As young women, Yehudit and Rena lived on opposite hills in Israel. One night, when their husbands and sons were away fighting in the Yom Kippur War, Yehudit’s daughter fell gravely ill. With no hope of getting to a hospital, or of a doctor getting to them, Yehudit sold the infant to her friend, hoping that whatever curse had befallen her family would lift when the baby passed to another home. The gambit worked. The girl survived and, returned to her family, grew into adulthood. But when Rena’s own children die, she claims the daughter she bought decades before. In “Sister Hills,” one of eight stories in this new collection, Nathan Englander tells of what happens when Rena comes to get what’s hers.
Englander, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, seems deeply fascinated with Jewish life, both Israeli and American. Other stories in the collection focus on a summer camp for Jewish seniors, an escalating war between a goy bully and a band of Jewish children in New Jersey, and a lapsed Jew who finds himself in a panopticon-like strip club in New York. The title piece involves a reunion of childhood friends in Florida who end up playing the “Anne Frank Game,” where they wonder which of their neighbours would shelter them if a second Holocaust came.
Englander’s stories are sometimes disquieting and often funny. But all are outrageously accomplished. The most affecting piece in the collection is “Everything I Know About My Family On My Mother’s Side.” Raw and emotionally open, it features a narrator named Nathan and reads more like an essay than a short story. For the record, Englander says it’s “fiction, all the way. Except that it’s weaving back and forth across that line.” Regardless, it will likely stay with you for a very long time.