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For the Relief of Unbearable Urges: Stories Paperback – Mar 21 2000


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (March 21 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375704434
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375704437
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 1.5 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 181 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #393,529 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is an astonishment. Whether Nathan Englander is creating the last days of 27 condemned Soviet writers or the first in which a Park Avenue lawyer finds religion (in a taxi, no less), his gift is everywhere in evidence. Englander's specialty is the collision of Jewish law and tradition with secular realities, whether in Brooklyn, Tel Aviv, or Stalinist Russia. In one tale, a wigmaker from an ultra-orthodox Brooklyn enclave journeys into Manhattan for supplies and, more importantly, inspiration--frequenting a newsstand where she pays for the right to flip through forbidden fashion magazines. If all Ruchama wants to do is be beautiful again and momentarily free of communal constraints, others ask only to survive. In "The Tumblers," set in World War II Poland (with a metafictional twist), followers of the Mahmir Rebbe get into a train filled with circus performers rather than into a cattle car. Their only chance is to camouflage themselves as part of the troupe:
Their acceptance as acrobats was a stretch, a first-glance guess, a benefit of the doubt granted by circumstance and only as valuable as their debut would prove. It was an absurd undertaking. But then again, Mendel thought, no more unbelievable than the reality from which they'd escaped, no more unfathomable than the magic of disappearing Jews.
Another story, "Reb Kringle," is almost breezy by comparison. Each year, one Brooklynite dreads his holiday job from hell, playing Santa Claus in a Manhattan department store: "There were elves posted on each side of Itzik; one--a humorless, muscular midget--wore a pair of combat boots that gave him the look of elf-at-arms. His companion might have been a twin. He wore black high-tops but had the same vigilant paramilitary demeanor." Itzik can put up with the children's accidents and greed, with his sciatica, and even with a mischief maker's attempt to cut off his beard. But when one boy admits that what he really wants to do is celebrate Hanukkah, "the infamous Reb Santa" loses it. Though this is undoubtedly the collection's lightest piece--proof positive that you have to be a saint to be a Jewish Santa--it is no less piercing an examination of identity and obligation than Englander's more heavyweight entries. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

"I suffer greatly under the urges with which I have been blessed," says Dov Binyamin, an orthodox Jew agonizing over his wife Chava's self-imposed celibacy, and one of several protagonists in Englander's stellar first collection who seek often ill-fitting rabbinical answers to thorny modern problems. When Dov's rebbe grants him authorization to see a prostitute, the consequences (not least of which is a case of VD) offer a moral fable of pathos and hilarity that is the signature key of these nine graceful and remarkably self-assured stories. Ranging expertly from contemporary Israel to New York and to isolated Yiddish communities in Russia and Europe, they spin a vision of 20th-century orthodox Judaism under siege from both political tyranny and the rapid pace of modern life. Englander's prose is spare and crystalline, capturing the singsong rhythms and sometimes contorted English of a primarily Yiddish cast, often striking a deliberately archaic tone, as in "The 27th Man," the Chekhovian tale of Pinchas Pelovits, a dreamy, unpublished writer in midcentury Russia. Not unlike Englander, Pinchas has "constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies." Abducted by Stalin's henchmen, Pinchas composes a miniature masterpiece, a parable of faith in spite of an absent God, which he recites to his cell mates only minutes before being gunned down by a firing squad. Despite their surface mixture of humor and horror, these are stories of ideas, offering complex meditations on Judaism through the eyes of an astonishing range of characters: a disconsolate middle-age orthodox woman imprisoned in limbo by a husband who won't grant a divorce; a Cheeveresque Park Avenue financial analyst with a taxi-cab epiphany that he's Jewish; an American navigating the streets of contemporary Jerusalem during a terrorist campaign. Englander's reported $350,000 advance for this collection has made it one of the most bruited literary debuts of the year. Such brouhaha shouldn't cloud the achievement of these unpretentious and powerful stories.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most helpful customer reviews

