“In This Way We Are Wise” by Nathan Englander is essentially a short story that depicts two conflicts: one is about a man becoming a ghost due to his change of environment and the other is about how religion has the ability to destroy people. Englander’s narrator Natan has a tone that seems stunned and displaced as he describes the aftermath of a bombing and the coverage of it that appears on television. Natan sees people injured and lying dead on streets but is incapable of doing anything but drink coffee in a café and that’s only when he “can manage it” (198). Like a ghost, he constantly watches (a word that Englander consistently reiterates throughout his story) the chaos that occurs around him and drifts along aimlessly. “I am watching the people pour around the corner, watching them run towards us…I can tour the stretch of wounded weeping and dead unmoving, walk past the blackened and burned, still smoldering shots…We watch our life on every channel” (197). Natan’s ghost-like traits are mostly due to the fact that he’s a foreigner, an American who “grew up in the suburbs” and lacks the ability to completely adjust to a place where terror is considered a “second winter” (195).
The weather is Englander’s allegory for the story’s
theme of distance between life in America and life in Israel. “I’m not made for this,” Natan admits (202). He remembers snowy days that remind him of phone calls that were concerned with the matter of school being closed due to
lack of transportation. This image when compared to the blunt and concise calls from Israel—“Another attack. Natan and I are fine” seem trivial and superfluous. Yet Natan simply refers to this as a “different sort of weather.” He also notes that his phone calls to his mother in America are important “because of the distance. As if I’m calling from the moon” (200). Through this idea of distance, Englander emphasizes Natan’s inability to adjust to the country he now lives in; he doesn’t know how to survive in this kind of cold, which further isolates him from the people who have had to grow up and endure the anarchism of their nation. By the end, Natan chooses to return to America because he can not identify with the pain of Jerusalemites nor can he bring himself to help them because helping them would mean choosing a side.
Englander uses his main characters past beliefs to present the distinction between Natan’s views before and after he came to Jerusalem. Natan talks about how he was “raised on tradition” with “[p]ictures of a hallowed Jerusalem nestled away like Eden” and that he “learned everything about Jerusalem, only to discover [his] information was very very old” (203). Englander contrasts this to Natan’s present tone towards God and religion. Natan’s tone suggests that he despises God as an enemy and that his religious beliefs had disintegrated after witnessing the horrific things that people do to each other because they wanted to serve God. Instead of blaming war on men, Natan blames God, possibly because the bombings were a result of disputes in religion and the focus of religion is, of course, God. Natan refers to the Holocaust as “wrath of God” instead of the wrath of men (199). He blames the faith demanded from God as “the raps that cost paradise and freedom, that turn second sons to firstborn” (205). Englander is undoubtedly being ironic as he shows us how by entering a holy city, a man can lose his own faith.
Englander, Nathan. “In This Way We Are Wise.” For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. 2000. By Nathan Englander. N.p.: Vintage, 2000. 195-205.