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Book Review

A Collection of Jewish Stories That Won't Set the World on Fire

FOR THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES; by Nathan Englander; Alfred A. Knopf $22, 205 pages

April 29, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"And the bush was not consumed." So reads a stone plaque that looks down from the former library tower of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The reference begins, of course, with the "burning bush" of Exodus, from whence the fiery angel informed the shepherd Moses that God had bigger plans for him than the woolly meat industry. But the irony of the quotation was not lost on the seminary a few decades ago, when thousands of volumes in the library barely survived consummation by fire.

Indeed, the history and literature of the Jews has wandered through so much flaming shrubbery in the past six millennia, that one might well despair at finding anything new under the sun. And yet it has come to pass that Nathan Englander, in the title story of his first collection, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," has found a new fire and a novel use for a bush.

Dov Binyamin, a Hasidic Jew, has been driven to the brink of distraction. By Jewish law, a man is not allowed sexual relations with his wife while she is menstruating, and, by any calendar, Chava Bayla's period should be recorded in "Guinness." So Dov Binyamin does what any good Hasid might do--he consults his rabbi. Two tugs of a beard later, the rabbi pulls out a pad of onionskin paper and writes Binyamin a heter, a special dispensation to visit a prostitute.

" 'One may go to great lengths in the name of achieving peace in the home.'

" 'But a prostitute?' Dov Binyamin asked.

" 'For the relief of unbearable urges,' the rebbe said. And he tore, like a doctor, the sheet of paper from the pad.' "

Unfortunately, the rebbe neglects to give Dov Binyamin another heter to practice safe sex. And while one urge is relieved (and Chava Bayla's own desire inflamed, Dov Binyamin develops another problem--a burning sensation when he attempts to urinate.

"For Dov Binyamin was on fire inside," the story ends, "and yet he would not be consumed."

It's a punch line worthy of Woody Allen, a burning bush that Lenny Bruce would have waved with pride. Stories like these are based on an element of surprise--that Orthodox Jews experience unbearable urges, sexual and vain, like ordinary human beings. And the premises of several of Englander's stories stand on the frontier between the kosher and the trayf that Allen and Bruce and Saul Bellow found so compelling a generation or two ago. Here, in "Reb Kringle," is Yitzhak, the janitor with the friendly paunch and snowy beard, forced by wife and financial circumstance to play Santa Claus during the Christmas season. There, in "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," is Charles Morton Luger, echt WASP, who comes to the epiphany, one calm evening while stepping into a taxi, that he is Jewish. And not just a hip Upper West Side, Zabar's-shopping Jew (which would be easier for his wife to understand), but a Crown Heights, full-blown davaner.

Englander's most promising story, "The Tumblers," begins like a chapter out of Leslie Epstein's masterpiece, "The King of the Jews." "The Tumblers" takes the familiar wise fools of the legendary shtetl of Chelm and imagines them in the War, taking the wrong train to the camps and finding themselves in the midst of a caravan of circus performers. One can easily imagine Roberto Benigni playing the schnorrer Mendel, who saves his community by smuggling costumes and acrobatic tricks from the professionals in the parlor car to the Jews in the back.

There is something to be said about borrowing from the past--and certainly it is a hallowed Jewish tradition. And yet, in each of his stories, Englander, himself a New Yorker transplanted to Jerusalem, seems to be nervous about stitching his own talent onto these old garments. He puts a good imagination to work, but it tends to take the stairs instead of flying. He writes with a good voice, but it tends to stop speaking just as the fire starts crackling. Nothing is destroyed by Englander's stories, nothing consumed. But a little bit of burning couldn't hurt.

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