Format: Paperback
Englander has managed to string together a wonderful collection of short stories, unlike any that I have read before. Each story pulls you in of its own right and keeps you captivated until the end. Stories such as, "The Wig" and the title's namesake, bring you into the life of someone you would never have otherwise met. The characters are so vivid that they could be sitting right next to you; Englander doesn't just describe them, he brings them to life. Ruchama, from "The Wig," is described as having six children and a chin for each of them. Englander may not be a woman but he is able to write from the point of view of one with incredible accuracy. Being Catholic myself, I learned a lot about Jewish customs from "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" where a complacent Christian suddenly decides he is Jewish while riding in a taxi cab. Englander has created a terrific work of art in each of his short stories and I would highly recommend this to almost anyone.
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Nathan Englander is a creative, intelligent writer whose stories range from profound to unfortunately predictable. There are a variety of short stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, all dealing with the common thread of the Jewish religion. The most interesting in my opinion is "The Twenty-Seventh Man," which includes some very raw emotions from its central characters. Although the conclusion is fairly predictable, the conversations between the four Jewish writers during Stalin's reign in the USSR. are quite powerful and significant. "The Wig" is less predictable, but lacks some of the zest of the prior story, but certainly makes up for it in craziness. Based upon the common idea that you don't really appreciate what you have until it is gone, the story follows around a woman in search of the perfect hair that she once had. This story opens up many people's eyes to what it would be like to live the life of the main character, Ruchama. While I never thought that I didn't understand her, I never really felt that I knew what made her tick either. The characters in "The Gilgul of Park Avenue"are far more developed, yet seemed to be less relatable. I just find it a story that is hard to believe and therefore couldn't understand the main character, Charles. His sudden epiphany in a NYC taxicab is quite difficult to relate to especially as a New Yorker. The story than becomes more believable, but Charles becomes more and more distracting. The title story was by far the most appealing and at the same time the most absurd. "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" centers around a couple who are having marital problems and then leads to the husband making some very bad choices. I was intrigued by the husband's lack of common sense as well as the Rabbi's incredibly insensitive and unintelligent advice. Although some of the stories stand out in a bright shining light, many are dull and not worth reading.
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Format: Paperback
Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a collection of short stories taking ordinary experiences everyday people have and portraying them in an interesting and creative manner. While some stories were a little confusing, introducing religious terminology I am unfamiliar with, they all served to teach me things I never knew about the Jewish religion. Each story presents its readers with an engaging situation in which the readers are eager to find out what happens next. One of the stories I would most recommend is "The Gilgul of Park Avenue." This story is about a Christian man who realizes in the back of a taxi that he is now Jewish, whether his wife likes it or not. This story was so interesting because I was able to put myself in the wife's position. I was able to imagine what I would do in her situation.
I found the stories both interesting and educational; introducing me to things I had never been aware of. The only thing I did not like about these stories were the cliffhanger endings. Englander ties up most loose ends before ending the story, but after reading them I began to wonder "what happens next?" All in all, a great collection of short stories that I would highly recommend.
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Format: Paperback
Englander was raised in a strictly Orthodox Jewish, insular community. Almost all of the stories present an exaggerated version of the dark hypocrisy and closed-mindedness such communities. Englander today is a secular Jew who seems to feel lucky that he escaped his childhood prison. His characters are uniformly pathetic and foolish and Englander imagines that all of them would be happier if they would just cast off their archaic lifestyle, grow their hair long and stop obeying their ignorant rabbis. The stories would have been more believeable if there was at least one sympathetic character, but I waited in vain for one to emerge. Englander has been compared to great Jewish writers of the past. Rather he seems like Tolstoy with his eye for hypocrisy but lacking Tolstoy's insight in what really makes people tick.
The only story I liked was the final story. It's the only one that that does not involve Orthodox characters and it is the only one with true emotional force as it not a mean-spirited fantasy but a protrayal of truely human responses to actual events. I encourage Englander to leave his unhappy past behind and write more abnout the struggles of the secular world in which he now lives.
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