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26 July 2009 / April

The transitive property of Jewishness

(Alternate title: Everything is illuminated.)

Well that explains a lot.

Nicole Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer.  Thank you, Wikipedia.

I just finished The History of Love by Krauss.  My strongest thought was “This is a very Jewish book.”  My second strongest thought was “This is very similar to Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, another very Jewish book.”  I really love Everything is Illuminated.  So, by the transitive property of Jewishness, I really love The History of Love.

But when I was making sure that Krauss is in fact Jewish (it’s not the sort of thing that appears in book jacket bios… “Nicole Krauss lives in Brooklyn, New York.  She is Jewish.”), I learned that there’s another reason the books may be similar.

(NB: When I speak of “Jewish books,” I am not being racist.  I don’t mean to say that only Jewish people can write Jewish books, or that Jewish people can only write Jewish books.  But a lot of books I’ve read by Jewish authors seem to be similar, and these are what I call “Jewish books.”  Also, if you’re offended, then you’re taking me too seriously.)

I don’t know if “Jewish books” is a genre, but if it is, it’s one of my favorites.  Off the top of my head, I wrote down a list of Jewish authors I like, and this is what I came up with.  It’s not long, but that might be because my brain isn’t working.

  • Chaim Potok
  • Myla Goldberg
  • Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Nicole Krauss

Random note about Chaim Potok… We read The Chosen in 9th grade and I must have been one of the only people who liked it because the writing is super impenetrable.  I then read a whole bunch more Potok (a notable omission being the sequel to The Chosen, The Promise) and realized that every single one of his books is basically the same.  They’re all about brilliant angsty Jewish kids.  So I would recommend just reading a couple– say, The Chosen and Davita’s Harp— and then being done with Potok.

Anyway, about Jewish books and why I love them.  There’s this intense subdued sadness and blackish humor that tears your heart into little pieces, but in the nicest way possible.  And you never quite get stitched back together the same way.  Things are never quite resolved or entirely explained.  The end is never completely satisfying; there are always loose threads.

This is particularly evident in Everything and History, since both employ multiple narrators and multiple storylines, which makes everything quite confusing.  That confusion was not helped by the fact that my reading of History was interrupted by a week when Suzuki/Viva La Femme/Footloose ate my life.  So I sort of lost the threads of the narratives when I picked up the book again yesterday.

But you know what?  I could still enjoy the book because the writing is freaking gorgeous, and that is the other reason I love Jewish books.  You can go as deep into them as you like.  There is abundant symbolism or nuanced characterization or intriguing plots if you want to get into that, but if it’s summer and you have other things on your mind, you can just read and luxuriate in the words.

It’s like music.  You can study it or just listen to it, but either way you can love it.



Leave a Comment
  1. Rafael Lizarralde / Jul 26 2009 4:42 pm

    I liked The Chosen, I think it’s an amazing book… I should try to get around to reading the two you mentioned here.

    • April / Jul 26 2009 9:51 pm

      You should indeed. They’re more modern in style than The Chosen, but still excellent.

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