In the novel “The Stranger’’ Meursault, the main character, is condemned to death not because he murdered “the Arab’’ but because he didn’t appropriately express mourning for his mother’s death. He failed, the prosecutor argued, to demonstrate his humanity.
A similar situation opens Nathan Englander’s new novel “kaddish.com,’’ a satiric deliberation on faith, ritual, and mortality. Thirty-year-old Larry is in Memphis for his father’s funeral. He’s supposed to be sitting shiva on a low chair, visibly aggrieved; instead he retires to the yard and reads a book — to the horror of the local Orthodox Jewish community. His sister Dina can’t believe how much her pot-smoking, Zen-practicing younger brother has strayed from the tradition in which they were brought up. “They’re just stupid rules,” Larry tells her. “A stupid chair isn’t what makes it mourning.” Believing ritual meaningless, he argues to be allowed to mourn in his own way.
When a Jewish parent dies, it’s tradition for the son to say Kaddish — a prayer for the deceased — 10 times a day for 11 months. This ensures the departed’s soul will safely arrive in the World to Come. (Kaddish, which means “holy,” is actually a love song to God, without mention of death, mourning, or the afterlife.) Larry promises Dina he’ll say Kaddish, but muses, “Does anyone really think God sits up there with a scoreboard?”
Like Dina, the Memphis rabbi knows Larry’s promise is empty, so he tells Larry it’s OK to get a proxy. “A thousand percent kosher,” the rabbi confirms, reasoning that it’s better to have someone, anyone, offering the prayer than not. Larry goes online (it’s 1999) and discovers kaddish.com, a website offering exactly what he needs: For a fee, a devout student at a Jerusalem yeshiva will say Kaddish on Larry’s behalf.
The depth of Larry’s disdain for tradition becomes apparent when he closes the kaddish.com window after filling out an application to reveal a porn site. During the weeklong shiva mourning period, when one is supposed to abstain from all pleasures, Larry pleasures himself. While he initiated the transfer of his birthright of saying Kaddish through signing a digital kinyan (a formal agreement), a woman was engaged in a sex act. Deed done, Larry goes back to Brooklyn.
Part Two fast-forwards 20 years. Larry now goes by his Hebrew name, Shuli. In fact, he’s Rabbi Shuli. Having returned to the faith years earlier, he teaches in a yeshiva and has two children with his wife, Mira, who is devoted to Torah study. The reader may be forgiven for going, “Wait, what?’’ Part One of “kaddish.com’’ is comic but authentic, as Larry struggles with the emptiness of ritual and his desire to honor his father. But that tension vanishes once Larry returns to orthodoxy, and we’re left with something that feels artificial. Even Shuli’s language is stiff, as if he’s always been Orthodox. But how much can a personality change? Shuli simply doesn’t feel like a future Larry. And because Englander skimps on sharing how this transformation occurred, we can’t make the connection ourselves.
And yet this leap is crucial for Englander’s plot. Because it’s 2019, and when Shuli realizes he’s made a grave mistake, that he must reverse that kinyan and get his birthright back, his 12-year-old student easily finds the physical location of kaddish.com through its IP address, and off to Jerusalem Shuli goes.
Shuli once believed that everything one needed to know was in the Torah, but now he understands the computer knows more, that “inside this terrible machine is a different kind of all-knowingness. A toxic, shiftless omniscience.” Sensing gold, Englander drills down:
“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 . . . And here in these machines is that exact knowing — for the advertisers and for the governments and for those with good and bad intentions as they saw fit. It’s all accessible, your wants and dreams, your sins and secrets.”
It’s almost too on the nose, just like “kaddish.com’’ on the whole. That is, it digs into the friction between ancient ritual and contemporary culture, but not too deeply. It questions how we’re supposed to be living, but because the authentic character Larry becomes the caricature Shuli, the stakes never feel that high. “kaddish.com’’ is often fun and thought-provoking, but unlike “The Stranger,’’ it makes the deep feel superficial, dealing with a solemn topic in a lighthearted way. Some readers might think the combination multiplies pleasure, like putting cheese on a hamburger. But others, like myself, will feel it’s decidedly unkosher, and that one would have been better without the other.
By Nathan Englander
Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95
The Boston Globe may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University.