For the Relief of Unbearable Urges [NOOK Book]


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 ...
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For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

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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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In his spectacular debut story collection, 28-year-old Nathan Englander portrays the human condition in all its wisdom, folly, exuberance, and sorrow, with a compassion and understanding rarely shown by so young a writer. The nine stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges are set within the insular world of Orthodox Jewry and range from Nazi-occupied Europe to Stalinist Russia to present-day Israel and New York. But if Englander's focus is sharply trained on the Orthodox community in particular, his themes are universal. "I have no interest in a fiction that isn't universal," he says. "If it's not universal, then it's not functioning."

Like Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, to whom he has been quite deservedly compared, Englander is intimately connected to his characters and the world they inhabit. He was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community on Long Island (he now lives in Jerusalem), and by his own admission, he had a "right-wing, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, fire-and-brimstone, free-thought-free, shtetl-mentality substandard education." But when the men in charge of his religious education were unable to satisfy his basic theological questions, Englander began to look elsewhere for answers: "I began to read literature," he says. "Simple as that." Later, he started writing because "it was the one thing that I had the tools for. The single available outlet. If we had a decent blowtorch at home, I might be a welder or an industrial sculptor or a pyromaniac."

The collection begins dramatically with "The 27th Man," a brilliant story-within-a-story in which Stalinsecretly orders the apprehension and execution of 26 eminent Jewish writers. But Stalin's overzealous henchmen do their job only too well, and a 27th man, an unpublished dreamer named Pinchas Pelovits, is added to the list. Unperturbed, Pelovits spends his final hours in prison composing a fable about faith and denial, a valedictory masterpiece that he recites for his literary cellmates in the moments before facing the firing squad. Englander wrote this story after learning of a historical incident in which 26 people were executed (many, but not all of them, writers) during Stalin's purges. "From the time I first learned about the killings I dreamed of writing these writers a final story, providing them with a fictional end. It's not a political story to me. It's a story about identity, with a very political setting."

Englander sustains both the technical skill and the emotional power of this opening story throughout the collection. "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" puts a deliciously comic spin on the term "midlife crisis," when a 55-year-old WASP comes to the realization that he is the bearer of a Jewish soul and trades in his psychiatrist for a renegade rabbi from California. In "The Wig," a Brooklyn wig maker trapped in a thickening body and a passionless marriage decides to recapture the glamour of her youth by making a wig for herself. And though she nearly ruins her business and her reputation in order to purchase a handsome young deliveryman's gorgeous mane of hair, the result is "worth every penny and every shame." The subversively irreverent "Reb Kringle" finds a devoutly Orthodox Jew pressured by his wife into moonlighting as a department store Santa Claus -- with tragicomic results. "The Last One Way," which brought Englander national exposure when it was featured in The New Yorker earlier this year, is the story of a lonely, bitter, and unhappily hirsute woman who blackmails the matchmaker responsible for her loveless marriage so that he, in turn, will terrorize her belligerent husband into granting her a get. Set in Israel, the title story plays out the conflict between carnal desire and spiritual obedience through the long-suffering figure of Dov Binyamin. Sexually frustrated by his wife's self-imposed celibacy -- a condition she attributes to an interminable menstrual cycle -- Dov is granted a special rabbinical dispensation "for the relief of unbearable urges" and ordered to see a prostitute. But, predictably, Dov refuses to wear a condom ("It is a sin to spill seed in vain") and is rewarded for his scrupulous adherence to Scripture with a shameful venereal disease.

Though Englander has been criticized within the Orthodox community for portrayals such as these, he handily dismisses such narrow-mindedness. "My characters are often flawed and often Jewish. I don't see how this should be made scandalous. Flawed and Jewish. Human and Jewish. I don't see the contradiction." Indeed, it is the essential humanity of Englander's characters that allows readers to cross the threshold of fiction and see themselves in another's place, to gain an understanding -- however small -- of what it means to live as they do. Outrageous, heartbreaking, and profound,For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a truly remarkable literary debut.

Economist Review
A pointed and poignant debut group of short stories set in the Hassidic community, which manages to offer illumination not just on the Hassidim (who are rarely described in fiction) but also universal desires.
John Perry

The Jews in Nathan Englander's short stories are mainly displaced persons. Some of them are the refugees one would expect to find in tales of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and present-day Brooklyn. But most suffer a more intimate exile, dislodged from their own lives by causes mundane or miraculous — hair loss, manic depression, reincarnation.

Location and dislocation are central to Englander's brilliant debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Despite their impressive range of settings and situations, the nine stories all fall within the terrain of Orthodox and Hasidic life. Englander never lets his treatment of this world become self-conscious or sound like travel writing; the Yiddish and Hebrew studding his pages are simply part of the landscape.

Instead he focuses on the tensions between his characters, their communal responsibilities and the spiritual and moral universe in which they move. The manic-depressive hero of "Reunion," for instance, resentfully depends upon his rabbi to mend the family rifts his manic episodes cause. In "The Wig," a faded Hasidic beauty yearns for the hair shorn from her head and regularly slips into Manhattan to indulge an obsession with "immodest" shampoo advertisements.

