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September 12, 2016 4:11 am

The Latest Foer Novel Is Too Jewish For Its New York Times’ Reviewer

avatar by Ira Stoll

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Jonathan Safran Foer. Photo: Facebook.

Jonathan Safran Foer. Photo: Facebook.

A New York Times book review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel, Here I Am, includes this paragraph:

Further: This molecule of a 13-year-old’s scriptural exegesis is just an atom of the intense Jewishness of “Here I Am.” The dilemma of a troubled marriage, the agony of old age, the question of national loyalties — either explicitly or by implication almost every aspect of the novel passes through the prism of Judaism or at least Jewish culture and assumes that the faith is paradigmatic of our relationship to God and the universe. This thematic cloth fits a novel whose title is a quote from Genesis, and given the ancient and modern plights and exceptionalism of the Jewish people, many have accepted the idea of their representing, in important ways, the general human condition, its horrors and its joys and its perdurance. Nevertheless, this aspect of the novel makes it feel a little restricted.

Whoa. I found it pretty amazing that a reviewer would confess so openly about the “intense Jewishness” of a novel being a negative that “makes it feel a little restricted.” There was a time when “restricted” was a word for hotels and country clubs that didn’t allow Jews in, not for novels that were too intensely Jewish for the taste of a Times reviewer.

(Never mind the clunky writing of a review that in that single paragraph juggles three different metaphors: molecule/atom, prism, cloth/fits.)

Substitute other identity or minority or religious or national groups, and ponder whether the Times would feel comfortable running a review slamming a novel for being too intensely female, or gay, or Latino, or Christian, or black, or Muslim, or Southern, or French, or British, and therefore “restricted.” Personally, I find it hard to imagine. If it did happen, the Times would doubtless soon be besieged by protests from feminist, or gay, or Latino, or Christian, or black groups complaining about the reviewer’s closed-mindedness and lack of imagination. It’ll be interesting to see if American Jewish organizations protest this peculiar treatment of a Jewish novel.

The same criticism, after all — “intense Jewishness” making “it feel a little restricted” — might be made of the Hebrew Bible itself. Or, for that matter the Jewish people.

In a 2013 interview with the Forward, the reviewer the Times assigned to Mr. Foer’s book, Daniel Menaker, said, “I don’t believe in being thankful to any deity.” The Forward described Mr. Menaker as the son of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother; it quoted him as saying, “My brother and I, because we were kids and under the pressure of new peers, denied or avoided the matter of our Jewishness. It’s something that I’m not at all proud of, on the one hand. On the other hand, I was also young. And we were, after all, according to Jews, not Jews anyway — which also made me mad, by the way, and makes me mad to this day, but I understand the reproductive reasons for it.”

However complicated Mr. Menaker’s views about his own Jewish background are, it’s not clear that the Times book editors are doing Times readers any favors by inflicting them, via this review, on readers curious about Mr. Foer’s novel. But it’s typical of the newspaper. Intensely Jewish Jews are frowned upon; the Jews the Times likes are the “decorous” ones.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here. 

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  • Charlotte

    Bottom Line: I NEVER read ANYTHING from the NY Slimes.NEVER. They are anti-semitic and anti Israel. The whole bunch of them. I don’t think their editor is wonderful either.
    Carl Bernstein once said the NYT and WaPo are used by the CIA.

    And screw the spelling mistakes if there are any. I don’t care Pajama Boy

  • anon

    I read this before I read the actual review which I recommend that everyone flaming Daniel Menaker should do. It was a very good (as in positive) review. He begins by calling the book “often brilliant and always original” and ends calling Foer an “ambitious and crazy-talented” author. Those of you who are buying the book because the NYTimes hated it – please buy it even though the Times really liked it. It was also a very well-written review. I had to look up 2 words (haven’t done that in a long time).

    • anon

      Let me add that the “restricted” comment was very mild.

  • A. I know a great deal about Judaism.
    B. I am extremely proud now, after having come to understand these matters better, of the Jewish part of my heritage.
    C. Jews do not accept me as a Jew by birth, but it would have been plenty good eough for Hitler.
    D. The Times is run by a black man–an absolutely superb editor.
    E. If the book had been Christian, Muslim, Jane, or Rosicrucian in a similarly claustrophobic way, I’d have had the same kind of reservation about it.
    F. From the Jewish-English dictionary: “mishegoss
    ALTERNATIVE SPELLINGS: mishegas, meshugas, mishugas”
    What a mishegoss of spellings!
    G.Thank you all for the attention, however negative, you have paid to my review. It’s a compliment, in a way, however ludicrous some of these remarks may be.

