Friday, July 7, 2017

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
By Nathan Englander
Vintage International, 2000. 205 pages. Fiction

This short story collection showcases devout Jews in a variety of situations, from familiar to strange. Yiddish authors in Russia discuss literary theory before being executed. The Hasidim of a German ghetto escape the concentration camps by posing as circus acrobats. A wigmaker travels outside her insular Jewish community and ends up blackmailing a New Yorker for his hair. In the title story, a Hasidic man in Jerusalem is surprised when his rabbi gives him special dispensation to visit a prostitute.

The first thing to know about this collection is that the stories are meant to be Literary with a capital “L.” The writing is phenomenal, but occasionally self-engrossed. I would still say that the read is well worth it, though. The characters are real and provide a fascinating window into Jewish culture. The more you read, the more comfortable you become with the Jewish world—the world of rabbis, Hasidim, and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the surroundings fade away into familiarity, you come to recognize who the people in the stories would be without their obvious identifying markers: humans just like the ones we interact with every day. I found this collection powerful and enlightening, and I would recommend it to fans of Jonathan Saffron Foer and to fans of literary fiction in general.


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