Writing Through Loss: Jonathan Safran-Foer and Sorrow in Jewish Fiction
Written and Illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz
I read the novel, Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran-Foer not long after it came out. I picked it up because I recognized his name from the book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and after reading Here I Am, I was immediately drawn to read his first novel: Everything is Illuminated. His skillful writing creates vivid stories in worlds not too different from our own, and all three of these novels moved me to tears.
That gave me pause – all three of his fictions, while containing moments of great comedy and clarity, are, at their core, about suffering and sadness. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows the story of a boy dealing with his father’s death after 9/11; Everything is Illuminated tells the story of a man searching for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust; and Here I Am portrays a family falling to pieces as a fictional earthquake tears apart the Middle East.
Dealing with suffering is a human condition, and an inescapable one at that. But what struck me about Foer’s novels is that he is a Jewish author, writing primarily about Jewish characters, and about the suffering of those characters – Jewish or not. In a broader context, I realized that Jews have been writing about suffering since the Hebrew Bible. You don’t have to look further than Genesis to find the first example Adam and Eve lose their right to live in the Garden of Eden. Soon after, Cain murders Abel, losing his only brother, and Adam and Eve losing a son; and the story of Noah’s arc includes most of the people and animals on earth drowning. Death, stolen blessings, the destruction of homes. These authors were keenly aware that sorrow and loss are an intrinsic part of life.
There is no lack of tragedy for Jews to write about; there’s our fundamental humanity, which makes the loss of loved people and places an inevitable fact of life. But we’ve also been victims of countless violences throughout history. Pogroms haunted Jews throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in Russia and Eastern Europe; Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews were traumatically expelled from their generations-old homes in the Middle East and North Africa in the 1950s; and Ashkenazi Jews were devastated by the Holocaust during World War II. In an interview with Channel 4 News, Foer mentions that his grandmother’s family was murdered in the Holocaust, and his mother was born in a displaced persons camp. While he doesn’t share these experiences in his own life, these familial tragedies may be one of the forces that compel him to explore not only relationships stolen by the Holocaust, but hardships such as divorce or natural disasters as well.
The sheer amount of media revolving around The Holocaust and other human conflicts and losses speak for themselves; tragedy is something we must discuss in order to learn from as a society, and heal both as Jews and as people. One way that we move through the tragedies which reside in our recent collective memory is by writing. We use it to ask the unanswerable questions – why do bad things happen to good people? Why do innocent people suffer? Why would that happen, and how could it? On a moral and ethical level, and especially a spiritual one, these questions create a huge beast to wrestle with, a fight which can never really be won or lost. The temptation to avoid these stories of suffering and sadness is strong, but in order to grapple with those emotions, we must engage with them. By asking the tough questions and exploring the spaces within them, we can begin to heal not only on an individual level, but as a wounded people as well. Utilizing creative work as a healing tool allows us to wrestle with every experience of every scale, from small grievances to unfathomable losses.