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In Judaism, the Mourner’s Kaddish is the prayer traditionally recited in memory of deceased family members. Written in Aramaic, it is included in most Jewish liturgical services and, interestingly enough, never mentions death. For Jews, the recitation of this prayer can mean many things --- from connecting with tradition to honoring someone to ensuring that person’s movement to heaven. In Nathan Englander’s witty and poignant new novel, a wayward son shirks his responsibility of reciting the Kaddish for his father, only to feel a paralyzing guilt years later when he returns to his Orthodox community.

When Larry goes home to his father’s funeral and shiva, his sister Dina reminds him that he is responsible for saying Kaddish for the year of mourning. But Larry, who is unable to observe even the basics of the mourning rituals in his sister’s home, refuses to commit to the prayer. Instead he finds a loophole in the religious law and hires out his duty to the website, which promises that, for a fee, a proxy will recite the Kaddish, thus ensuring Larry’s father’s ascent to heaven without Larry having to pray. He feels confident that the prayers that Chemi from the website says on his father’s behalf satisfy all religious requirements. Even if the solution doesn’t make Dina happy, she understands it is better than the prayers not being said at all.

"...a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at religiosity and responsibility wrapped in a delightfully funny and smart package."

Twenty years later, Larry, having returned to Orthodox Judaism and to his Hebrew name (Shaul, or Shuli for short), grows increasingly anxious about the decision his younger, secular self made to hire Chemi to recite the important Kaddish on his behalf. In his work with his seventh-grade students, at home with his wife and children, Reb Shuli lives a robust, faithful and kosher life. Over time, the anxiety he feels about the Kaddish grows into an obsession. Shuli is concerned that he has doomed his father in the afterlife and worries about what that says about himself as a Jew and as a person. Thus begins his quest to find Chemi and ensure his father’s heavenly life, along with his own peace of mind. From Brooklyn to Jerusalem, it is apparent that Shuli’s search for Chemi is really a search for answers about faith and family, life and death.

Englander doesn’t always explain the terms, those in Yiddish and Hebrew, or rituals that pepper the lives and conversations of his characters. This normalizing of Judaism and Jewishness is refreshing in American fiction. is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at religiosity and responsibility wrapped in a delightfully funny and smart package.

The book is funny even as it tackles serious questions. Englander does wonderful work capturing the rhythms of traditional Jewish-American speech and the emotions, connections and traditions that underpin Orthodox communities. Shuli is both an everyman and a uniquely conceived character; his fears and dreams are universal, though they are couched in the symbols and traditions of his particular religion and culture. In his search for Chemi, he must reckon with his past actions, confront them and atone for them. This correction will lead him towards the serenity and comfort he has never allowed himself, and give him a chance to finally honor his father in the way his father deserved to be honored.

Well-written and a little weird, is an original, if slightly moralistic, effort from Englander.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 29, 2019
by Nathan Englander

  • Publication Date: February 11, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0525434054
  • ISBN-13: 9780525434054