Ari Z. Zivotofsky
Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Nathan Englander — a writer of fiction

Nathan Englander has become a well-known writer of short stories and novels. While his literary works are fiction, they often have factual bases. For example his 2007 novel The Ministry of Special Cases is set in 1976 Buenos Aires and is said to be historically accurate. However, it is crucially important to remember that at the end of the day, Englander is a writer of fiction. And to note that it seems he sometimes conflates fact with fiction.
In a recent interview, Englander claims:

“It goes back to my yeshiva education, …. I realized I was writing English in Yiddish. That was how I learned to communicate.”

Really? His yeshiva was the very American Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC), a modern Jewish day school. It is likely that not a single student there even understood Yiddish, let alone spoke it. Classes were in English; not in Hebrew, let alone Yiddish. Sure, some of the Judaic faculty knew Yiddish and would throw out a Yiddishism, but even between themselves they spoke English.

Englander says that his recent (2017) book “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” uses autobiographical material. Since he grew up in West Hempstead, presumably his description of Prisoner Z recalling his youth in West Hempstead where he saw tough kids on “the street where the anti-Semites live” is one such example. It is interesting that I grew up a mere few streets from where he lived and do not recall such streets in our quiet suburban neighborhood. Unlike his prisoner Z, I do not recall ever having to slip my yarmulke into my pocket. And unlike Englander who graduated from the school we both attended, HANC, I spent my senior year in West Hempstead High School. I wore my yarmulke every day, often my tzitzit out. I remember one anti-Semitic incident the entire year. And one humorous incident. I wore a t-shirt with a picture of the famed rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim. This was just after the Iranian revolution and some students thought it was the Ayatollah Khomeini. There was one street, Holt Street, nearer to where I lived than to where Englander lived where at the time almost no Jews lived and we avoided it. But by the time he was coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s that was no longer true.

This was not the first time Englander’s vivid memory has described anti-Semitism from his childhood in West Hempstead. In an anti-Trump tirade in the NY Times in August, he describes multiple “penny throwing” incidents, bullying, swastika graffiti, fights, and all manner of anti-Semitism. I cannot know how much is pure fiction and what he really witnessed. But he claims that the trend was for anti-Semitism in West Hempstead to decrease with time; yet I am 7 years his senior and cannot recall experiencing what he described. I have consulted with several other people who grew up in West Hempstead, some several years older still and others younger than I am, and the West Hempstead of all our collective memories is simply not that of Englander’s memory.

It troubles me, but only a little, that he is using these memories to advance his far-left political agenda. But when he veers into Israeli politics the fiction that Englander produces ratchets up the level of danger. In the same interview he relates that “I grew up with the idea that Israel was surrounded by enemies trying to push it into the sea. Can’t the people of Gaza feel that they’re surrounded by enemies who want to push them into the sea too? All the metaphors are interchangeable.” The education he received at HANC was accurate. Indeed to this day we hear calls from the Iranians, the “moderate” PA, and others who want to wipe Israel off the map. And they have tried and thank God failed “to push Israel into the sea”. Let it be clear that there is no call from any official of any Israeli or Jewish organization to push the Gazans into the sea. It is simply fiction what Englander says. And it is harmful fiction. The moral equivalence he suggests is sick and feeds into the hands of Israel’s enemies who then expand this immoral comparison.

At times, his statements are not just fiction, but simply incomprehensible and still causing trouble for Israel. And for such a talented writer that is a shame. He recently said: “This whole idea that Hashem gave us this land, but [not just] anyone can cross its borders; you don’t get to use the same book for greater Israel. Decide. Either open up the schools to everyone, open the borders to the Sudanese. If you’re living by this book, then live by it.” The connection between believing in both the Divinity of the Torah and the Jewish right to the whole of the Land of Israel and allowing Sudanese refugees into Israeli schools is incomprehensible. Being a gifted writer does not make one a logical political commentator.

The harangue in the NY Times op-ed and his new book “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” are certainly autobiographical in the sense that they are the product of a talented writer who has veered from the value system he was raised with. He enjoyed a relatively peaceful childhood in West Hempstead and then lived five years in Israel and at some point jettisoned his adherence to traditional Judaism and his support of Israel and traded it for the package of liberalism of the Democratic far-left. It may be that psychologically he needs to justify that his formative experiences are what created his current belief system and hence his questionable recollections. Or he may simply be trying to sell books. But Englander should stick to what he does so well – writing fiction. And labeling it fiction.

About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in his regular column (now running 20 years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action and in Mishpacha magazine.
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