TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Jonathan Safran Foer has written a new novel that revolves around fundamental questions like what does it mean to live a good life? Is happiness the ultimate ambition? And what is happiness? Do you hold the family together even when the marriage is fracturing? Do religious rituals still have meaning if you don't believe in God? The story is told from the points of view of members of a Jewish family. The parents' marriage is unraveling. The oldest son is preparing for the bar mitzvah he doesn't want to have. The boy's great-grandfather is one of the remaining Holocaust survivors, and he's nearing the end of his life.
Meanwhile, on a global scale, Israel is being threatened by a catastrophic earthquake that's led to chaos in the region. Jonathan Safran Foer's earlier novels include "Everything Is Illuminated" and "Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close." They were both adapted into films. Our interview was recorded last week.
Jonathan Safran Foer, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, in your novel, a marriage is breaking apart. Israel is undergoing a catastrophe. There's an earthquake and several countries bound together in war against Israel. There's a Hebrew expression tikkun olam which is repairing the world. And - is that a concept you're familiar with? And if so, would you describe it and tell us if you see that as relating to your book?
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: Such a really good question. It is a concept I'm familiar with. Like a lot of Jewish concepts, I have a kind of cocktail party familiarity, and I wouldn't want to pretend I know more than I do. But I think there's two ways of looking at or describing the book. One is it's about things falling apart, the dissolution of a family, global crisis that creates this massive fracture, not only in the Middle East but between America and Israel, between Europe and Israel, between American Jews and Israeli Jews. The distances seem to be widening wherever you look.
But another way to think about it, and the way that I prefer to think about it - and I think it's the spirit with which I wrote the book - is that it's a book about people trying to mend things, even at the expense of acknowledging an end when necessary. People who want to find a place of rest, want to find an integrated personality, sense of self, want fewer fractures in their lives.
GROSS: For example, ending a marriage to repair something because the marriage is falling apart. And, in this case, the wife feels like she will be more complete if she can leave the marriage.
FOER: Well, I think both of the characters Jacob and Julia Bloch, I should say, are the sort of two heroes of the book, and they're a married couple. They're in their very early 40s. And the sort of domestic crisis that precipitates some of this - like the question of whether or not to stay in the marriage is a discovered cellphone which reveals an affair.
But it's - they've been moving apart from each other for 15 years, basically since they started. The title of the book "Here I Am" refers to a passage in Genesis, the binding of Isaac which begins and then God put Abraham to the test. He said Abraham. Abraham said here I am, and then God said I need you to sacrifice your beloved son. And then a few sentences later, he's leading Isaac up Mt. Moriah. And Isaac begins to sense that something is odd. Here we have all of the makings of a sacrifice without the crucial ingredient of the animal to sacrifice. And he says, my father, and Abraham says, here I am, a direct echo. And it's a very poignant moment.
But it's also a paradoxical moment because you cannot be unconditionally present for a God who wants you to kill your son, while being unconditionally present for your son. And I think that that kind of paradox of identity that being in two places at once where you think you are wholly devoted to each, are wholly present for each but actually aren't plays out within these characters' lives so, you know, as parents, they feel that paradox is between their religious values and their secular values. They feel it between the identity of being in a devoted relationship, in a marriage and wanting to maintain a kind of singular identity in the world.
And like most people probably listening to this, Jake and Julia are capable of living with those paradoxes. They're sustainable. They don't cause massive destruction or pain most of the time. But then there are these crises moments that compel them to make a choice - one identity at the expense of the other identity.
One of them is the discovered cell phone when these two people who have been both inside their marriage and outside their marriage have to either be in or out. And then this earthquake in the Middle East which precipitates a war that becomes so dramatic that the prime minister of Israel asks all Jews between the ages of 15 and 55 to come to Israel to fight to defend it, and American Jews like Jacob have to suddenly not be there and there at the same time, but claim an identity. Either I will go and fight for Israel or I will admit, finally, that it's dispensable for me that it could be destroyed and my life would go on.
GROSS: Sam, who's the oldest son from this marriage, is preparing for his bar mitzvah during most of the book, and as part of that preparation, he's been reflecting on the Abraham and Isaac story. And what does that story mean to Sam, who's looking at it from the perspective of a son who's about to be sacrificed by his father because God asked his father to do it?
FOER: Well, he finds it really problematic, and he finds it - he sees hypocrisy wherever he looks, which is, you know, a lot of 13-year-olds wear those glasses. But he has a lot of reasons to see hypocrisy wherever he looks. He was raised in a family where, as I say in the book, the family - his family would do anything short of actually practicing Judaism to instill a sense of Jewish identity in him.