Recognizing the comedy that can accompany displacement, Englander displays a fine eye for situational irony. In "The Tumblers," a group of war-era Hasids boards a stalled circus train rather than the fatal transport to the east. Mistaken for acrobats, they desperately prepare a clumsy act — only to be acclaimed by their Nazi audience as brilliant parodists of "Jewish ballet." In examining the layers of impersonation demanded by a cruel fate, Englander displays a rare originality.

Occasionally his sense of humor does drift toward Woody Allen territory. WASP financial analyst Charles Luger realizes suddenly that his body houses a Jewish soul in "The Gilgul of Park Avenue." The disruption to his life and the anguish of his Mia Farrowesque wife are amusing enough, but what saves the satire is Englander's ability to make his characters poignant. Describing Charles' furtive performance of Shabbos prayers, Englander writes, "He closed his eyes and thought back to his first night away from home, sleeping on a mattress next to his cousin's bed. He was four or five, and his cousin, older, slept with the bedroom door shut tight, not even a crack of light from the hallway. It was the closest to this experience, the closest he could remember to losing and gaining a world." This small book is full of such spare, haunting moments.

Although he's been compared to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, Englander recalls for me — and I mean this without irony — the best of John Cheever. Even though his characters would never sit down at the same table with Cheever's, his invented Orthodox community of Royal Hills, Brooklyn, has a presence and an undercurrent of longing reminiscent of Cheever's suburban enclaves. Subtle characterizations, an instinct for detail and a sense of restraint already mark the 28-year-old Englander as a substantial talent in short fiction.

Michiko Kakutani
Daring, funny, exuberant....His stories [share] the powerful mixture of allegory and quotidian detail that Bernard Malamud pioneered...At the same time, Mr. Englander's voice is distinctly his own — keenly attuned to both the absurdities of life and its undertow of sadness. —The New York Times
Entertainment Weekly
...[An] accomplished collection....affecting, accessible...
David Wiegand
His debut collection of unforgettable stories establishes his voice as unique.
San Francisco Chronicle
Sharon Cleary
Deeply affecting...It provokes an array of reactions, from shocked tears to guilty belly laughs.
Wall Street Journal
Benjamin Taylor
The special grace of Nathan Englander's stories is their ability to evoke, richly and authoritatively, a circumscribed milieu, while reaching out to the turbulences of flesh and spirit that are not only Jewish but comprehensively human.
James Young
E....[An] extraordinary debut collection...brilliant...hilarious...profound...a revelation of the human condition.
New York Times Book Review
Erik Huber
His characters are marvelously sympathetic creations — deeply pious Jews whose lives are disrupted by unbearable urges towards conjugal satisfaction, vanity, reconciliation, even piety itself. What is most striking is Englander's genius for telling a tale.
Time Out
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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.
Nathan Englander ought to be on the literary scene for a long time, judging by the maturity of his literary debut...From Stalinist Russia to shtetl life in New York City, Englander's stories are populated by old-world Jews. While his style alludes to Malamud and his characters to Singer, Englander is a true original who mines his orthodox Jewish background and gives it universal appeal.
Time Out New York
Malcolm Jones
Anyone anywhere who loves good stories will take these wonderful tales to heart.
Talk Magazine
This is an exquisite, stirring glimpse into the world of Orthodox Jewry.

Talk Magazine's 10 Best Books of 1999

James E. Young
...[An] extraordinary debut collection...brilliant...hilarious...profound...a revelation of the human condition.
The New York Times Book Review
Sharon Cleary
Deeply affecting...It provokes an array of reactions, from shocked tears to guilty belly laughs.
Wall Street Journal
Dan Cryer
Englander fills each of these pieces with vivid life, with characters that jump off the page.
Susan Miron
One of the most impressive literary debuts I've come across in 10 years of reviewing books.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Erik Huber
His characters are marvelously sympathetic creations -- deeply pious Jews whose lives are disrupted by unbearable urges towards conjugal satisfaction, vanity, reconciliation, even piety itself. What is most striking is Englander's genius for telling a tale.
Time Out
Kirkus Reviews
A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud.

The pieces are set variously in contemporary Brooklyn Heights and Jerusalem, Nazi-ravaged Europe, and Stalinist Russia, and they feature such comically tormented characters as the title story's sex-starved husband, who is granted "relief" from his wife's extended menstrual cycle by the rabbi who sends him to a prostitute; a devoutly Orthodox Jew pressured by his materialistic wife into moonlighting as a department-store Santa Claus ("Reb Kringle"); and "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," an unassuming Wasp who inexplicably "realizes" he has become an Orthodox Jew-to the bellicose dismay of his astonished wife ("You threw out all the cheese, Charles. How could God hate cheese?").

