To one 35-year-old writer, genre seems no obstacle. In fact, it seems almost a meaningless concept. In only the first decade of his career, Jonathan Safran Foer has published two critically acclaimed novels, Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005); a libretto for a German opera; a nonfiction work on vegetarianism, Eating Animals (2009); a die-cut “art book,” Tree of Codes (2010); an unusual, modern edition of the New American Hagaddah (2012), a Jewish prayer book; and, most recently, the pilot of HBO’s upcoming comedy, All Talk, about a Jewish family in Washington, D.C., which will star Ben Stiller.
When this polymath was invited to speak at Chicago’s Spertus Center for Jewish Learning & Culture on Sunday (the talk was hosted by NPR’s beloved Alison Cuddy), the organizers gave him telling instructions, he said. He was to speak “on the role that Judaism plays in the continuum and trajectory of [his] work,” a topical limitation that he promptly shrugged off because it assumed—“in the typical Jewish way,” he joked—that Judaism plays any role at all in his work. In fact, though his work relies strongly upon Jewish themes, from Jewish humor to the Holocaust, Foer doesn’t accept the label of “Jewish artist” that his fans and the National Jewish Book Award committee have given him.
Yet, Foer also doesn’t deny the force that Judaism has had on his work, notably the theme of “change” that has drastically transformed him from novelist to vegetarian activist to screenwriter. “Every book is ultimately about change,” he said. “From The Odyssey, to Huck Finn, to Beloved.” But for Jews, change is a particularly sticky issue—it’s the delicate space between assimilating into gentile culture and maintaining Jewish identity, between embracing the modern while holding onto the traditional.
Change has consciously shaped Foer’s own trajectory ever since he heard the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) speak to him and a group of fellow 16-year-old “young Jewish leaders” on a cultural trip in Israel. Though Amichai’s words didn’t have an immediate impact on Foer’s young mind, they came to shape his artistic path more than anything else. “I now realize that I was a greenhouse for what he said that day, which only matured in my mind much later,” he said.
“There should really be 12 commandments, not 10,” Amichai said to Foer and his peers on that summer day 19 years ago. “The 11th: don’t change. The 12th: change.” Foer confessed the numerous changes he made in his formative college years soon after he met Amichai—from abandoning his parents’ observant Judaism, to changing from “wanting to be a doctor to wanting to be Amichai,” to becoming vegetarian. He said, “It’s easy to change your Facebook profile but hard to change your life. Even in critical times when we feel like everything is changing, little change is actually possible.”
For Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old narrator of Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer imagined “a story of change,” while many critics labeled the work as primarily a 9/11 novel. When the nine-year-old New Yorker loses his father in the 9/11 attacks, he embarks on a quest around New York in the spirit of the grand challenges his father used to design for him. “He needs to grow up and move on from his father, but he also needs to remain a child,” Foer said. “He needs to remain Oskar.”
When Foer had his first son and started making food choices for another human being, he officially became a vegetarian and began his visits to factory farms that would turn into his only nonfiction work Eating Animals (2009). When he edited an avant-garde version of the New American Hagaddah (2012), he “was confronted with the choice of which traditions to continue and which to leave out,” noting that his edition removes the male-gendered language of the Hebrew version that excludes women. “How far does a tradition bend before it breaks?” he asked.
Returning to the question of Judaism, Foer said that though he was made famous by his semi-autobiographical debut novel Everything is Illuminated, in which an American young man named Jonathan Safran Foer goes to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his Jewish grandfather during the Holocaust, he had no prior interest in Judaism or even his own family history. “The topics of these books are like bloody gloves at the crime scene that reveal what topics my imagination is onto,” he said. “But I also learn about myself by following what my imagination—almost in a fetishistic way—wants to do. The direction and changes along this path aren’t up to me.”