  • Nanush

    I had to reread the reviewer’s atomic acrobats twice, in order to understand which molecule he/she/they is living on.
    I give the reviewer 10 points for hiding his intellectual insecurity, with behind a cloak of Jewish insecurity.

  • Brian Melter

    “My brother and I, because we were kids and under the pressure of new peers, denied or avoided the matter of our Jewishness. It’s something that I’m not at all proud of, on the one hand.” – this is just so sad.
    Yet another Liberal of jewish origins who knows nothing about his heritage other than shame and embarrassment.
    Maybe Daniel should study a little of his peoples background, history, and contribution to ethics, justice and the law, philosophy, science, technology etc etc.

  • Oh, yeah? What ever happened to “write what you know?” Let’s see: Tennessee Williams? Too Southern. Mark Twain? Too American. Maya Angelou? Too Black. Walt Whitman? Too Gay. Think the New York Times will ever be even-handed like this? NO. This is anti-semitism.

  • Yankel Gorokhofskij

    The New York Times would only employ self-loathing Jews.

  • Shimon Simons

    I suppose “crime and punishment” is too claustrophobic for this writer, as well as the “restrictive” “the. Color purple

  • I think all of us Jews should deny Mr. Menaker his use of the word “Oy!” That’s for our use only. And come to think of it, Mr. Menaker, your comment on Foer’s book causes me to say “Oy! another Jew hater in our midst!”

  • Lia

    Mr Stoll, you are now officially one of my heroes! I’m buying the book, sight unseen, because of your column here.

  • Jay Lavine

    Judaism is a way of life, not a mere “identity or minority or cultural or religious” group, and that’s why Jews see everything through the prism of Judaism and why it’s inappropriate to compare the novel with a hypothetical one that might be “female, or gay, or Latino, or Christian, or black, or Muslim, or Southern, or French, or British.”

  • if it’s not to the Times liking then it will be to mine. going to buy the book!!!

  • A point half-well-taken. I used “restricted” deliberately, to carry the irony of its historical meaning, but that may have been a “clever” mistake. Also thought long and hard about mentioning/not mentioning the cultural/religious claustrophobia I (and others) have experienced in reading this novel and finally decided it was a legitimate aesthetic observation. If it has been as restricted to gay people and gayness and gay issues–or purple people or Martians or Buddhist monks or protozoans or deities–I would have been similarly critical. As to that mishigoss (sp?) of metaphors, ya got me!

    • That is, “Daniel,” mot “Daiel.” And “if it haD been restricted to gay people …” Consarned Lenovo keyboard!

      • That’s “not,” not “mot” Oy!

        • D.M. you snuck in your spelling corrections before I could point them out. A gezundt auf dyne kepp’leh. However, I must correct your unknowing and misuse of (phonetic) “mishegahss” — I do think you mean “mishmash,” which I think is not an Iddish word. I note you are upset that you’re not a halachic Jew. Were you, you would have some heritage against which to rebel, and you could (cliché alert:) vent your spleen against Judaism and the Jewish people as a Jew — hence safe from the charge by those oh-so-sensitive Jews that you harbor a prejudice against Jews. In the event, you’re a half-Jewish Goy (no insult intended; for the NSDP, you woulda been killed as a Jew). Having a Jewish home is really cool. And it’s quite good for die kinderlach. Their high school friends just die for an invitation to a Shabbat dinner (in a household with two married parents, no less!). One of my best friends is a Jew-by-choice — more observant than most and more knowledgeable than 99% of Jews who don’t teach university-level Judaica (and more than 90% of university prof.’s who do teach Judaica). Most important, he has an amazing Jewish nefesh. Danny Boy (get the allusion?), I think you would benefit from serious adult Jewish education (not the kind you would get at the JCC or socialjusticereform Temple down the street). You don’t gotta become “religious,” but you would delve into religious, philosophical, psychological, and wisdom literature that even an intellectual finds deep, spiritually moving, and intellectually enriching. I hope this does not come across as condescending. I am serious; as serious as an internet Talkbacker can be. Best wishes and בהצלחה.

    • Mr.Menaker,
      You give me every reason to buy the book. I for one never feel “restricted,” enclosed, stifled, or closeted by my Jewishness.

  • Ronald Sevenster

    Everyone knows that the New York Times is run by narrow minded, liberal bigots. They never write sensibly about Israel or Judaism.

    • Dahn hiuni

      Or know how to spell…