They, you know, follow - they observe certain Jewish rituals or rules when it's effortless and when they probably would have observed them, you know, even if they hadn't been religious rules. And they ignore them whenever it's convenient or seek loopholes wherever they can be found, and he - the shallowness of their religious identity is obvious. And it's obvious to anybody, but a 13-year-old is either, you know, better equipped to point it out or less well-equipped to repress it.
GROSS: There's a passage in which the father, Jacob, describes his difficulty in answering the question are you religious? Would you read that paragraph for us?
FOER: Sure. (Reading) Jacob never knew how to answer the question - are you religious? He'd never not belonged to a synagogue, never not made some gesture toward Kashrut, never not assumed not even in his moments of greatest frustration with Israel or his father or American Jewry or God's absence that he would raise his children with some degree of Jewish literacy in practice. But double negatives never sustained a religion, or as Sam's brother Max would put it in his bar mitzvah speech three years later, you only get to keep what you refuse to let go of. And as much as Jacob wanted the continuity of history, culture, thought and values, as much as he wanted to believe that there was a deeper meaning available, not only to him, but to his children and their children, light shone between his fingers.
GROSS: So he wants - I mean, he identifies as a Jew. He wants his children to identify as Jewish, but he's kind of incapable of, you know - a belief in God and of seriously practicing Judaism. And I wonder where you fit in on that scale and how you've decided where you fit?
FOER: Well, it's not - it's a moving fit, you know? The way that I feel about my Jewish identity has been really radically changed by events in life, like becoming a writer is one, having children is another and getting older and watching, you know, my parents and grandparents get older has been another, the seasons of - being witness to the seasons of life and wanting to have some kind of infrastructure to deal with it, to cope with them. Ritual has become more important to me as I've gotten older. It's not always religious ritual but it often borrows from Judaism.
There's a moment in the book when Jacob - this is a flash forward - he takes his young - his middle son, Max, to Marfa, Texas. And Max has a kind of budding curiosity in astronomy. And Jacob is the kind of parent who will, like, cling to any such thing and try to encourage it, probably until he kills the interest. But he takes him to Marfa to an observatory. And at night, they're sitting on the roof of their Airbnb and looking up at the stars and having a conversation. And Max said, hey, you know, I wonder - why do you think it is that people whisper when they look at stars? And that's the end of the scene.
It's a scene that sort of is there for no function other than its own sake. But I think it gets at something about religiosity and what happens when one is confronted with scale and perspective. There's a really wonderful book called "Man Is Not Alone" by Abraham Joshua Heschel, which makes the case that everybody is religious. You know, we've just been sort of too vigilant about our terminology and our definitions and too precious about it. But there's nobody who is indifferent to the experience of standing in front of an ocean at night. There's nobody who is indifferent to the feeling of, you know, lying on your back and looking up at the night sky.
And it's not only the inability to be indifferent. It's the inability not to feel awe or to feel wonder. And the whispering that Max is talking about is just an expression of that wonder, that awe, the sort of revelatory moment of, I am much smaller than I thought. Things are much bigger than I thought. So, you know, I do not belong to a synagogue. I, sort of like Jacob, maintain a religious identity largely through double negatives. But as I've gotten older, I find myself doing that - different versions of that kind of whispering more and more often.
GROSS: Well, you know, you mentioned ritual and the importance that some rituals have taken on in your life. You write about that in a paragraph in the book, where Jacob is thinking - and this is after his grandfather dies - he's thinking, Judaism gets death right. It instructs us what to do when we know least well what to do and feel an overwhelming need to do something. You should sit like this. We will. You should dress like this. We will. You should say these words at these moments, even if you have to read from transliteration. I think that really captures very well (laughter) how ritual can be very helpful at times when you don't know what to do or what to say or how to dress. And, you know, the Jewish rituals for mourning the dead tell you what to do for all those things.
FOER: Yeah. And, I mean, I - in the moment, it feels very rich. In the moment, it feels very deep. Or, at the very least, it feels necessary. On reflection, I wonder if it's - if there's something too convenient about it and maybe even shallow. You know, in a time of need...
GROSS: What - in the sense that you can go through the motions. You can sit on the hard stool. You can have your seven days of mourning. You can, you know, put sheets over the - towels over the mirrors like you're supposed to and still not be feeling anything.
FOER: I don't know that feeling is actually so important. I mean, a lot of these rituals don't have to do with feeling or understanding. They have to do with...
GROSS: That's right. You're probably feeling a lot of pain, but yeah.
GROSS: (Laughter) That goes without saying, yeah.
