Monday, April 2, 2012

An Important Pre-Pesach Thought from Jonathan Safran Foer

A few months ago, we were blessed with a visit from Jonathan Safran Foer at Colby. He spoke about Jewish humor, and the unique cadences and messages of our comic stories.

He has also gotten a great deal of press and praise for his new book, The New American Haggadah. Most of the responses have been positive, but a few have been scathing. Rabbi Joshua Hammerman has criticized the return to exclusively masculine language, the intentional turn away from feminism, and the lack of transliteration. The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier is disappointed in the translations and lack of risk taking.

I have yet to see the new haggadah, so I cannot evaluate its merits. However, Foer wrote an editorial in the New York Times, and there were a few paragraphs that I thought were excellent. They reflect authentic and honest soul searching, and I think most American Jews would benefit from appreciating their humility and wisdom:

"The integration of Jews and Jewish themes into our pop culture is so prevalent that we have become intoxicated by the ersatz images of ourselves. I, too, love “Seinfeld,” but is there not a problem when the show is cited as a referent for one’s Jewish identity? For many of us, being Jewish has become, above all things, funny. All that’s left in the void of fluency and profundity is laughter.

About five years ago, I noticed a longing in myself. Perhaps it was inspired by fatherhood, or just growing older. Despite having been raised in an intellectual and self-consciously Jewish home, I knew almost nothing about what was supposedly my own belief system.

And worse, I felt satisfied with how little I knew. Sometimes I thought of my stance as a rejection, but you can’t reject something that you don’t understand and that was never yours. Sometimes I thought of it as an achievement, but there’s no achievement in passive forfeiture.

Why did I take time away from my own writing to edit a new Haggadah? Because I wanted to take a step toward the conversation I could only barely hear through the closed door of my ignorance; a step toward a Judaism of question marks rather than quotation marks; toward the story of my people, my family and myself."

I truly respect this sentiment and I think it gives us all some serious food for thought as we approach seder!