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For the Relief of Unbearable Urges: Stories [Paperback]

Nathan Englander
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 21 2000 Vintage International
One of the most stunning literary debuts of our time, these energized, irreverent, and deliciously inventive stories introduce an astonishing new talent.

In the collection's hilarious title story, a Hasidic man gets a special dispensation from his rabbi to see a prostitute. "The Wig" takes an aging wigmaker and makes her, for a single moment, beautiful. In "The Tumblers," Englander envisions a group of Polish Jews herded toward a train bound for the death camps and, in a deft, imaginative twist, turns them into acrobats tumbling out of harm's way.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a work of startling authority and imagination--a book that is as wondrous and joyful as it is wrenchingly sad. It hearalds the arrival of a remarkable new storyteller.

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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

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By A Customer
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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2.0 out of 5 stars An average collection of short stories Nov. 7 2003
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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4.0 out of 5 stars Great short story collection Nov. 5 2003
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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1.0 out of 5 stars Revenge for an unhappy childhood? March 2 2003
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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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Review of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
The Relief of Unbearable Urges was a witty collection of humanistic Jewish stories. Although not a Jew myself, I found each story humorous and full of wise human observation. Read more
Published on Nov. 9 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars The Jewish Religion Unveiled
It is always nice to be able to learn something new through reading, and not through lectures. I knew absolutely nothing about the Jewish religion until now. Read more
Published on Nov. 9 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun and Interesting Read
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is an excellent book. It's a collection of nine stories, unconnected to one another. Read more
Published on Nov. 9 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars Just another opinion
Nathan Englander's "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" contained some of the better short stories I have ever read. Read more
Published on Nov. 7 2003 by Cassandra E. Troini
5.0 out of 5 stars New Age of Jewish Writers
One group of writers I learned to love, as a reader and a Jew, were the great Jewish fiction writers. Read more
Published on April 24 2003 by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Vividly Imagined, Sometimes Disturbingly Brilliant, Stories
There is a place where ordinary everyday events intersect with the transcendent. This place is ineffable; Rudolf Otto, in his memorable book, "The Idea of the Holy", referred to it... Read more
Published on April 13 2002 by "botatoe"
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written - a good read
Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a continuously appealing collection of short stories full of wit and creativity with a sadness hovering over each story. Read more
Published on March 4 2002 by Jennifer
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes, He IS A Dudestud!
I went to High School with Nathan when he was growing up on Long Island. He was into his Hard Rock period then, running around in skin-tight black leather pants and stud boots. Read more
Published on Oct. 19 2001 by Baruch Fenstermacher
4.0 out of 5 stars Hilarious and sad
I have to admit: I was prejudiced. O no, not another book on Jewish culture. O no, not short stories. Read more
Published on Aug. 1 2001 by Linda Oskam
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