FOER: No, I think I mean shallow in the sense of being a fair-weather friend. Like, when you need it, you can take from it what you want. When you don't need it, you dismiss all of it. And that's something that Jacob wrestles with in the book - it's one the of many things that he wrestles with in the book - is, you know, what is the depth or shallowness of his identity - not only his religious identity, but his identity as a father and his identity as a husband.
GROSS: Have you ever accused yourself of having a shallow relationship with Judaism?
FOER: Most of the times that I think about my relationship to Judaism, I not only accuse myself of a shallowness, but I feel certain that there's a shallowness there. That's not a bad thing, really. You know, to acknowledge a shallowness implies a kind of aspiration - like, a hope to have more depth. There's a line that's used a couple of times actually in the book.
People quote Franz Rosenzweig answering the question, are you religious? And he says, not yet. And, you know, those two words - I almost named the novel "Not Yet," in fact. Those two words imply both a present failure, but also an optimism or a hope or maybe even a kind of dedication. One could - you know, one could hear that ironically - not yet, yes, yes, yes, yes, one day, five years from now, 10 years from now, but never - or as a kind of something a little bit more humble and a little more hopeful.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Safran Foer. His new novel is called "Here I Am." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Jonathan Safran Foer. His new novel is called "Here I Am." Sam, who's the oldest of the three siblings in your novel, is preparing for his bar mitzvah. And it's a bar mitzvah he doesn't really want to have. It's kind of meaningless to him. He feels like he's learning to chant Hebrew words that he doesn't really comprehend the meaning of. They mean nothing to him. He's told by his parents that he needs to be bar mitzvahed because his great-grandfather is - will be dying soon and wants to live long enough to see his oldest grandson - great-grandson be bar mitzvahed. And that doesn't seem like a really great reason to have a bar mitzvah to him. So take us back to your bar mitzvah.
FOER: (Laughter) Oh, well, it was a lot of years ago already. Like Sam, and probably like every Jewish male or female of that age, it felt - it was at the very least puzzling to me. And probably a better way to describe it is it felt like a waste of time, you know, in anticipation of it. I spent a year learning how to sing things by memory. So like many, many, many American Jews that I know, I'm capable of reading the Hebrew alphabet without having any Hebrew vocabulary. So like the best use I could ever put my Hebrew knowledge toward was writing transliterated notes in class, you know, using English vocabulary but Hebrew letters so that the teacher wouldn't understand them and we could, you know, talk about what to a douche he was or whatever.
But the process of preparing for my parents bar mitzvah felt like a compression of all of the hypocrisies. I am spending all of this time toward a purpose that no one can quite explain to me other than by pointing to the fact that they spent the time for the same purpose. I am going to fulfill what feels like a completely empty rite of passage. There's no sense in which I am becoming a man and no sense in which I would want to become a man by the sort of definitions that are being presented to me. And my parents are about to blow a huge amount of money on a tacky party.
The odd thing is it actually did mean something to me. And I remember having a kind of nervous breakdown the morning of my bar mitzvah, just as, like, all the relatives and out-of-town relatives and friends and secondary and tertiary friends were starting to fill the synagogue at Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. I just freaked out and started crying, ended up being taken into the rabbi's office, an experience I'd never had before. Usually, you get sent to the rabbi's office when you do something really bad. But I spent, I don't know, 20 minutes there, 30 minutes there. And there are probably a lot of ways to explain that breakdown that I had. One obvious one is that the experience meant something to me.
GROSS: Did you have to make any kind of prepared statement?
FOER: (Laughter) I - let me think about that. God, I had to make a very small - we didn't do speeches where I came from. But we - there was this one moment when we would go to the ark that the Torah's kept in and we would face it. That's the moment - the only moment of the entire day, the entire ceremony when my back was to the audience. And I went there with my parents, and each of us were asked to say a little prayer. And it was - it could have been in this book or it could have been in a book in the way that it just sort of revealed who the three of us were as different people and how I was a combination of my parents.
My mom gave a very, very emotional talk - when I say talk, these are only 45-seconds long - but about, you know, as I remember it, about, you know, being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, herself being an immigrant to the United States and, you know, witnessing the miracles of health and experiencing gratitude in front of God. And my dad, who, you know, really can't help himself, thank God, said, you know, standing before the God of the laws of physics, biology and chemistry, I feel...
FOER: And, you know, very, like, hyper-rational. And then I was somewhere in between. And I've always been somewhere in between. And I hope the book reflects that somewhere in inbetweeness (ph). You know, it's a very, like - the book has a lot of humor and irony and can be cutting and argumentative. But I hope it also has that whispering quality that I referred to earlier of, you know, an appreciation of scale.
