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Binghamton graduate writes with dark humor, Jewish wit

Nathan Englander just threw out 200 pages of his next novel.

And he’s going to rewrite them. It’s that kind of dedication to perfection that brings Englander so much recognition in the literary community. He was nominated as a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Tuesday for his short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”

Englander lived in Seneca in College-in-the-Woods for his first two years at Binghamton. Back then, Newing College was known for drugs and alcohol and CIW for Greek Life. Funny how things change. Englander identified as “one of the few non-fraternity people” in CIW. When he returned from Israel after his junior year, he lived in a house on the corner of Leroy and Chestnut Streets.

The Pulitzer citation praised Englander for exploring “Jewish identity and questions of modern life in ways that can both delight and unsettle the reader.” But Englander, who graduated from Binghamton University in 1991, resists the label of a “Jewish writer.”

“I have never once sat down to write a Jewish story,” he said in an interview with Pipe Dream.

Englander’s notion of Jewish identity changed when he came to Binghamton in 1987. He grew up in a religiously orthodox home in West Hempstead on Long Island and attended Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, a private Jewish high school. Compared to the community he grew up in, Englander found the variety and comprehensiveness of the University’s courses and community liberating.

“The world cracked open,” he said. “It was super exciting to be away from home and at Binghamton and to be able to study so broadly.”

But his writing is unmistakably, well, Jewish. His short stories are filled with Jews having problems that Jews have, like discrimination and reconciling ancient beliefs with the modern world. He ate at the University Union’s old Kosher Kitchen and joined the ski team — but couldn’t attend any races because they were always held on Shabbat. Englander, who double-majored in English and Judaic studies, spent his junior year in Jerusalem.

What makes Englander’s work universal is that the core issues his characters face aren’t necessarily “Jewish.” Before college, Englander was told that religion is defined by action. At BU and in Israel, he learned about the cultural parts of Judaism. He now identifies as culturally Jewish rather than with the brand of religious orthodoxy he grew up with. Englander has experienced all different modes of Judaism on religious and cultural levels. His characters being Jewish, then, is his mining from his wide array of experiences and perspectives as a Jew, not him aspiring to be “Jewish.” The grand ideas in his literature — culture, religion, justice, injustice — are known to all.

“If your story can’t cross religion or cultural boundaries, there’s something broken in it,” he said. “If a story is functioning, above all, it better be universally human, or it has failed.”

The year 2012 was big for Englander. In addition to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” he also published a translation of the Haggadah, the Jewish Passover text, edited by his friend Jonathan Safran Foer, and saw the premiere of his first play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” about a group of Russian Jews imprisoned under Stalin’s rule.

“The Twenty-Seventh Man” is based on a short story of the same name published in Englander’s first collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” in 1999. The book, which he wrote during and after his years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, won critical acclaim and the PEN/Malamud Award. In 2008, Englander published his first novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases,” set in Buenos Aires in 1976 during Argentina’s “dirty war.”

Right now, he’s working on another play, named after and based on the titular short story in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” He’s also continuing to write short stories and is working on a new novel. The novel, Englander says, is “an Israel novel,” but given the frequency with which he throws out pages and redrafts them, could take place anywhere else by the time he’s finished.

Permeating all of Englander’s work is his use of humor in the face of the macabre. The short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” for example, concerns two couples who play “the Righteous Gentile game” — that is to say, “in the event of an American Holocaust … which of our Christian friends would hide us?”

Englander likens his style to Louis C.K.’s, where the most terrible, humane things have a dark humor to them. At writing workshops at Iowa and Binghamton, his peers gave mixed feedback; some found his stories depressing, others found them hilarious.

“If you’re building reality, it has to have everything — it will contain every emotion,” he said. “My obligation is to make sure the emotional pitch is correct, and the tone is correct, but it’s not for me to tell someone if they’re supposed to be laughing or crying.”

Englander’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed by his former professors. John Vernon, a distinguished professor in the writing department, said he taught Englander in the same class as Alicia Erian, who later wrote the novel “Towelhead.” Vernon uses both “Towelhead” and Englander’s short stories in fiction workshops.

“He was a terrific writer but a little rough around the edges. I mean by that that his imagination was vivid and dramatic but sometimes the writing was rushed,” Vernon said. “We worked on the latter and he eventually learned to get it under control, to create sentences that were equally complex, energetic, and precise. The credit is all his — he was and is a very smart and educable writer.”

In his senior year, Englander contributed photos for Pipe Dream. He was always interested in visual storytelling, having made 8 and 16 millimeter films for cinema classes. On Feb. 8, 1991, Englander took to the opinion pages of Pipe Dream to protest the treatment of beloved professor, world-renown poet and creative writing department founder Milton Kessler. Kessler, among a few other older professors, was targeted by an administrator for teaching part time while keeping tenure. According to Englander’s opinion piece, targeting Kessler was an act of breaking trust — his job security was threatened based on a technicality regarding when he signed his contract.

“I don’t think the administration understands that the learning process doesn’t stop in class. What kind of lesson are we being taught as we watch dedicated members of our teaching staff lose their jobs on the basis of a technicality? What is our administration teaching us about ethics?… the university is one of the last bastions of idealism left in the world and we as students shouldn’t allow ourselves to be taught things that are not both honest and just,” he wrote.

Kessler ultimately remained at Binghamton and, along with writing professors Liz Rosenberg, John Vernon, Barry Targan and G. W. Hawkes, was among Englander’s most influential professors at Binghamton. Allan Arkush, a Judaic studies professor at Binghamton who Englander remembers fondly, still reads his work.

“I’m always relieved when I finish one of Nathan’s short stories without encountering a wickedly funny portrayal of anyone I recognize as myself or any of my colleagues, and as long as this remains the case, I’ll continue to read his work with great relish,” Arkush said.