As beguiling as Englander's comic tales are, though, his skills are even more impressively displayed in several pieces that strike more somber notes. "Reunion," for example, paints a graphic first-person picture of a manic-depressive Brooklynite whose travels in and out of institutions make a living hell of his marriage and fatherhood. "The Tumblers" fashions its fable-like story of an insular city that resists contact with the outside world into a trenchant allegory of all the stages of Jewry under Nazism, from denial through martyrdom. "The Twenty-Seventh Man" is unpublished writer Pinchas Pelovits, who finds his voice, and completes the work he was born to create, after he is mistakenly rounded up among a group of eminent writers doomed to execution by Stalinist thugs. And the concluding "In This Way We Are Wise" memorably dramatizes the emotions of an American Jew in Jerusalem imperfectly adapting to both ongoing terrorist bombings and the city's phlegmatic fatalism.

An exemplary fusion of what T.S. Eliot called "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and a truly remarkable debut.

From the Publisher
"Englander's voice is distinctly his own—daring, funny and exuberant." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times"Taut, edgy, sharply observed. . . . A revelation of the human condition." —The New York Times Book Review"Remarkable art. . . .The author fills each of these pieces with vivid life, with characters that jump off the page." —Newsday"Every so often there's a new voice that entirely revitalizes the story. . . . It's happening again with Nathan Englander, whose precise, funny, heartbreaking, well-controlled but never contrived stories open a window on a fascinating landscape we might never have known was there. It's the best story collection I've read in ages." —Ann Beattie"His characters are marvelously sympathetic creations. . . . What is most striking about the collection is not the subject matter but Englander's genius for telling a tale. . . . Invite[s] comparison to some of the best storytellers—Gogol, Singer, Kafka and even John Cheever." —Time Out New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307569516
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/23/2009
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 247,096
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Nathan Englander’s short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander’s story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York City.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Read an Excerpt

From "The Twenty-Seventh Man":

The orders were given from Stalin's country house at Kuntsevo. He relayed them to the agent in charge with no greater emotion than for the killing of kulaks or clergy or the outspoken wives of very dear friends. The accused were to be apprehended the same day, arrive at the prison gates at the same moment, and--with a gasp and simultaneous final breath--be sent off to their damnation in a single rattling burst of gunfire.

It was not an issue of hatred, only one of allegiance. For Stalin knew there could be loyalty to only one nation. What he did not know so well were the authors' names on his list. When it was presented to him the next morning he signed the warrant anyway, though there were now twenty-seven, and yesterday there had been twenty-six.

No matter, except maybe to the twenty-seventh.

The orders left little room for variation, and none for tardiness. They were to be carried out in secrecy and--the only point that was reiterated--simultaneously. But how were the agents to get the men from Moscow and Gorky, Smolensk and Penza, Shuya and Podolsk, to the prison near the village of X at the very same time?

The agent in charge felt his strength was in leadership and gave up the role of strategist to the inside of his hat. He cut the list into strips and sprinkled them into the freshly blocked crown, mixing carefully so as not to disturb its shape. Most of these writers were in Moscow. The handful who were in their native villages, taking the waters somewhere, or locked in a cabin trying to finish that seminal work would surely receive a stiff cuffing when a pair of agents, aggravated by the trek, stepped through the door.

After the lottery, those agents who had drawn a name warranting a long journey accepted the good-natured insults and mockery of friends. Most would have it easy, nothing more to worry about than hurrying some old rebel to a car, or getting their shirts wrinkled in a heel-dragging, hair-pulling rural scene that could be as messy as necessary in front of a pack of superstitious peasants.

Then there were those who had it hard. Such as the two agents assigned to Vasily Korinsky, who, seeing no way out, was prepared to exit his bedroom quietly but whose wife, Paulina, struck the shorter of the two officers with an Oriental-style brass vase. There was a scuffle; Paulina was subdued, the short officer taken out unconscious, and a precious hour lost on their estimated time.

There was the pair assigned to Moishe Bretzky, a true lover of vodka and its country of origin. One would not have pegged him as one of history's most sensitive Yiddish poets. He was huge, slovenly, and smelly as a horse. Once a year, during the Ten Days of Penitence, he would take notice of his sinful ways and sober up for Yom Kippur. After the fast, he would grab pen and pad and write furiously for weeks in his sister's ventless kitchen--the shroud of atonement still draped over his splitting head. The finished work was toasted with a brimming shot of vodka. Then Bretzky's thirst would begin to rage and off he would go for another year. His sister's husband would have put an end to this annual practice if it weren't for the rubles he received for the sweat-curled pages Bretzky abandoned.

It took the whole of the night for the two agents to locate Bretzky. They tracked him down in one of the whorehouses that did not exist, and if they did, government agents surely did not frequent them. Nonetheless, having escaped notice, they slipped into the room. Bretzky was passed out on his stomach with a smiling trollop pinned under each arm. The time-consuming process of freeing the whores, getting Bretzky upright, and moving him into the hallway reduced the younger man to tears.

The senior agent left his partner in charge of the body while he went to chat with the senior woman of the house. Introducing himself numerous times as if they had never met, he explained his predicament and enlisted the help of a dozen women.

