Safran Foer illuminates his Jewish influences
Safran Foer illuminates his Jewish influences
In return to Princeton, writer explores how roots shape his fiction
by Jill Garbi
Special to NJ Jewish News
November 21, 2011
Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer said it is through his writing that he became aware of how central Judaism is in his life.
“The more I write, the more I’ve come to realize that aiming myself toward something Jewish increases my odds of being engaged and compassionate about my work,” said the author.
On Nov. 10, Foer returned to his alma mater, Princeton University, where his acclaimed first novel Everything Is Illuminated got its roots in a small study space in Firestone Library.
Foer (class of 1999) spoke as part of the University Public Lecture series and led a writers’ workshop for students, sponsored by the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University.
In a luncheon at CJL, Foer spoke about the Jewish influences on his work to a group of 40 students and faculty. Although he always had a strong sense of Jewish history and values, he said, he is nonobservant in the ritual sense.
He spoke of the genesis of Everything Is Illuminated (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), which was inspired by his real-life trip to Ukraine in search of the woman who may have saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. It eventually earned the National Jewish Book Award and was made into a feature film.
“In that context of not feeling particularly Jewish, I did a very Jewish thing: writing a book with explicitly Jewish content about a young person coming to terms with his Jewish identity,” Foer told the audience. “It is written with a Jewish sensibility and a kind of humor that is recognized as having a Jewish flavor. It’s a balance of comedy and tragedy that feels Jewish.”
During a Q&A, a student asked Foer if he ever worried his work would strike some readers as “too Jewish.”
“It’s never crossed my mind,” he responded. “The more specific you are, the more universal you are. Efforts to be universal actually result in something that connects with very few people.
“At the end of the day, Judaism is the instrument rather than the song; it is the thing that turns the breath into music and increases my chances of getting a melody out that will be recognizable.”
Just in time for Passover, Foer said, he will release a New American Haggadah, a translation and commentary done in collaboration with fellow novelist Nathan Englander. He is working on an HBO television series — which he can’t discuss yet, other than describing it to NJJN as “idiomatically Jewish.” He and his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, live in Brooklyn with their two children, ages five and two.
Foer was a natural choice for the lecture series, said Rabbi Julie Roth, CJL executive director.
“He is one of the most controversial and influential Jewish authors of our time and he’s a Princeton alum who was inspired to write by his teacher, Joyce Carol Oates,” she said. “I think it is particularly powerful for Jewish students to meet Jonathan Safran Foer because his Jewish identity is so clearly a part of his work. He models what they experience — Judaism is most powerful when it is both profoundly particular and universally human.”
Foer, who teaches writing at New York University, critiqued the short autobiographies the students wrote during the workshop.
“I was particularly struck by Mr. Foer’s ability to recall specific phraseology from among the 24 stories he had heard,” said participant Aaron Applbaum, 20, a sophomore from Oakland, Calif. “He had seen things in the writing of others that I hadn’t noticed: the imagery, colors, shapes, temporal dimensions. I loved that he helped reveal the diversity within the writing of my peers.”
While an undergraduate philosophy student at Princeton, Foer pitched the idea of traveling to Ukraine to a group of Princeton alumni, one of whom funded the adventure that became his first novel. Under the guidance of his teachers, Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides, Foer wrote the manuscript as part of his senior thesis. The book, Everything Is Illuminated, was a sensation when it was excerpted in The New Yorker and eventually earned the National Jewish Book Award and the Guardian Book Award.
His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about a young boy’s reaction to 9/11, was adapted into a film to be released this January, starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. In 2010 he published his third novel, The Tree of Codes, described as both a haunting work of fiction as well as a “sculptural object.” Foer used his favorite book, The Street of Crocodiles, by Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, as a canvas, literally cutting into the pages to arrive at an original story.
Even in his recent nonfiction book, Eating Animals, which tells of his own conversion to vegetarianism, Foer’s Jewish roots play a soulful melody.
“My grandmother survived the war barefoot, scavenging other people’s inedibles…. In the forests of Europe she ate to stay alive until the next opportunity to eat to stay alive,” he wrote in the book’s introduction. “In America 50 years later we ate what pleased us. Our cupboards were filled with food bought on whims, overpriced foodie foods, food we didn’t need. Eating was carefree. My grandmother made that life possible for us. But she was, herself, unable to shake the desperation.”
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