Last night I attended a Nathan Englander lecture at Northwestern. He was the inaugural speaker for the Renee and Lester Crown speaker series sponsored by the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies (last night it was announced that due to a generous donation from the Crown Family, it will now be known as Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israeli Studies.) His most recent book is "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank."
As I eagerly awaited his talk, I listened to two college students behind me:
Boy: Oh, this is Nathan Englander who wrote the story we just read in class?
Girl: Yes, that Nathan Englander. I find his stories all kind of creepy in tone.
Girl: He is obsessed with the Holocaust.
Boy: That's a weird game to play.
Girl: I've definitely read Anne Frank and it inspired me to write a diary, but I never wondered where I'm going to hide when the Nazis come."
There's obviously some kind of generational disconnect: Englander during his rambling yet evocative talk (he was like a Woody Allen on steroids or hallucinogens) mentioned a British review of his most recent book that said, "It's absurd--for Jews in America to worry about the Holocaust." Englander said, "That was so British! All we talk about is the Holocaust and food!"
I think it's the Jewish "shtetl" on Long Island that Englander grew up in and then disavowed (but now writes about even when he is not directly writing about it) that talks all the time about the Holocaust and food, not the young Jewish college students like those behind me last night who think of the Holocaust as something that happened a lifetime ago and that they have no connection to.
To be fair, Englander knows he is treading a fine line. He joked at the end of his talk that his goal for his unborn children is for them to be fluent in reading Torah and doing a "'drash" and yet at the same time to be "anti-organized religion." And yet it is in holding these seemingly irreconcilable polar positions at the same time within one's mind that is the seed of creating fiction. Indeed he said that it was exploring the idea that the most glorious times for Jews in history were preceded by tragic times, the act of "holding both these things at the same time" in his brain, that led to the shaping of his book.