Twelve of the house's strongest companions--in an array of pink and red robes, froufrou slippers, and painted toenails--carried the giant bear to the waiting car amid a roar of giggles. It was a sight Bretzky would have enjoyed tremendously had he been conscious.

The least troubling of the troublesome abductions was that of Y. Zunser, oldest of the group and a target of the first serious verbal attacks on the cosmopolitans back in '49. In the February 19 edition of Literaturnaya Gazeta he had been criticized as an obsolete author, accused of being anti-Soviet, and chided for using a pen name to hide his Jewish roots. In that same edition they printed his real name, Melman, stripping him of the privacy he had so enjoyed.

Three years later they came for him. The two agents were not enthusiastic about the task. They had shared a Jewish literature instructor in high school, whom they admired despite his ethnicity and who even coerced them into writing a poem or two. Both were rather decent fellows, and capturing an eighty-one-year-old man did not exactly jibe with their vision of bravely serving the party. They were simply following instructions. But somewhere amid their justifications lay a deep fear of punishment.

It was not yet dawn and Zunser was already dressed, sitting with a cup of tea. The agents begged him to stand up on his own, one of them trying the name Zunser and the other pleading with Melman. He refused.

"I will neither resist nor help. The responsibility must rest fully upon your conscience."

"We have orders," they said.

"I did not say you were without orders. I said that you have to bear responsibility."

They first tried lifting him by his arms, but Zunser was too delicate for the maneuver. Then one grabbed his ankles while the other clasped his chest. Zunser's head lolled back. The agents were afraid of killing him, an option they had been warned against. They put him on the floor and the larger of the two scooped him up, cradling the old man like a child.

Zunser begged a moment's pause as they passed a portrait of his deceased wife. He fancied the picture had a new moroseness to it, as if the sepia-toned eyes might well up and shed a tear. He spoke aloud. "No matter, Katya. Life ended for me on the day of your death; everything since has been but nostalgia." The agent shifted the weight of the romantic in his arms and headed out the door.

The solitary complicated abduction that took place out of Moscow was the one that should have been the easiest of the twenty-seven. It was the simple task of removing Pinchas Pelovits from the inn on the road that ran to X and the prison beyond.

Pinchas Pelovits had 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--testing them sometimes more with joy and good fortune. He recorded the trials and events of this world in his notebooks in the form of stories and novels, essays, poems, songs, anthems, tales, jokes, and extensive histories that led up to the era in which he dwelled.

His parents never knew what label to give their son, who wrote all day but did not publish, who laughed and cried over his novels but was gratingly logical in his contact with the everyday world. What they did know was that Pinchas wasn't going to take over the inn.

When they became too old to run the business, the only viable option was to sell out at a ridiculously low price--provided the new owners would leave the boy his room and feed him when he was hungry. Even when the business became the property of the state, Pinchas, in the dreamer's room, was left in peace: why bother, he's harmless, sort of a good-luck charm for the inn, no one even knows he's here, maybe he's writing a history of the place, and we'll all be made famous. He wasn't. But who knows, maybe he would have, had his name--mumbled on the lips of travelers--not found its way onto Stalin's list.

The two agents assigned Pinchas arrived at the inn driving a beat-up droshky and posing as the sons of now-poor landowners, a touch they thought might tickle their superiors. One carried a Luger (a trinket he had brought home from the war), and the other kept a billy club stashed in his boot. They found the narrow hallway with Pinchas's room and knocked lightly on his door. "Not hungry" was the response. The agent with the Luger gave the door a hip check; it didn't budge. "Try the handle," said the voice. The agent did, swinging it open.

"You're coming with us," said the one with the club in his boot.

"Absolutely not," Pinchas stated matter-of-factly. The agent wondered if his "You're coming with us" had sounded as bold.

"Put the book down on the pile, put your shoes on, and let's go." The agent with the Luger spoke slowly. "You're under arrest for anti-Soviet activity."

Pinchas was baffled by the charge. He meditated for a moment and came to the conclusion that there was only one moral outrage he'd been involved in, though it seemed to him a bit excessive to be incarcerated for it.

"Well, you can have them, but they're not really mine. They were in a copy of a Zunser book that a guest forgot and I didn't know where to return them. Regardless, I studied them thoroughly. You may take me away." He proceeded to hand the agents five postcards. Three were intricate pen-and-ink drawings of a geisha in various positions with her legs spread wide. The other two were identical photographs of a sturdy Russian maiden in front of a painted tropical background wearing a hula skirt and making a vain attempt to cover her breasts. Pinchas began stacking his notebooks while the agents divvied the cards. He was sad that he had not resisted temptation. He would miss taking his walks and also the desk upon whose mottled surface he had written.

"May I bring my desk?"

The agent with the Luger was getting fidgety. "You won't be needing anything, just put on your shoes."

