A witty yet simultaneously melancholy novel for all readers, not just people of faith.

Nathan Englander's "kaddish.com"
Guilt and belated mourning rights

In Nathan Englander's novel "kaddish.com", a Jewish man is plagued by feelings of guilt and regret for disregarding the rules of the Kaddish (prayer for the dead) for his deceased father a decade before. A witty yet simultaneously melancholy novel for all readers, not just people of faith. By Volker Kaminski

For adman Larry from Brooklyn, the religious dictates to which his sister so strictly adheres are just "stupid rules". Normally, sister and brother have little contact. She lives far from New York in a Jewish community in Memphis, while he lives the party life in the city that never sleeps without a second thought for the religion of his birth. When his father passes away, he travels to the funeral and feels as if everyone there is staring at him. Feeling guilty because he has lost his faith, he is still comforted by the fact that he and his father had a good relationship right up until the end.

The difficulty he now faces – and of which his sister reminds him – is his obligation to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. As his father's only son, the Torah dictates that he must say the Kaddish eight times a day for almost a whole year. As his sister, a rabbi, and an undertaker who are in the family home during the Shiva period are all at pains to tell him, this obligation to go to the synagogue and pray must not be neglected if their father is to be spared torments on his way to God. 

Absurdities and grotesque consequences

Although Larry feels like a Jew and wants to be a dutiful son, he rejects the task, declaring it to be unrealisable. In the heat of the moment during the argument, he dismisses their ideas about the hereafter as rubbish. His sister bursts into tears, fearing for the salvation of her father's soul. Happily, a compromise is found. The rabbi explains that Larry can appoint someone to say the prayer in his stead. He assures Larry that this is "one thousand percent kosher"; Larry just has to make sure that that someone is responsible and doesn't skip any of the prayers. 

Cover of Nathan Englander's "kaddish.com" (published by Random House)
“Kaddish.com is a novel full of unusual thoughts and spiritual suffering. It describes the long journey of a seeker and is at times reminiscent of Kafka,” writes Kaminski. “But the novel does not allow its hero to just disappear into the abyss; instead it rewards him for his single-mindedness and honesty towards himself. It takes the reader on an extraordinary adventure, baffling and thought-provoking at the same time”

Englander's story tells of the absurdities and grotesque consequences that can happen when people try to perform old rituals and traditions to the letter. Larry is a modern man who has long since emancipated himself from the religion of his ancestors and does not want to be dictated to.

At a loss over what to do, he turns to the Internet and finds a website that seems to offer the solution to his problems. kaddish.com offers an appealing service: in return for a fixed fee, a rabbinical student in Jerusalem will do the job for him, saying Kaddish for Larry's father in accordance with the rules.

Despite this premise, Englander's novel is not a satire on excessive religiosity. After about 50 pages, the novel takes an astonishing turn: from one paragraph to the next, we meet a changed Larry, who now goes by the name of Shuli (from Shaul) and lives with his children and devout wife in a house in Brooklyn, teaches the Torah at a rabbinical school and is plagued by growing feelings of guilt relating to the fact that he outsourced his mourning obligations to that website a decade previously.

Sudden conversion

As readers, we find ourselves wondering in bafflement what has led to Larry's conversion and what has happened in his life. But instead of explaining his transformation, the text follows Shuli's feverish Internet search for the address of the organisation behind kaddish.com. Shuli seems to be a conscientious father and sensitive Torah teacher who could be happy with his family and children, but whose previous lack of faith so pains him that he is risking his entire livelihood. 

With the help of a young student and Google Earth, Shuli succeeds in finding the exact address of the organisation behind the website. But the school authorities have got wind of what Orthodox Judaism considers to be unauthorised activities and he is forbidden from making contact with his favourite student.

His wife also tries to bring Shuli to reason; nevertheless, even though he doesn't have enough money, he decides to travel to Jerusalem to find the student who said Kaddish for his father all those years ago and get back his right to mourn as a son. 

As bizarre as the novel's plot seems, Englander's narrative style is breathtaking. His writing is complex, analytically sharp, mentally intricate and intellectually demanding: "to look down on a place from heaven is one thing. But to actually be there in real time, reduced one-to-one to its human proportions, is a completely different thing," is how Englander describes the difference between the view of Jerusalem from Google Earth and the feeling of actually being there in the flesh. 

Kaddish.com is a novel full of unusual thoughts and spiritual suffering. It describes the long journey of a seeker and is at times reminiscent of Kafka. But the novel does not allow its hero to just disappear into the abyss; instead it rewards him for his single-mindedness and honesty towards himself. It takes the reader on an extraordinary adventure, baffling and thought-provoking at the same time. 

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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