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.


Jews and Cannabis

Written by Robin Kopf

A kiddush cup full of wine, challah, a bowl piece packed with pot, and Shabbat candles: one of these things is not like the others. Yet, with cannabis’ state by state legalization, it is possible that Jewish homes and communities could have a few reasons to add a new ritual item to the Shabbat table. Removing cannabis’ taboo could increase the amount of positive feelings about medical and recreational usage that people have for this historically infamous and stigmatized plant. With that said, people who disagree with any cannabis usage may hold more tightly to their beliefs against it. Positive and negative opinions aside, cannabis has a relationship with Judaism that is as old as the Bible, and legalization could provide a new outlet for Jews to embrace cannabis in the modern world.

In “Marijuana Has Always Been A Part of Jewish Life From Ancient Israel to the Shtetl,” published in The Forward, Madison Margolin discusses how in Exodus 30:23, “kaneh-bosm” was used in the recipe for the anointing oil that was used to sanctify tents, the holy ark, and other religious items. Kaneh-bosm is believed to be cannabis because it is also referenced in other Jewish texts such as the Shulchan Aruch—or Code of Jewish Law—and the Talmud for its use in producing the wicks for Shabbat candles, prayer shawls, and roof coverings. Meaning, kaneh-bosm was likely a form of hemp. Cannabis products did not always have a taboo attached to them. While no one can confirm if Moses himself got high, cannabis products had a use in ancient Judaism.

Cannabis’ psychoactive tendencies are also known to Jewish communities, specifically ultra-Orthodox communities. Yoseph Needelman, an author who wrote extensively about Jewish cannabis usage, discusses in a Times of Israel interview that Hasidic Jews were criticized by the Vilna Gaon, a rabbi against the early Hasidic movement, because the Hasidic Jews would “dance, sing, and smoke.” He also discusses how the Baal Shem Tov, a rabbi that created the Hasidic movement in the 18th century, smoked from a pipe in order to achieve aliyat neshama or “ascension of the soul.”

The Vilna Gaon was against the Hasidic movement because of their general way of life that coupled prayer with joy and the psychoactive with the spiritual. As discussed in “Is Marijuana Kosher?” on Chabad.org, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein enumerated multiple reasons against drug use in a 1973 letter in reference to Israeli yeshivah students using hashish. He believed that people should avoid drug use because of their possible negative physical and emotional effects, because people should not indulge themselves, and because people who depend on drugs could possibly go to dangerous and illegal lengths in order to maintain their usage of drugs.

It is fair that Rabbi Feinstein maintained that the drug use could have dangerous effects on the mind and body because for too many people, drugs do have negative effects such as withdrawal symptoms and addiction. Cannabis may cause paranoia, memory loss, and increased anxiety depending on the user. Feinstein’s letter references the addictive nature of drugs, yet in an article from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the author claims that it can be difficult to estimate how many people are actually addicted to or dependent on cannabis. The article defines addiction to cannabis as abuse that interferes with and controls a person’s life. Dependence, however, is when a person experiences withdrawals from stopping usage, yet does not experience profound negative effects on their life because of their usage. The students who Rabbi Feinstein referred to possibly could have been addicted to cannabis, but it is also possible that their usage was not negatively impacting their daily lives, but simply distracting them from study, like the way a hangover can make it particularly difficult to prepare for a midterm. The reality is that there are drugs that are completely legal and regularly prescribed by doctors that result in addictive habits can endanger peoples’ lives. The opioid crisis in America has killed millions of people, yet prescription drugs remain legal. Can cannabis dependence be compared with opioid addiction?

Modern study and use of cannabis has revealed that the drug can create an altered state of mind, and can also help people recovering or suffering from chronic pain, seizures, eating disorders, anxiety, and a variety of other mental health problems. Chemical CBD, the non-psychoactive chemical found in cannabis, has been proven to help treat pain from inflammation, much like ibuprofen, as well as inflammation of the brain that causes epileptic seizures. The drug has been prescribed to cancer patients to alleviate the pain of chemotherapy and to children to cure such severe seizures that prevent them from interacting with their surrounding world. Even if rabbis and scholars debate the spiritual and medical use for cannabis, many people already have their own reasons to medicate with it as needed. There is no reason why they should not have the opportunity to use cannabis as a potentially spiritual plant as well.

Jews have used cannabis in order to enhance their prayer experiences to a more focused level. For many, the ideas behind prayer and celebrating Shabbat come from putting oneself in a place that is spiritually above the mundanities of everyday life. Shabbat can be about creating a deeper sense of focus in prayer as well as providing a space for greater joy and celebration. With legalization of cannabis, Jews across denominations that wish to feel the joys of the religion in a different way have opportunities to welcome cannabis usage into their rituals if they so choose. For example, holidays like Purim and Simchat Torah are meant to be celebrated with alcohol and merriment, and smoking or adding cannabis to traditional foods could add spirit as well. Cannabis can be the second soul that enters Jews with the coming of Shabbat and the aid for reentry into the rest of the week. Medicated hamantaschen may offer alcohol-abstaining Jews the chance to boo Haman with extra fervor. The addition or replacement of alcohol with cannabis could allow for elevated celebration and the inclusion of people who don’t drink alcohol.

As is quoted in The Forward’s article, Orthodox Rabbi Simcha Green said, “In the Hebrew concept [of prayer], you’re not asking something [from God], you’re judging yourself.” When it comes to judging the use of cannabis in Jewish communities, it is up to individuals to decide if cannabis usage is right for them and their Judaism. People may choose to use a plant for their medicine or to aid their spirits, and it should not be up to others to decide whether these people should or shouldn’t use cannabis recreationally, as a medicine, or in order to experience the psychoactive effects. Hopefully, as people continue the journey of understanding cannabis as a plant and substance, Jews can choose to accept it as equally important and useful as Manischewitz.