"I'd much prefer my books to shoes," Pinchas said. "In the summer I sometimes take walks without shoes but never without a novel. If you would have a seat while I organize my notes--" and Pinchas fell to the floor, struck in the head with the pistol grip. He was carried from the inn rolled in a blanket, his feet poking forth, bare.

Pinchas awoke, his head throbbing from the blow and the exceedingly tight blindfold. This was aggravated by the sound of ice cracking under the droshky wheels, as happens along the river route west of X. "The bridge is out on this road," he told them. "You'd best cut through the old Bunakov place. Everybody does it in winter."

The billy club was drawn from the agent's boot, and Pinchas was struck on the head once again. The idea of arriving only to have their prisoner blurt out the name of the secret prison was mortifying. In an attempt to confound him, they turned off on a clearly unused road. There are reasons that unused roads are not used. It wasn't half a kilometer before they had broken a wheel and were off to a nearby pig farm on foot. The agent with the gun commandeered a donkey-drawn cart, leaving a furious pig farmer cursing and kicking the side of his barn.

The trio were all a bit relieved upon arrival: Pinchas because he started to get the idea that this business had to do with something more than his minor infraction, and the agents because three other cars had shown up only minutes before they had--all inexcusably late.

By the time the latecomers had been delivered, the initial terror of the other twenty-three had subsided. The situation was tense and grave, but also unique. An eminent selection of Europe's surviving Yiddish literary community was being held within the confines of an oversized closet. Had they known they were going to die, it might have been different. Since they didn't, I. J. Manger wasn't about to let Mani Zaretsky see him cry for rachmones. He didn't have time to anyway. Pyotr Kolyazin, the famed atheist, had already dragged him into a heated discussion about the ramifications of using God's will to drastically alter the outcome of previously "logical" plots. Manger took this to be an attack on his work and asked Kolyazin if he labeled everything he didn't understand "illogical." There was also the present situation to discuss, as well as old rivalries, new poems, disputed reviews, journals that just aren't the same, up-and-coming editors, and, of course, the gossip, for hadn't they heard that Lev had used his latest manuscript for kindling?

When the noise got too great, a guard opened the peephole in the door to find that a symposium had broken loose. As a result, by the time numbers twenty-four through twenty-seven arrived, the others had already been separated into smaller cells.

Each cell was meant to house four prisoners and contained three rotting mats to sleep on. In a corner was a bucket. There were crude holes in the wood-plank walls, and it was hard to tell if the captors had punched them as a form of ventilation or if the previous prisoners had painstakingly scratched them through to confirm the existence of a world outside.

The four latecomers had lain down immediately, Pinchas on the floor. He was dazed and shivering, stifling his moans so the others might rest. His companions did not even think of sleep: Vasily Korinsky because of worry about what might be the outcome for his wife; Y. Zunser because he was trying to adapt to the change (the only alteration he had planned for in his daily routine was death, and that in his sleep); Bretzky because he hadn't really awakened.

Excepting Pinchas, none had an inkling of how long they'd traveled, whether from morning until night or into the next day. Pinchas tried to use his journey as an anchor, but in the dark he soon lost his notion of time gone by. He listened for the others' breathing, making sure they were alive.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Table of Contents

The Twenty-seventh Man 1
The Tumblers 25
Reunion 57
The Wig 81
The Gilgul of Park Avenue 107
Reb Kringle 139
The Last One Way 153
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges 175
In This Way We Are Wise 193
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Interviews & Essays

On Wednesday, April 14th, welcomed Nathan Englander to discuss FOR THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES.

Moderator: Welcome, Nathan Englander. We are very pleased that you could join us for your first online chat. How are you this evening?

Nathan Englander: Doing well, thanks.

Sarah from Richmond: How long does it take you typically to compose a story? Which story in FOR THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES took the longest to write, and why?

Nathan Englander: I draft my stories obsessively. And often the ideas sit with me for years before I start to compose. I'm not sure which story took longest from start to finish. It's probably "The Twenty-Seventh Man" or "The Tumblers." I walked around with the idea for "The Twenty-Seventh Man" for about four years and then rewrote on and off for another five.

Jan from Iowa: Your stories all feature Orthodox characters, but the themes they explore are universal. In your opinion, what is it about the Jewish experience that particularly lends itself to being a "lens"?

Nathan Englander: I'm happy if you think the themes in the stories are universal. As for the Jewish experience as a lens -- I'm not sure what to tell you, except that I simply wrote about worlds that I know, even if the settings or events are foreign.

Steven from Baltimore, MD: Who have been your greatest literary influences?

Nathan Englander: I love Gogol's stories. And books like THE TRIAL and THE PLAGUE were big early influences.

Helene Hoffman from Chicago: I commend you for writing about the Orthodox community. Were you raised in an ultra-Orthodox community or a modern Orthodox community? Did you have to "hide" the secular literature you were reading or the writing that you were doing? I have both modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox relatives.

Nathan Englander: I was raised modern Orthodox. So it wasn't an issue of reading secretly. The issue was more the lack of priority that secular education was given.

