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Englander delivers Ruderman Lecture

Nathan Eng­lander and his sister grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and often played the “Anne Frank game,” won­dering which of their gen­tile neigh­bors would hide them in the event of a second Holocaust.

“The Holo­caust is woven into my under­standing of the world,” said Eng­lander, now the inter­na­tion­ally best­selling author of the award-​​winning short story col­lec­tion What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. “How do we remember? Who owns his­tory? And how do we gift a memory across time?”

Eng­lander, a fifth-​​generation Amer­ican, explored these ques­tions and the com­plexity of shed­ding light on cul­ture and iden­tity through a Jewish lens in the second annual Morton E. Rud­erman Memo­rial Lec­ture on Monday evening in West Vil­lage F. The lec­ture was spon­sored by the Rud­erman Family Foun­da­tion and pre­sented by the Jewish Studies Pro­gram and the North­eastern Human­i­ties Center, both housed in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties. The lec­ture honors the memory of Morton E. Rud­erman, who grad­u­ated in 1959 with an engi­neering degree and died in 2011 at the age of 75 after estab­lishing the trustee Rud­erman Chair in Jewish Studies.

“This lec­ture series is an oppor­tu­nity to engage with promi­nent artists and writers who raise ques­tions of uni­versal sig­nif­i­cance,” said Uta Poiger, the interim dean of the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties. “Reading great lit­er­a­ture can be trans­for­ma­tive for anyone in any field.”

Just ask Lori Lefkovitz, the Rud­erman Pro­fessor of Jewish Studies, who clas­si­fied Eng­lander as a master sto­ry­teller. With work trans­lated into more than a dozen lan­guages, he was selected as one of “20 Writers for the 21st Cen­tury” by The New Yorker and has received many pres­ti­gious awards, including a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship and a PEN/​Malamud Award.

“Nathan knows how to tell a good story,” Lefkovitz said in her intro­duc­tory remarks. “When I read his fic­tion, I some­times laugh out loud, often through my tears.”

Audi­ence mem­bers laughed during Englander’s reading of the title story in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a poignant por­trait of two Jewish cou­ples who sit around a kitchen table drinking and talking about reli­gious identity.

In one par­tic­u­larly off­beat scene, two Holo­caust sur­vivors get­ting dressed in a gym locker room find out that their con­cen­tra­tion camp iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tat­toos are only five num­bers apart.

“All that means is, he cut ahead of me in line. There, same as here. This guy’s a cutter, I just didn’t want to say,” one sur­vivor says. “Blow it out your ear,” the other says.

In spite of the levity Eng­lander brings to his prose, the goal of his writing has always been to explore how the past informs the future, whether the end game is pre­venting another geno­cide or civil war.

“We don’t know how to stop these things as global soci­eties,” said Eng­lander, refer­ring to the civil war in Syria and the geno­cides in Rwanda and Darfur. “I don’t write about Jewish people,” he added. “I write about people.”

Fol­lowing his lec­ture, Eng­lander answered ques­tions posed by audi­ence mem­bers. One person asked how sur­vivors have responded to his writing.

“It’s not threat­ening to sur­vivors I have spoken to,” said Eng­lander, who dis­cussed his writing process with a group of stu­dents in the Human­i­ties Center ear­lier in the day. “These are heroic people. They’re unbe­liev­able to me.”

– by Jason Kornwitz

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