From April ’12 Spotlight: Nathan Englander came to the Harold Washington Library Center in February to read from What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, his latest collection of short stories. As the translator of New American Haggadah, Englander is actually promoting two books right now, and although they are outwardly very different, common threads soon became evident.
Over dinner at the Berghoff, I zeroed in on the story “Sister Hills.” Neighbors for decades, in war and at peace, two women who live side-by-side in a West Bank settlement make a solemn agreement in a moment of great fear. “More than anything that I’ve ever written, this book has really been a Rorschach Test,” said Englander. “I thought you might be headed there.” Yes he was schmoozing with a woman the same age as the characters in this story, but it turned out we had a deeper connection.
“My father’s yahrzeit was last week and the Torah reading was Mishpatim,” I said. “So questions of slavery and ownership are fresh on my mind.” “Mishpatim! That was my bar mitzvah parsha!” said Englander. “Writing is fraught. The process is crazy. But when I finished ‘Sister Hills,’ I did not sleep that night. I couldn’t. I was so rattled by it.”
Then he became speculative: “Something about doing the Haggadah project gave me the distance to look at my process anew and it allowed me to write more close…You’re making me think now of how memory is formed.”
In the midst of crafting new stories (“I’m going to tell the whole history of West Bank settlement in a single short story.”), Englander had gone back to the Hebrew text of our foundational story, and transformed the opening words of the Haggadah into these English words: “You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos.” Now families all around the world will gather together this Passover and say these words, and this is how memories are formed.
Englander returns to Chicago on Thursday, April 26 to do an evening program—one of the iDays events—with Israeli author Etgar Keret at Chicago Sinai Congregation. For tickets, visit: www.ChicagoHumanities.org.
To read Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18) in the JPS Tanakh, visit www.jtsa.edu/PreBuilt/ParashahArchives/jpstext/mishpatim.shtml.