Wednesday, November 14

On: Jews

They had it rough. And still have it rough in some locales, I am assuming - because everyone is persecuted somewhere, right? Even me, a white, middle class, tall male with a property-owning father (only average height for him) - even I would be harshly persecuted some place. But man, the Jews got it rough.

I read Everything is Illuminated, the acclaimed debut novel from Jonathon Safran Foer, a young buck at like 23 years old-ish when he wrote it. Wunderkind, they say. Foer relates his search in Ukraine for information about his familial ancestors in a piecemeal manner. Four stories interweave indirectly: the fictionalized tale of Foer's 18th century relatives in a zany small Jewish village, the fictionalized account of Foer's grandfather's life in the same village at the onset of WWII, the fictionalized present-day account of Foer's trip to Ukraine told from the perspective oh his under-qualified translator and guide, the teenage Alex, and finally in a series of fictionalized letters from Alex to Foer after Foer returns home.

At least I think it's all fictionalized. I'm putting stock in the statement in the leading pages of the book that all characters and accounts are fiction except for the author's own character. I just don't know how much of this is completely made up. Did Foer actually take this trip, or is it a total fabrication? I don't know which is more impressive. I think it may be more of an astounding work if indeed he just spun this whole serial mess from his mind.

But impressive it is, in any case. The hook at the beginning is the humor which takes the form of hilariously broken English written by Alex in his accounts of Foer's Ukrainian adventure. The humor persists throughout the book except for the sad parts and the really sad parts. But these parts are also funny. And the funny parts are pretty sad too. That's one of the charms of this novel - that there is very little middle ground between the sad/pitiable and the comic/comical. It's all mixed up into one mixture, but still separate and extremely defined, like a briefly shaken vinaigrette.

Speaking of the sad - the Jews got it bad. Of course, the whole premise for this novel has to do with the erasing and scattering of established Jewish communities by acts of colossal violence. When Foer and his entourage (wait - is there a word for an entourage that goes before you instead of behind? A "pre-tourage" of sorts? Let me check...googling...nope.) So, when Foer and his assembled escorts get to the location of the ancestral village, there is nothing. Not even ruins remain, the place was so ruined. I guess it got to me - the whole attempted erasing of a populace.

Then, a couple of days later, I watched Schindler's List. Yikes. I'm afraid that similar things are happening today, 13 November 2007, some place(s) on earth, and it makes me wonder: what kind of world do I really live in? Is non-technological progress in humanity expected to keep pace with the tech? How far are we, in human relations, from the 18th century? From Auschwitz? Is it ok if we aren't further along? To what quantity should our peaceableness scale? Wealth, literacy, communication bandwidth, or something else? Essentially, we know we are a better people, collectively, than we were in those times past. But, how do we know that we are better enough?

Maybe an interesting Book-Loop reading project would be to explore what actual philosophers have to say about the scaling, measurement, quantifying, or standardizing of "progress." Reading philosophy kind of scares me though.

I know for a fact that at least one member of the Loop has a Jewish heritage. I don't mean to get too personal, but I wonder if he would have anything illuminating to say about all of this?


Ben said...

I shall illuminate the discussion like a menorah on the final night of Chanukah. Or something. But really, it's a mistake to look at me as an authority of any kind on the persecution of the Jews.

Well, there was that one time in early elementary school when this kid was giving away Oreo cookies at the lunch table. I politely asked him for one. He said no. I said why. He said cause you're Jewish. I cried. Still ashamed of it. Oh, I'd have never lasted in the schtetl.

But seriously, like many other Jewish men my great grandfather fled Mother Russia to escape conscription in the czars army and the brutal treatment and forced labor that it would entail.

Here's a little poem by Florence Kiper Frank titled "The Jewish Conscript":

THEY have dressed me up in a soldier’s dress,
With a rifle in my hand,
And have sent me bravely forth to shoot
My own in a foreign land.

Oh, many shall die for the fields of their homes,
And many in conquest wild;
But I shall die for the fatherland
That murdered my little child.

How many hundreds of years ago—
The nations wax and cease!—
Did the God of our fathers doom us to bear
The flaming message of peace!

We are the mock and the sport of time!
Yet why should I complain!—
For a Jew that they hung on the bloody cross,
He also died in vain.

Mike, if your are in search for further literary exploration in the world of Jewry, see also Isaac Bashevis Singer, Primo Levi, Art Spiegelman and Elie Wiesel.

Allow me to sleep on the philosophical questions you put forth.

MJA said...

Really lovely poem. I like. I've heard so much about this Levi - I will take a look.