GROSS: By the way, I like the way you refer to the members of the congregation as the audience (laughter).
FOER: (Laughter) What else are they? That day they were the audience. They were the bond hander-overs, the U.S. savings bond hander-overs.
GROSS: (Laughter) Your bar mitzvah gifts.
FOER: The eaters of appetizers.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Safran Foer. His new novel is called "Here I Am." After we take a short break, we'll talk about drawing on his memories of his grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor. And he'll explain why he felt compelled to create a new translation of the Haggadah, the book that Jews read from during the Passover Seder. And Maureen Corrigan will review one of the most talked about books of the moment. It's called "The Mothers." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the new novel "Here I Am." It's a novel that asks a lot of questions about faith, religion, family and fidelity at a time when things seem to be fracturing on a personal and global scale. The main characters are the members of a Jewish family. The parents' marriage is fraying. The oldest son is preparing for a bar mitzvah he doesn't want to have. The son's great-grandfather is an elderly Holocaust survivor preparing for death. Foer's novels "Everything Is Illuminated" and "Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close" were adapted into films.
So I want to get back to the meaning of "Here I Am," and you talked about how that's what Abraham answers God when God calls on him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Do you know the Hebrew word for here I am?
GROSS: And are there other meanings to that word, other translations of it?
FOER: I don't think so, no. It's a word that comes up a few times in Genesis. It comes up in Leonard Cohen's most recently released song. It has a real sort of presence in the Jewish consciousness.
GROSS: What does that expression mean to you? You use it in many different ways in the book.
FOER: You know, when I was beginning to get serious about working on this book, I'd heard an interview you did actually with Maurice Sendak, which was, I believe, the last interview he gave. It was definitely the last interview that - the conversation you two had together. And it was really like one of the most - it changed me. It was really - I found it incredibly upsetting in a good way, which is what I think he was intending. It felt like an interview where he had an intention, where he was offering the wisdom that he had to those listening, and it ends with him saying live your life.
Maybe he was saying it directly to you, maybe he was saying it directly to listeners. It felt like he was saying it directly to me. What I found so resonant about it was not that he was saying live life, not that he was saying, you know, seize the day, but live your life. And that, to me, is what "Here I Am" means and what Jacob and Julie and Sam and the others are wrestling with, how not simply to move through days, but to move through days as oneself, as an integrated person.
GROSS: Yeah. You know, at the end of that interview, he repeated that three times. He said live your life, live your life, live your life. And I kind of made that into a little tape loop in my head that I just kind of play over in my mind when I need to hear it. And it initially meant to me, you know, just like, you know, appreciate life, live it to its fullest while you can.
But, you know, Maurice Sendak who, you know, the great children's book author and illustrator, who also did that for operas and stuff - he suffered with depression, I think, and was in analysis or some sort of form of psychotherapy a good deal of his life. He grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust because he had extended family that never got out of - I'm not sure if it was Germany or Poland. You know, I think another way of looking at the live your life, as you said, is just like be present for it, you know? It's going to come and go quickly. You know, at least, like, be present for it. Be aware of what's happening. You know, inhabit it while you can.
FOER: Jacob at the end of this book, he's taking his dog to the vet, a very aged dog. And he's thinking about it, and he's thinking about the dog's life. And he says to himself life is precious. And he said, you know, what a stupid thought, what a cliched thought, what an utterly obvious thought that never need to be mentioned, and yet that most important of all thoughts is very, very hard to self generate. You know, we have that thought life is precious maybe - what? - on a birthday on New Year's or when somebody, you know, falls ill.
But it's very, very hard to generate the thought on your own. And he said it often comes with its companion which is I live in the world, so, you know, life is precious, so I ought to, you know, throw off the earphones I'm now wearing, push away the microphone, run into the street and proclaim whatever. Life is precious, so I ought to spend my days, you know, making sandwiches for homeless people and tending to the elderly in hospice care. Life is precious, so I should give everything away, except that I live in the world. And in the world, I actually have needs and wants, and I value my needs and wants. And I live in the world and I can't just go make sandwiches every day because I also have to take kids to school. I also have to, you know, write books because that's my livelihood.
And I also have to do very, very boring things like separate the recycling from the regular garbage and so on. And the conflict of the wrestling match between those two ideas - life is precious and I live in the world - fuel the book. They're the energy and the friction that sort of heats this novel up. And they're also what I think was kind of releasing that final sentiment that Sendak said of live your life that - I think that that sentence is actually able to contain both of those ideas. Life is precious, and you live in the world.
