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Nathan Englander & Gary Shteyngart

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Conversations@Senesh invites influential public figures to reflect on the Jewish values that shape their lives and drive their accomplishments. We hope the themes that emerge from these talks will inspire dialogue in our Senesh community and our thriving Brooklyn neighborhood.

Jewish Values.
Modern Achievements.

Authors Nathan Englander and Gary Shteyngart Delight Audience at Event on April 16

Acclaimed writers offered poignant and humorous anecdotes about
Israel, Immigration, American Politics, the writing process, and more

April 17, 2018, Brooklyn, NY — Celebrated New York authors Nathan Englander and Gary Shteyngart spoke last night at Conversations@Senesh Speaker Series at Hannah Senesh Community Day School, a progressive, independent K-8 Jewish school in Brownstone Brooklyn.  

The lively, thoughtful, and often hilarious discussion was moderated by Senesh parent, novelist, and Director of the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College Joshua Henkin. The authors discussed everything from their writing processes to their experiences at Jewish day schools to their relationship to the state of Israel to their feelings about Passover and what’s next in their careers.

Henkin’s probing questions provided rich food for thought for the cerebral and quick-witted authors, who answered with humorous anecdotes, clarity, and honesty. When asked how he conducts research for his novels, Shteyngart told about a protagonist who travels from New York to Southern California via Greyhound bus, so Shteyngart did the same. He warned the audience, “If you take the bus cross-country, BYOB — bring your own bathroom!”  He said that experience allowed him to see realities across the country that “we on the coasts don’t truly understand.” These realities, Shteyngart said, have led to the divisiveness in American politics. Englander also talked about this duality in both the U.S. and Israel. “In Israel, a Jewish kid living in Jerusalem and his Palestinian neighbor can live in the same neighborhood, but have two different realities. In the U.S. we have this too…. And no way to bridge them.” Englander later said, though,  that books have the ability to “cross borders.”

Englander spoke passionately about moving to Israel in 1996 for the peace process and  leaving shortly after Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister in 2001. “I was promised a peace. I was owed a peace and I wanted my peace back.” Englander described feeling the same disappointment with America today: “It takes so much energy to build good things and so few people to burn the whole thing down.” He wrote his recent novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, he said, as a way to explore the possibilities of peace. “Fiction is a vehicle to test values and reflect. I wanted to challenge the ways people think about Israelis and Palestinians.”

Shteyngart also spoke about his relationship to Israel, which was “a mystical place we’d fight about in my family, but never actually visit.” When he finally visited Israel with his parents, the “grand idea” that they’d read about in the bible became a reality. For his father it was a homecoming. Shteyngart now visits Israel with some regularity, and said he particularly enjoys spending time in secular Tel Aviv.

When Henkin asked the authors if they prefer writing short stories or novels, Englander said that he likes both formats, but that “a novel better demand to be a novel.” When writing short stories, he said, he likes to “leave the people wanting more.” Shteyngart said he has great respect for short story writers but admitted that he doesn’t have the knack for it. “I can’t write a short story. It takes me a while to get into it. Writing just 20 pages is like clearing my throat. I need a lot more pages to actually say something.”

This event was the third in the Conversations@Senesh Steinhardt Speaker Series, which has previously featured feminist, activist, and writer Gloria Steinem and Olympic gymnast and activist Aly Raisman. With the support of Judy and Michael Steinhardt, eminent philanthropists, the series highlights the strong connection between timeless Jewish values and modern professional accomplishments that continue to improve the world.

“It was inspiring to hear from two incredibly smart, driven, and hilarious Jewish day school graduates,” said Nicole Nash, Hannah Senesh Head of School. “We pride ourselves on teaching our children to be thoughtful citizens of the world who aren’t afraid to ask questions. Gary and Nathan personify these values.”

The evening took place at the school and included a meet and greet reception with the speakers.


Nathan Englander is the author of the novels Dinner at the Center of the Earth and The Ministry of Special Cases, and the story collections For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank-winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His short fiction has been widely anthologized, most recently in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. Englander’s play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, premiered at The Public Theater in 2012. He translated the New American Haggadah and co-translated Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock on the Door. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University, and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter.

Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. He is the author of the novels Super Sad True Love Story, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and was selected as one of the best books of the year by more than forty news journals and magazines around the world; Absurdistan, which was chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine; and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, Esquire, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications and has been translated into twenty-six languages. Shteyngart lives in New York City and upstate New York.

For more information on these speakers please visit: www.prhspeakers.com.

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book; Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book; and The World Without You, which was named an Editors’ Choice Book by the New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and was the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. The film version of The World Without You (Theworldwithoutyou.com) is in post-production and is scheduled for release in 2018.  The film stars Radha Mitchell (Finding Neverland), Chris Mulkey (Captain Phillips, Twin Peaks), Perry Reeves (Old School, Entourage), James Tupper (Big Little Lies), P.J. Byrne (The Wolf of Wall Street), and Lynn Cohen (The Hunger Games, Sex and the City). His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” His reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. He directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.