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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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