Excerpt from The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ministry of Special Cases

A Novel

by Nathan Englander

The Ministry of Special Cases
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 352 pages
    Apr 2008, 352 pages

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Eventually it was agreed. A wall to match the one surrounding the graveyard would be built toward the back and a second cemetery formed that was really part of the first—technically but not halachically, which is how Jews solve every problem that comes their way.

The existing wall was a modest two meters, a functional barrier meant to set off a sacred space. The establishment of a Jewish cemetery in a city obsessed with its dead signaled a level of acceptance of which the United Congregations had only dreamed. They wanted to show their ease in its design.

But being accepted one day doesn't mean one will be welcome the next—the Jews of Buenos Aires couldn't resist planning for dark times. So atop that modest wall was affixed another two meters of wrought-iron fence, each bar with a fleur-de-lis on its end. All those points and barbs four meters up gave that wall an unwelcoming, unclimbable, pants-ripping feel. They allowed themselves one hint at grandeur in the form of a columned entryway capped with a dome. Before any balance was achieved among the Jews themselves, this was the one they struck with the outside world.

Two sets of board members stood watching the new wall go up. The westernized Liberator's shul rabbi had declined to attend. It was the young old-country rabbi who paced nervously, making sure certain standards were met and horrified to find himself presiding.

When the mortar had dried, the governors of the United Congregations returned for the installation of the fence. They were surprised to find the pimps assembled on their side. It was a sight those upstanding Jews had hoped never to see again. A line of famed Benevolent Self toughs stood before them, including a still-robust Hezzi Two-Blades, Coconut Burstein, and Hayim-Moshe "One-Eye" Weiss. Towering over Talmud Harry was the very large, very legendary Shlomo the Pin.

"The wall is plenty high enough," Talmud Harry said. "A fence is an insult that need not be made." The Jews of the United Congregations didn't think it was an insult; they thought it would match nicely with the fencing all around. A number of ugly threats were already implicit. There was nothing much Harry needed to add. He pointed at the wall and said only, "This is as separate as it gets."

Their faces went long. They turned to the rabbi, but he couldn't support them. A solid two-meter wall was a separation by any standard: It would suffice for mechitza or sukkah or to pen a goring ox. While the finer points were being argued, Talmud Harry gave the nod. A jittery Two-Blades began to reach, and Shlomo the Pin rolled the fingers of his right hand into a tight cudgel-like fist. Feigenblum, the first president of the United Congregations and father to the second, saw this out of the corner of his eye. He took it as an excellent moment to declare the young rabbi's word binding, and a speedy departure was made.

The pimps didn't want to be second-class any more than their brothers who'd demanded a wall in between. When they put up the façade to their cemetery they commissioned a replica—but one meter higher—of the grand domed entrance that welcomed mourners into the United Congregations side.

Thank God again that it was settled. It allowed Talmud Harry to die in peace and be spared the sight of his own sons, lawyers both, facing Kaddish in the living rooms of their big houses and denying whence they came. It was the same when meeting with One-Eye's daughter and the son of Henya the Mute. All that these children had was fought for and paid for the Benevolent Self way.

It was Lila Finkel—whose mother, Bryna the Vagina, was said to have an incisive perspicacity as well as a cunt of pure gold—who took it upon herself to set Kaddish straight. "Take a breath," she said. Kaddish took one. "Do you smell it in the air?" she asked. Kaddish thought he might. "That's what good fortune smells like, Poznan. It's the season of our prosperity and it's never come this way before."

Excerpted from The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander Copyright © 2007 by Nathan Englander. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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