SA: Hi Jonathan. It’s a real honour at The Shabbat Project to have this conversation with you. Thank you for giving us your time in the midst of a very hectic press tour promoting your new book.
JSF: Sure, no problem. It’s my pleasure.
I’d like to start with a recent comment you made in an interview in The Forward. You said: “I’ve become probably less ritualistically Jewish in a certain way, and more devoted to the rituals that have remained. Shabbat is important to me.” Can you go into that more? In what way is Shabbat meaningful to you, and what does that mean practically?
Gosh, I don’t know how to answer that in a way that isn’t completely trite. It means pausing, stopping, reflecting, stepping back, creating context – allowing space for the things that just wouldn’t exist without context. Like rest. It’s about allowing a little distance between you and your life, a bit of forced perspective. It’s also about togetherness and presence; today especially, it’s so easy to be ‘elsewhere’ – either literally, or just emotionally.
I should say, I don’t do Shabbat as regularly as I might like to. Sometimes every other week, sometimes every third or fourth week. I’ll buy challah and Kedem grape juice and all the other accoutrements for Shabbat. As a family, we will have a meal together, followed by certain unique rituals we’ve kind of created for ourselves (and which I’ve projected on the family in the book), like wandering around the house blindfolded. Shabbat is something everyone looks forward to and appreciates, yet it’s the easiest thing in the world to skip over. It falls into that vast category of things that – despite wanting to do them, despite enjoying them – are very easy to forget about or neglect. But certainly, it’s something that I value.
The Shabbat Project aims to do away with labels such as Orthodox, Reform, religious, secular – which only crept up fairly recently in Jewish history – in the service of Jewish unity. Do you think Jewish unity is valuable?
There are times when it’s not just valuable, but a necessity. In Here I Am, a war erupts in the Middle East, with Israel at the centre (an occurrence unfortunately not completely removed from the realms of possibility), and the prime minister calls on Jews all over the world to come to Israel to fight. That, of course, would be an instance in which unity is necessary.
But, having an awareness of a shared history is also something that can be very moving. Take Passover, for example; an awareness that Jews of every variety, all around the world, are saying the same things at the same time – that’s extremely powerful. And that they’ve been saying the same things at the same time for thousands of years. By conducting a Seder, you’re participating in the perpetuation of one of the oldest of practised rituals, and this is a large part of what gives the Seder meaning; it’s not just something that’s additionally interesting – it’s an essential part of the experience.
This is one of the reasons why I want my kids to have a Jewish literacy. In part, because of the way it can be useful to them in their lives, and in part because I believe in the perpetuation of these narratives and these values.
In a recent article in the New York Times (“How not to be alone”), you wrote: “Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.” What did you mean by that?
We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. Each step forward has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.
Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention – even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
You also wrote that your “daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others”...
The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits. Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that, unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.
Things are obviously progressing on the technological front, but do you perhaps see the smartphone revolution and ubiquity of social media as more devolution than evolution? As the diminishment of civilisation which has always relied on interdependency and altruism and collectivity and compassion?
I think it’s easy to oversimplify. None of these things are either essentially good or bad. They offer different uses. Some of these uses bring us closer to the people we want to be closer to, and some of them distance us from others and from ourselves. Some are indifferent. Unquestionably, they make our lives easier.
It’s not an either/or – being anti-technology is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly pro-technology – but a question of balance that our lives hang on.
Every generation undergoes huge cultural changes, and lives different lives with different values. The world inhabited by the child of the 60s is different to that inhabited by a child of the 90s. Do you see today’s cultural space – particularly vis a vis the radical technological leaps, revolution in digital communication, our reliance on gadgets, and the way these electronic devices take up so much of our lives – as a natural, gradual change like the 80s to the 90s, or is this an unprecedented, almost anomalous step change?
I think about these issues in different ways. I think about them as a parent, I think about them as a novelist, I think of them as a member of different communities – the American community, the Jewish community. And I think it always, to some extent, feels anomalous at the time. A lot of these things only become clear in retrospect. It’s extraordinarily hard to evaluate the present moment.
It does feel as if we’re going through a different kind of change, but we always would have said that. And like every moment that’s ever preceded it, this is a unique moment and requires unique engagement and responses – to the technology, to the distractions, and to the opportunities as well that are available.
Jews are an ancient people. We’ve outlasted mighty empires – Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian – survived and even thrived across cultures, countries and languages. Ahad Ha’am famously said, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” What do you believe is the secret to the Jewish people’s endurance? What makes Jews Jewish?
I don’t know if it’s for me to say. For some people, being Jewish is following Jewish laws. For others, it’s a feeling they have. There are different kinds of identities that are more or less rich for me, but I don’t feel a need or desire to evaluate anyone else’s identity. Obviously, some people believe there is some objective measure. But that’s just not where I live.
Everything is Illuminated was your breakthrough novel. And though there are obviously strong humanist and universalist themes and ideas, it’s an unmistakably Jewish book. You’ve now returned to Jewish themes and characters in Here I Am. What motivated you to do so?
It was almost irrepressible: it is the soil in which I was planted, it’s what I know about, it’s how I grew up. And it moves me on many levels, but particularly as a writer. It’s actually one of the things that’s continuously surprised me actually – the persistent emergence of Jewish themes and subjects in my writing.
In the novel, your journey to find the woman who saved your grandfather’s life during the Holocaust is, I gather, somewhat autobiographical. That journey had profound implications for the literary characters Alex Perchov and Jonathan Safran Foer. How did it impact the life and outlook of the real-life Jonathan Safran Foer?
Not a whole lot, actually; I wasn’t even close to finding the people who saved my grandfather. The emptiness of that discovery was in fact a large part of what motivated me to write about it. If I had discovered more, I probably would have written less. We don’t like absence, we don’t like holes. We like to know where we come from. It was like a vacuum was created which my imagination flowed into.
Who are some of your literary heroes and deep influences?
A lot of people you’d imagine; the great tradition of American Jewish novelists such as Roth, Bellow, etc. But I’m inspired just as much by other media – especially visual art and music. I certainly didn’t always know that I wanted to be a writer. I came to it not because I wanted to create books, but because I wanted to make things that felt authentic to me and personally expressive. And I haven’t drawn as much inspiration inside literature as from outside it.
Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the bestselling, award-winning novels, Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (both of which have been made into feature films) and most recently, Here I Am, as well as a bestselling work of non-fiction, Eating Animals. He currently teaches creative writing at New York University.
Simon Apfel was born into obscurity, the son of a frozen peas importer and a washing machine. His love of writing has always outshone his ability by a humiliating margin. Nevertheless, he has gone on to achieve some measure of success as a copywriter, journalist and occasional comedy writer. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Cape Town, and has written for a variety of local and international publications. For the past five years, he has been chief writer to South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, and has worked extensively on the Shabbat Project, as well as a host of other projects initiated by Chief Rabbi Goldstein.