—the yahrzeit candles and 20 years of heartfelt Kaddish. Suddenly, at a wedding, contemplating the ketubah, or marriage contract, it comes to him that none of his prayers for his father have counted. His father is not his to mourn, since he signed that right away and never voided the contract.
Shaul’s determination to find that now-elusive student and undo their pact provides the shenanigans of the novel’s second half. It takes him into the bowels of the internet and the backstreets of Jerusalem. Although Englander provides some pleasures in the telling, the material here begins to stretch thin. I found myself wishing he had let kaddish.com find a more natural length as a novella rather than padding the increasingly fraying cloth of his story, stalling a denouement that is obvious to the reader long before he plods to the final reveal.
Most creative writing teachers sternly warn their students away from dream sequences. One’s own dreams mostly make no sense; other people’s are dull as druchus. That includes Shuli’s, though they take up many pages in the book’s threadbare finale. I wanted to shake Shuli awake in these tediously protracted sections, get him on his feet and set him loose in Jerusalem, letting him interact with the kind of Israeli characters Englander so brilliantly portrays in his earlier works.
In those previous books, Englander deployed his wit and his eye for the absurd to probe some very dark places: history’s burdensome resonances, the complexities of human betrayal and the overwhelming weight of grief. Kaddish.com seems to be a book of more modest ambition. But even as an entertainment, it has much to say about faith and family. Englander’s admirers will not want to miss it.
Geraldine Brooks is the author of five novels, including People of the Book and, most recently, The Secret Chord.