Meaghan Richelieu from Boston, Mass.: What were the origins or inspirations for these stories? Do you draw on past experiences or stories you have heard told? Even fiction is informed by an author's experience -- has your life been similar to what your stories describe?

Nathan Englander: The ideas for the stories came from vastly different places. And the settings are very foreign to my own. It's the emotional threads in the collection that are most autobiographical.

Kate from Washington, DC: I am loving your stories, Nathan. I notice that the settings of your stories range from Israel to New York to Yiddish communities in Russia and Europe. How have these places in particular influenced your writing? How much time do you spend in each, and where do you call "home" now?

Nathan Englander: The settings have little physical connection to places that I've been or spent time in -- as would be obvious with, say, "The Tumblers." (Though I did visit Eastern Europe about ten years ago.) As for home, I guess it's Jerusalem these days.

Eiris from Even: Is it harder for you to come up with an idea for a story or to write and rewrite it?

Nathan Englander: I'm a big fan of nostalgia. Each stage is most daunting when I'm in it and then seems more romantic when I'm on to the next.

Max from Brooklyn, NY: How has the Orthodox community reacted to your stories? Now that you have become "secular," are you ever treated like a heretic?

Nathan Englander: I don't know of any unified response from the Orthodox community. I do know that friends and neighbors have been most generous. Which I am thankful for. As for being treated like a heretic, never in New York. Jerusalem is a different story.

Carol from Philadelphia: Did you do any historical research for your stories? Do you speak Yiddish?

Nathan Englander: Sadly, I don't speak Yiddish. Wish I did. I'd love to be able to read Yiddish literature in the language in which it was written. I do a lot of historical research (and then take endless liberties). And I usually do my most serious research after I've written the stories.

Claudia from Pittsburgh: What was the inspiration for your first story in the book, "The Twenty-Seventh Man"?

Nathan Englander: There is an event that the story is very loosely based on. Twenty-six Yiddishists (not all of them writers) were executed by Stalin in 1952.

JC from Long Island: What is your life like now, compared to your upbringing on Long Island?

Nathan Englander: Radically different.

Mark from New York: Although you have given up religion, paradoxically, your first collection of stories have all Jewish characters and illuminate the Jewish experience. Why? Will your next book focus on Jewish characters, too?

Nathan Englander: What can I tell you? I grew up with a very specific way of looking at the world. Looking at this collection, I'm definitely not surprised at the preponderance of Jews. One could safely expect a few members of the faith in the novel as well.

Henry from Reno, TX: Which story are you most proud of in the collection? Which did you sweat over the most?

Nathan Englander: I think your answer is in your question. The ones that took the most out of me are the ones to which I feel most connected.

Elizabeth from Dayton, OH: What kind of writing schedule do you keep? Do you write best in the mornings?

Nathan Englander: I'm naturally nocturnal. For years I never got started writing before 4:00 pm and then worked the night shift. I was writing six days a week. And as work on the collection progressed, my stamina increased (that is, the productive part of my days greatly increased).

Moderator: Thank you, Nathan Englander. Good luck on your upcoming national tour! Do you have any closing remarks for your online audience?
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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, one of the most widely acclaimed debuts in recent contemporary fiction. With remarkable deftness, humor, and wisdom, Nathan Englander illuminates the dilemmas of his characters as they struggle with marital difficulty, obsession, desire, and spiritual crisis. The result is a collection of unforgettable modern fables that transcend the particularities of time and place.

1. "The Twenty-seventh Man"
Is it fitting that Pinchas Pelovits be executed alongside the Soviet Union's best Yiddish writers, even though he is completely unknown and included only by accident?

2. Analyze the story that Pinchas composes in prison. What is the relationship of this strange tale to the frame story? What does Englander's story suggest about the interplay of crisis and creativity?

3. "The Tumblers"
The so-called Wise Men of Chelm, who happily reshape the terms of reality when it fits their needs, are well-known figures in Eastern European Jewish folklore. Why does Englander relocate these familiar characters into a story about the Holocaust, something terrifying and historical? How does the Nazi roundup of the Jews change all the terms of reality for the Mahmirim Hasidim, and what is significant about the particular way in which they respond to this challenge?

4. What constitutes magic and illusion in this tale? Are the Wise Men of Chelm the only ones in the story who invent their own reality? Why, of all the roles of circus performers, does Englander decide to turn his pious charactersinto acrobats?

5. What is the relationship between chance and fate in this story? Between faith and fate? What is the effect of the story's unresolved ending?

6. "Reunion"
When Marty brings the rabbi's schizophrenic brother along for a suprise reunion, the rabbi rebukes Marty with the words, "You are a man without boundaries. . . . There are limits, prescribed, written. . . . Nowhere does it say I must forgive" [p. 79]. Is the rabbi a hypocrite? Is Marty right to challenge him?

7. Is Marty a difficult person because he is mentally ill or because he refuses to accept his place in the community? Why does his wife Robin say, "A sick man is not a devil. You, Marty, are both" [p. 80]? Do you sympathize with Marty or with his wife?

