ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The author Nathan Englander was raised in an observant Jewish family. He now considers himself secular. His stories and novels are full of the kinds of details about Judaism that you can only capture if you have known a community from the inside. His latest book is called "Kaddish.com." The Mourner's Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead, and this book begins with a death - a devout father whose only son is secular and uninterested in fulfilling religious obligations.
NATHAN ENGLANDER: This idea when a religious Jew passes on, the real expectation is that their, you know, relatives on this Earth will say this prayer - and that means, you know, eight times a day it gets said at three different minyan, at three different group prayers. And it is a huge weight. And in my family, for my father, for, you know, people who are religious, it is a gigantically important thing if you know that you are dying to know that someone will be praying for you.
SHAPIRO: The main character in the book outsources the obligation to a website called kaddish.com. This book is a satire, and it explores what separates the doubters from the devout. Nathan Englander told me he has often thought about that question in his own life.
ENGLANDER: You know, I talk to my friends. I always say, I'm so not religious; I'm an atheist; I'm this; I'm radically secular. I say radically secular all the time. But I'm also such a deeply religious person, which everybody teases me for, you know what I'm saying? And it'll be weird how it manifests. So...
SHAPIRO: How does it manifest?
ENGLANDER: Just in the most bizarrely specific and hyper-Jewish ways. So I will literally be, like, eating a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur, and that won't bother me a bit. But then I'll just be afraid that I haven't, like, tithed on a harvest year. And my wife will be like, what is wrong with you?
ENGLANDER: You know what I'm saying? It's - so I'm saying she is very frightened that she's going to walk through the door one day, and I'm going to have a beard to the floor and being like, we're Satmar Hasidim now.
SHAPIRO: That's the very Orthodox religious sect right now.
ENGLANDER: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, I grew up religious, and I left. And I guess I often think the way we support people - you know, like, even if you're not religious, if someone's struggling with their faith, you'll be like, I don't know; stick with it. But we don't, like, help people stay secular. You know, you'll help a friend stay on the wagon, but you won't help them stay off the wagon. You know, it's these notions. And I thought, you know, everyone's so used to my switch. But I'm like, if it was the most natural, organic thing for me to say, oh, the Orthodox world's not for me; this is not my life, how big a leap would it be for me to be like, actually it is where I belong? And I think this teasing, everyone making fun of my secret religious soul that seems secret to me and is obvious to everybody else - I think that was, like, a core moment in this book. What if somebody switched back?
SHAPIRO: So much of the stakes in this book revolve around the importance of following religious law, which to many secular people can seem kind of arbitrary at best and ridiculous at worst. So how do you keep the stakes high for readers, many of whom, let's just assume, are not observant Jews?
ENGLANDER: If a story is functioning, it is universal. Like, that's it. If this only can be read by Jews - it's an utter failure if only, like, Orthodox Jews can read this. That's how I feel about story. That's the beauty of reading. That's why it's subversive - because it just crosses time and space and culture. So really - you read science fiction; read it like - I don't know - dystopian kosher. I don't know what to tell you.
ENGLANDER: You know what I'm saying? Just take a leap with me. But it's a story. The instructions of how to read it are in there.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. One of the main questions this book explores is how similar the all-knowing Internet is to the all-knowing God. Will you read a passage from this book? This is about halfway through where the main character, Shuli, who has become an Orthodox rabbi, is sort of engaging with the Internet in a different way.
ENGLANDER: Super. (Reading) Shuli would ponder what it meant for God to know where every living person was at any given moment, tracking what they were doing, what they were eating, their every action and urge. He'd count up all the people he could name, trying to hold them in his thoughts all at once. And his head actually aching with the strain, Shuli would then picture those people multiplied again and again until they equaled every single person on Earth. Then he'd wonder what it would be like to keep up with the goings on of all those beings along with what they'd done before and what they were planning for the future, tabulating everything simultaneously in a singular godlike mind. And here in these machines is that exact knowing for the advertisers and for the governments and for those with good and bad intentions to use as they saw fit.
SHAPIRO: This idea that there is an all-knowing Internet that is in some ways parallel to the all-knowing God - how do you view this this parallel, the similarity?
ENGLANDER: It kind of shocked me. Like, I just had questions about God, about faith. And one of them is, you're asking us to believe in this all-knowing God that - you know, that can track us in this way. And I'm just sitting there, you know, when I was thinking of this book. And I was like, oh, my God, in reference to God. But I think we've built it. Like, we have built beta God.
Like, if you have a phone and live in a city or google anything, like, it really does know everything you've done, what you're doing, what you're doing next. So I was like, the question, could God exist in an all-knowing way - like, we've sort of already got that because my Instagram feed is downright scary at this point. It knows what I'm hungry for.
SHAPIRO: In service of what, though, I mean, if the all-knowing Internet is a kind of, to be blasphemous, quasi-godlike receptacle of the world's information, in service of what?
ENGLANDER: Oh, definitely more wrathful Jewish God than, you know, turn-the-other-cheek Jesusy (ph)...
ENGLANDER: ...'Cause the Internet can turn mean on you. But in service of, I guess, right now the way I experience it is to sell me things.
SHAPIRO: Wow, what a sad simulacrum of a deity.
ENGLANDER: Yes. I said beta. We'll see how the final form works.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) There is one moment in the book where a character says in horror, a story like this will spread until it reaches the gentiles and embarrasses the Jews. And there is a long tradition of Jewish artists, from Philip Roth to Woody Allen, mocking and critiquing the religion in a very pointed way. Your book is not very flattering to any of its characters, all of whom are Jewish. How did you think about that as you were writing?
ENGLANDER: You know, I've been thinking about this for a million years. And you mentioned Philip Roth. And the last time I was at this microphone in this studio was to talk about Philip's passing. He was a friend. And I've thought about it in relation to his work and other people's work to reflect on my own, which is this. I mean, we see it on the news. We hear it, you know, all the time now. You want to make a genocide; we all know the ingredients from the Holocaust to Rwanda. You start making people less than human. You compare them to animals, to cockroaches. It always starts the same. We dehumanize the other, and then we can kill them, you know? And to me, what literature does is if you can enter into the world, if you can connect with a character, like, what else does that do but make connection, you know? The people who would...
ENGLANDER: ...Challenge Philip's work - probably more people around the world let a Jew into their home in his novels and saw them as human. And I think if you are being honest and painting people as human and drawing a world - and I do think there is a responsibility to what we say - an ethical responsibility. And I think if you're writing from the heart, you know, that's all you can do. And I really - I think if anything, you're creating empathy if you've built a person others can connect with.
SHAPIRO: Nathan Englander, thank you so much. It's been great talking with you.
ENGLANDER: Oh, what a treat on my end.
SHAPIRO: His new book is "Kaddish.com."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.