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Book Marks

Book Marks

by Gila Wertheimer for Chicago Jewish Star

On a frigid and gloomy Sunday afternoon some 300 people were entertained and stimulated by best-selling author Jonathan Safron Foer, who spoke about his work, his life, and influences on both.

In a presentation that was laced with humor (including gentle digs at his host, Chicago's Spertus Institute), he succeeded in being gracious and thoughtful, funny, intelligent and introspective.

The announced topic of his January 13 lecture was "Judaism, Writing and Inspiration" and he covered all three subjects in a manner that was more conversation than lecture.

Throughout, his theme was change, both personal and artistic.

Yet even as he spoke about it, as if engaging in his own internal dialogue, he added qualifiers such as, "meaningful change is a rare thing," and the caveat that "not all change is good."

Foer has assimilated the creative tension that he first heard articulated by Israeli poet Yehuda Ami-Chai, who posited an 11th commandnment — followed by a 12th — Do Change.

Foer, whose first and second novels — Everything Is Illuminated (Jewish Star review, Sept. 23, 2005) and Extrememly Loud and Incredibly Close — were both made into movies, told the audience that his Jewishness informs his writing more than it does his daily life.

It is also the essense of his writing. There is, he said, something essentially Jewish in words and their expression and that is integral to his own art. "Giving a word to a thing is to give it a life," he said, as in the Biblical story of Creation, where "saying it made it happen."

Such expression, as embodied in literature, "is a powerful Jewish idea."

Born and raisedin Washington, DC, Foer, 35, is a graduate of Princeton, where he wrote his senior thesis about the life of his maternal grandfather, a Holocaust survivor.

He expanded his thesis into his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, which tells the story of a young American Jew's search for the neighbor hwo saved his grandfather when the Nazis destroyed the shtetl where his family lived.

Published in 2002, it won a National Jewish Book Award for that year.

(The award now runs in the family. His older brother, Franklin Foer, has just received a National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Jocks, which he edited with Marc Tracy, and which was the subject of the Jewish Star's Sporting Jews column, Jan. 11.)

Perhaps because he was speaking to a Jewish audience, in a Jewish venue and his subject was explicitly Jewish, when Foer spoke of two influential figures, both were Jewish, namely Yehuda Amichai and the American-born artist R.B. Kitaj.

Foer had two encounters with Amichai, the first as a high school student on tour in Israel, and the second as a college student. Both made a profound impact on him.

Amichai dies in 2000, and Foer quoted the poet, countering Ecclesiastes, to give voice to his own regret:

"A man doesn't have time in his life to have time for every thing."

Kitaj, who was Foer's friend, died in 2007. The artist came to see himself "as a microcosm and continuation of Jewish history," Foer said, reading from an homage he wrote at the time.

In speaking of the life and death of each man, Foer shared something of himself and his work with an appreciateive audience on a winter's afternoon.

Thursday, February 7, 2013
Chicago Jewish Star