8. "The Wig"
What does natural hair symbolize for the women in this story, and particularly for Ruchama? How do each of the major figures in this story attempt to satisfy their forbidden yearnings?

9. Why do Ruchama's desires spiral out of control? Is it significant that the hair she will be wearing in her new wig is that of a man, and not a woman?

10. "The Gilgul of Park Avenue"
How has his conversion experience changed Charles Luger? How has it changed his wife Sue? Is there a sort of spiritual awakening on her part as well as his? Is it surprising that she wants to stay with him?

11. Rabbi Zalman Meintz was living in Bolinas, California, and was "addicted to sorrow and drugs" [p. 116] when he discovered his Jewish soul. Are we meant to take the notion of "gilgulim" -- reincarnated souls -- seriously or not? How is spiritual identity defined in this story?

12. Sue asks, "Well, if you have to be Jewish, why so Jewish? . . . Why do people who find religion always have to be so goddamn extreme?" [p. 122]. Why wouldn't Luger be satisfied with being what Sue calls "a West Side Jew" rather than a scrupulously observant Orthodox Jew? Does the idea of being a real Jew stand for the need for ritual observance and spiritual meaning in daily life?

13. "Reb Kringle"
In what ways is the Jewish boy who celebrates Christmas but longs for a menorah in a position similar to that of Reb Itzik? What is Englander suggesting about the challenge to religious identity in a consumer culture?

14. Is the rabbi a sympathetic figure? Is his wife betraying something sacred by sending him out to make money in this way? Does the story leave open the possibility that he will refuse to return to the store the next day -- or are we to assume his wife will force him to do so?

15. "The Last One Way"
Why does Gitta's husband Berel refuse to give her a divorce? Is Gitta justified in forcing Liebman, the matchmaker, to help her? How does this story highlight the lack of privacy within Orthodox communities?

16. Why does Gitta end up telling Berel the truth about the pregnancy? How is he able to extract this information? Did he really intend to give her a divorce, as he says he was ready to do?

17. What kinds of violence are there in this story? Is the emotional violence Berel employs more or less vicious than the physical violence to which he is subjected?

18. "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges"
How does this story highlight the difficulty of reconciling the demands of religious observance with the realities of sexual and emotional life within a marriage? How does it compare to "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," in the ways it examines a marriage in crisis?

19. How good is the rabbi's advice? What do you think of the fact that Dov gets a venereal infection because of his attempt to obey the biblical injunction that "it is a sin to spill seed in vain" [p. 188]? Why can't he tell his wife what has happened?

20. "In This Way We Are Wise"
Why does Englander choose to end the collection with a terrorist bombing in present-day Jerusalem, seeming to shift into the realm of nonfiction? Why does he use his own name for the protagonist of this story?

21. What is he saying about the distance between the Jerusalem in this story and the Zionist ideal of Jerusalem "nestled away like Eden" [p. 203] on which he was raised? Or between the ideals fostered in Jewish tradition and the contemporary nation of Israel? What is the meaning of the story's title?

22. Often when reading fiction we don't have a sense of the presence of the writer, but this story seems to move us closer to Nathan Englander. How does it change your perception of the stories that have come before?

23. For discussion of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
The characters in this collection are nearly all of one religion and ethnicity, but this hasn't prevented the book from winning wide praise and interest in the literary press. What is it about Englander's themes and concerns that his work can be shared and enjoyed by a far more diverse group of readers?

24. In several of these stories, a character is removed from a comfortable, homogeneous world and placed in a new and bewildering situation. Englander himself, who has broken with his Orthodox upbringing, has said, "I'm a fourth-generation American. I lived in a shtetl with strip malls around it. Everything was so forbidden. But when you know nothing else, it gets to be a real adventure to find another world." How do his characters respond to these challenges?

25. Many of the stories in this collection are quite funny, though in different ways. How would you characterize Englander's sense of humor and the way it affects the style of these stories?

26. At the heart of several stories is an exploration of the problems of marriage and intimacy. What sorts of troubles arise in the marriages in this novel? Do marriage and sexual intimacy seem to intensify rather than bridge boundaries? Why?

27. What is the relationship between religious orthodoxy and contemporary American culture in these stories? What are the ethical conflicts, for the faithful, that arise out of their collision?

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Customer Reviews

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( 14 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2015


    Good to know.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2015


    Yep this book could be for random im eating a candy cane

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2015


    Name ..:::.. Page <P> Age ..:::.. 12 <P> Apperence ..:::.. Blode hair, blue eyes <P> Rank ..:::.. Slave, anytype. <P> Likes ..:::.. Singing, dancing, drawing, and some other things. <P> Dislikes ..:::.. Spiders, being yelled at, and some other stuff <P> Other ..:::.. ?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2012


    I love juilssa

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  • Posted June 9, 2009

    Gorgeous collection of short stories.

