Not quite worthy of her greatness

Literature

I was a little disappointed by Nathan Englander’s story What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. First, I thought that the characters’ decision to smoke pot was a little too contrived. Kind of like in Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. Carver was supposed to be this voice of the voiceless sort of figure, writing for the working class man, or something like that. And yes, even regular people smoke pot once in a while, is the message I’m getting and it just seems too heavy handed. Rolling a joint with tampons was a little silly, but carving out an apple pipe was just ludicrously cliché.

In Englander’s story, there are two Jewish couples, one of which is orthodox to a farce. They are together for a reunion as the wives have known each other since yeshiva school. The protagonist’s wife mentions that her son has pot and offers smoking it and they decide to go along. There is much cavorting and eventually the protagonist and his wife tell the other couple about the “Anne Frank game” where they stand in their huge pantry connected to the garage and a bathroom and ask if various gentiles they know would hide them in the event of an “American Holocaust”. The protagonist’s wife’s friend, Lauren (whose Hasidic name is Shoshana), is asked to really stretch her imagination and pretend her husband was a gentile. Would he hide her? She can’t say for sure…

Of course, as Englander knows, the idea of an American Holocaust is absurd. Perhaps all the more to show that it’s just a game. When Shoshana starts “thinking of her kids”, according to the narrator, she becomes hesitant but says yes “after a pause”. It’s hard for them to believe her, and she stays silent as her husband keeps pressing her.

They’re all silent at this point, “afraid to let out what [they’ve] locked inside”. As far as I can tell, they may all be hesitant to admit that sacrificing their family for another is a very difficult decision and they couldn’t say for sure if they’d really do the same thing, not even the more orthodox of Jews among them. Perhaps we’re to think that as frivolous as reuniting with friends and smoking pot may seem, these moments are very precious. Maybe I was expecting a deeper message.

I think I appreciate the way the main couple’s son was portrayed. You really only hear about him and the grownups don’t seem particularly grown up. Anne frequently bemoaned the adults forging a disparity between them and the children by saying the kids shouldn’t get involved in their conversations, often berating her for always having something to say. Maybe this story wants to underline how we are all children at heart. It also may be trying to compare their son Trevor’s secret to be nothing that’s really so damning or disparaging. Although the orthodox husband criticizes the main couple’s more modernist approach to child rearing (strongly echoing Anne’s recollection of the Van Pels’s criticism of the Frank family), their son is really on a good path growing up in a free society. The time they’re in is truly the farthest thing from a Holocaust, living in sunny Miami, which has taken on the reputation of a Jewish mecca of sorts. They have it good and it’s difficult for them to determine if they’d really give it all up.

It doesn’t seem like that would ever be an issue, in the free world anyway. WW2 is over. The 60s are over. Heck, the 70s are over. In this age of information overload, we are far too aware of what went way wrong back in the day and the scourge of Nazism has been effectively wiped out. You get some neo-creeps here and there, but it’s really just people who get a kick out of giving others a hard time. My point is that we really never have to worry about making decisions like that.

Englander may be asking “But what if we did?” Well, it would depend on how hypothetical you’d like to get. Should I pretend I was, say, straight up 100% Dutch living back in the day and play this game? Do I still get to be black? What is my income? Should I imagine I have all the same space and food as the pantry they’re in? There are just a lot of variables that might make the situation more or less dangerous, as far as whether or not I’d even accept anyone. If I am to imagine I’m in a position where I can comfortably accommodate another family, it depends on what’s meant by “comfortable”. I couldn’t risk my health and well-being if doing so prevented me from being in a position to help. If we’re really going to totally make believe I was well off in WW2 Germany or another annexed country, then I would hope I’d have the sense and means to get out of Europe entirely.

There was a lot that Anne Frank talked about that really needs more talking about. Trust that you can determine what is good and right. Refrain from engaging in deeper philosophy with someone who responds hostilely to reasoned inquiry. Don’t shun criticizing yourself. Read and write every day. Show the people caring for you that you care about them. Just a handful of essential themes Anne was tackling, and for which she provided great insight. Even though this story disappointed me, I appreciate some of the things it encourages you to think about. Yes, not Pulitzer worthy, but immensely thoughtful. I just may check out more of his stuff…

Be brave! Let’s remember our duty and perform it without complaint. There will be a way out. God has never deserted our people. Through the ages Jews have had to suffer, but through the ages they’ve gone on living, and the centuries of suffering have only made them stronger. The weak shall fall and the strong shall survive and not be defeated!

–Anne Frank, Tue April 11, 1944

What say you?