A Feature Review of
Reviewed by Sara Billups
Growing up with a Jewish father, it’s not surprising that guilt would become a central theme in my life. Guilt was such a character in our home that it could have had legs and arms and scooted up to the table for dinner. My dad’s “I’ve got my eye on you” mantra and playful rib pokes while saying, “I caught you stealing a cookie” as a kid were frequent and morphed well into young adulthood. For better or worse, be it myth or stereotype, guilt is a part of my story.
Nathan Englander, the Pulitzer Prize finalist who’s written several books including The Ministry of Special Cases and Dinner at the Center of the Earth, introduces us to Shuli in his latest novel, kaddish.com. It doesn’t take more than a few pages to find Shuli’s own guilt lift off the page. But if guilt is a core tenant in this story, so are the murky waters of how far we will go to fulfill our duties, and how (in spite of our past) we can find redemption in unexpected ways.
When we meet Shuli, it’s 1999. He is a 30-year-old secular Brooklyn Jew that goes by Larry and is sitting shiva for his Orthodox Jewish father. As his father’s eldest (and only) son, Larry is tasked with praying the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the deceased that is recited three times daily for eleven months. Knowing he will fail at properly saying the Kaddish for his dad and pressed to find an acceptable stand-in as implored by his sister and her rabbi, Larry discovers kaddish.com. Through the website, Larry pays a stranger in Jerusalem to recite the Kaddish and ensure his father’s soul is at peace.The narrative follows the trace that choice leaves on Larry’s conscience two decades later, and the journey it takes him on to reconcile his identity with that of his father’s and his own calling.
Meeting Larry during the peak of his rebellion makes it hard to like him, but easy to relate to him. Who hasn’t examined the interplay between family and selfhood, and questioned the assumed loyalty to our family of origin? When we meet Larry (now Shuli) two decades later, he has fully returned the Hasidic Jewish community and changed his name. Shuli is likeable, earnest, and at times a wild contrast from his earlier self, so much so that it’s hard to believe a couple of decades could shave off every shred of cynicism.
As the novel continues, themes of how legalism can bind us but ironically free us are found as we follow Shuli in a midlife crisis that brings him to Jerusalem. Englander explores how decisions made early in life often impact us decades later, and how community can both bless and suffocate us along the way. In Shuli, the reader witnesses a whole host of paradoxes, including how the binding relationship of family can both smother and ultimately reinforce our stories.
“On that website, a lifetime ago, I gave up everything that was mine,” Shuli tells his wife. He made a kinyan — a binding transaction — with a digital pen when he signed his name to the kaddish.com website. Someone else has been tasked with remembering his dead dad, he says, and he wants that job back. Shuli spends the rest of the book trying to get it. He is on a particular journey, but a universally relatable one for anyone that’s lost a part of themselves in young life that they might not find again in the middle years.
In the most compelling part of the book, we walk with Shuli through Jerusalem, with its winding streets, vendor drying eggplant circles in the sun, and kosher Pizza Hut on a main drag. Can Shuli shake off the guilt of failing to say the Kaddish and uncover a new purpose in a place that is both familiar and foreign? Englander resolves the journey with a twist that leaves the reader cheering for Shuli’s next chapter.
Sara Billups is a Seattle-based writer who helps Christians find wholehearted identities in a complicated culture. You can find her writing at sarabillups.com and follow her on Instagram at @hellobillups.