    Truly one of my favorites. Every story in this book was superb and practically flawless. Highly recommended.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2003

    'Unbearable Urges' is a Great Find

    After picking up this book up for an assignment, I was delighted to find a collection of intriguing stories. Englander has created nine short stories that stand well on their own and they tie together through the Orthodox Jewdaism view as well. The moral complications that his characters find themselves in leave a large supply of topics for discussion. Themes such as vanity, personal spirituality, and spouse faithfulness make his book a good Book Group selection. His characters come to life in a way that seemed to leave our class arguing as if they were one of us. I found myself relating these foreign experiences to my own. It is also a fairly quick read. The only problem that readers may have is if you are not accustomed to terminology from Orthodox Judaism. I found that this made some of the reading a little challenging, however it is necessary to feel as involved in this culture as you do when reading it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2003

    Clever and Thoughtful

    Nathan Englander's stories are full of the irony inherent to human life. His characters are believable, self absorbed and pitiable as they face their unique challenges. The results, as in life, waver between comic and tragic, with few human weaknesses left unexplored. As these characters fall into extenuating circumstances ranging from bizarre to almost eerily possible, the reader has little trouble following and sympathizing with or criticizing the actions of the protagonists. Good food for thought.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2003

    A comical view of Jews

    In my opinion, this collection of short stories is rather comical. It seems as if Englander¿s goal was to portray modern Jews in America in a laughable way. Perhaps writing it this way makes it easier for the non-Jewish reader to relate to the characters. In a way, Englander lessened the religious intensity of the stories so that they would appeal to a variety of readers. However, religion is undeniably the main theme throughout the short stories. My review of this book is somewhat limited considering I have only read the following short stories: ¿For the Relief of Unbearable Urges¿, ¿The Gilgul of Park Avenue, and ¿The Wig¿. My review should still be valid, though, since all of the short stories are similar and connected in some way. I enjoyed reading ¿For the Relief of Unbearable Urges¿ and ¿The Gilgul of Park Avenue¿. Since I am not a religious person, I enjoyed the humor of the stories. While I do not know much about the Jewish religion, I was still able to understand what was going on in the stories because Englander makes it understandable. Although the characters of the stories are Jewish, they encounter problems that can happen to any of us. Any reader is able to feel compassion for the characters. I did not enjoy reading ¿The Wig¿. I was confused about exactly what was taking place in the story. The events went very fast without enough explanation. Also, I do not think ¿The Wig¿ was a reasonable story; I do not think that what happened in the short story would ever happen in real life in New York City. Nevertheless, it stayed consistent with Englander¿s comical view of modern American Jews. Englander writes in a way that allows any person to pick up the book and read it and not be puzzled about what he just read. I recommend For the Relief of Unbearable Urges to anyone who is looking for an easy read that still provokes you to think and sympathize with the characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2003

    What I thought

    I really enjoyed reading this collection of stories. I found them very entertaining and thought they were all very clever. I think all the stories are wonderfully individual and I liked them all for different reasons. I really enjoyed one in particular called The Gilgul of Park Ave. I thought this is one of the best stories I have read in a long time. It kept my interest and I thought it was really good. I loved the idea of someone stepping into the back of a cab a Christian and coming out of that same cab a Jew. I give Charles a lot of credit to go out on a limb and change all that he has ever known in life. I also find myself sympathizing with his wife, who now had the dynamics of her beloved marriage changed because of her husbands cab ride. I think what makes this one story so great is that both sides appeal to the reader and the reader can really get into the emotion and feeling of the story from two very different perspectives. Another story I found interesting to say the least was the tale itself called The Relief of Unbearable Urges. I was a little taken back by this story but I think that is why I found it so intriguing, because I had never heard a story like this one before. I think the idea that a rabbi would tell someone to do such an act to make a marriage is absurd and crazy but that is defiantly a key factor in the drive of the story. I found this story to be very funny and in a way I still think readers can relate. I think they can relate to seeing something they want more than anything and then not being able to have it. I also think they can relate to the idea that someone wants what they can't have more than something they can. Overall I liked the book of stories very much and would defiantly recommend it. I think all the different kinds of stories allow many people to enjoy this book. I think it applies to many people from all walks of life and that many different people would enjoy this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2003

    I do not trust my own judgment here

    I may be wrong,and I may be getting old but the reading of these stories did not move me deeply. In fact I have a sense of the writer writing about people and times he does not really know and feel from inside but rather imagines from outside.It seems more a game of mind than of heart. I can be wrong about this book, and I have heard enthusiastic reports from others who claim that Englander is going to be the next great Jewish writer. In any case this is one case in which I do not trust my own judgment. I would recommend that any reader who does care for Jewish life in fiction give this a chance. My guess is many of you will find far more in it than I have been able to.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2000

    Bold, stunning, brilliant, must be read....

    Nathan Englander has here presented a refreshingly fearless depiction of the Jew in the modern world. His stories, as comical and outlandish as some of them may be, in many ways capture the confusion that can be the life of the Jew in America. Englander is truly gifted when it comes to offering up characters with real depth, real personality. His book is memorable and must be read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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