Much of the action takes place in a Jerusalem that is holy and charming, labyrinthine and claustrophobic, conveyed in a tone of redemptive warmth. There’s nothing wrong with that either; there is much that is inspiring, bewildering and beautiful in the Jewish religious heartland. But Nathan Englander appears to have entered it somewhat shorn of his acute observational powers, descriptive clarity and incisive humour.
For admirers of Englander’s fiction, in particular his prize-winning short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, such a set-up — ripe with comedic potential and moral edge — will feel happily familiar. Englander himself was brought up an Orthodox Jew, and the early scenes, as Larry battles with Dina and the elders of the local community, are often bitingly funny. But though the book is crisply written and cleverly plotted, it is also unbalanced, as Englander becomes progressively less interested in sharp satire and more concerned with the mechanics of faith and its place in the modern world. In pursuit of this, Larry turns from hapless cynic into the sort of unbelievable innocent who may suit Englander’s needs but does not suit his novel. The result feels like a missed opportunity: a novel that, though never less than charming, is strangely misshapen.
Kaddish.com is at once a romp and a deeply moral book, a novel in which the characters of Larry and Shuli march side-by-side, reflecting on each other, illustrating both the many hypocrisies of organised religion and the deep human need for belief. It’s certainly Englander’s best novel so far, one in which he finally succeeds in harnessing the profound lightheartedness of his stories to the longer form.
Jewish life is depicted with the illuminating intimacy of an insider, as the once-pious Englander also did in his award-winning short story collections such as For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank... Kaddish.com presents the internet as a distraction from the sacred. It’s a challenge to the modish view that faith is obsolete; a sincere evocation of a traditional view, but not a polemical defence of it. We end the novel feeling — even if we may disagree — that there is a compelling reason why one would want to spurn modernity for a traditional life revolving around worship.