GROSS: Yeah. It's really well put. I wish Maurice Sendak were alive to hear you say that (laughter).
FOER: I do, too. We had a really brief letter exchange. It was really lovely, and he had asked me if I would sign a copy of my first book for him. I think he collected books. And I sort of acting out the, you know, the childishness or the immaturity or the - what I thought was the reverence or funniness of that age I was really young at the time - 25. I drilled a hole through the book, and I bought a huge padlock.
I don't even know what it was for, but it must have been like six inches long - the locking part. And I locked the book shut, and then I signed the lock, and I sent it to him. And I thought, OK, this will be a nice artifact. You know, everybody can have a signed book. Here's a special thing, and he wrote back to me something along the lines of like I will never talk to you again.
FOER: But he did, and we had more exchanges. And he invited me to come to Connecticut and spend the day going for a walk, he said. And it didn't happen. It just never happened. And it's one of those things, you know - live your life, like.
Part of living your life is an awareness of the opportunities that can be missed and an awareness that time moves in one direction. It is never tock tick it's always tick tock. So, you know, if you want to go for a walk with Maurice Sendak in Connecticut, you have to go do it. It's not something that's going to wait around indefinitely. It didn't wait around.
GROSS: Can I ask you to explain why you put a padlock around the book so that he couldn't open it or read it or maybe even read your inscription? (Laughter)
FOER: I wish my therapists were sitting beside me. He'd be better equipped to answer that question. You'd frankly be better equipped to answer that question than I would. I thought it was so - you know, at that age and still but more at that age, I wanted to make things special. I hate, you know - the ordinary was my enemy. And I thought - I think mistakenly that a kind of flamboyance was the antidote to ordinariness which is wrong.
I think my first two books are very flamboyant and are in a way expressions of that understanding of ordinariness. I do think ordinariness is in a way the enemy, but not ordinariness as the opposite of flamboyance. And now I think of it more ordinariness is the opposite of attentiveness. This book "Here I Am" is in many ways just much less flamboyant than my previous two books.
It's much less obviously stylized, but I think it's more precise. You know, I really - so much of this book happens in bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms and dining rooms and happens in these intimate conversations which play out over many pages. So when I sent him that book at 25, I thought this is the opposite of ordinary, when really the opposite of ordinary would have been writing him a page or two thoughtfully composed about the ways in which he had - he and his work can change my life.
GROSS: So let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Safran Foer. His new novel is called "Here I Am." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Jonathan Safran Foer. His new novel is called "Here I Am." Your grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. Do I have that right, was your grandmother?
FOER: You have it very right.
GROSS: And one of the characters in your book is a Holocaust survivor, Jacob's grandfather, who is also the great-grandfather of Sam, the kid who's being bar mitzvahed. Did your grandmother talk with you about the Holocaust and how she survived?
FOER: A little bit, not really too directly. I remember she came to my Hebrew school when I was - around the time of my bar mitzvah, probably, and gave a presentation. And it was in that public presentation, facing the audience, that she said a lot of things that I hadn't heard before. You know, so she needed that context for whatever reason. I think that the intimacy of, like, a one-on-one conversation was maybe - may - precluded a kind of closeness when the distance of standing on a podium and me being among the many allowed for an intimacy. I'm not really sure.
GROSS: Tell us something about her story.
FOER: She was born an shtetl in Eastern Europe called Kolki in Poland and was a member of some kind of socialist youth group. And when the Nazis were making their way east, there was an understanding that it was political and that they were going to come after people who were involved in certain political groups or she felt that she had to run away. And she left her family then and went further east into Russia and, you know, has just an amazing story of survival that lasted a couple of years, and then made her way back to the village of her birth and found that everything was destroyed and that, you know, other women were marrying - wearing her mother's clothing. And she left and met my grandfather in a displaced persons camp, where my mom was born. And they all came to the States a couple of years later.
GROSS: Do you think that your grandmother placed a special value on her grandchildren because she had lost her family?
FOER: Oh, absolutely, yeah. You know, I sometimes can't remember what's in my books and what's in my life. I think in this book, there's a moment when the grandfather - Isaac, the great-grandfather - refers to his offspring as his revenge against the Germans. And I remember my grandmother saying that to me. You know, she would say, like, other people have diamonds and pearls. You're my diamonds and pearls. You're my revenge. Her happiness - this gets back to the idea of different definitions of happiness and the ways that the definition itself can preclude the having of it - her definition of happiness was completely bound up in response to what had happened to her family. And, you know, her joy was her revenge.
GROSS: So in your novel, when the great-grandfather dies and the rabbi's giving a eulogy, he talks about this man Isaac as being, you know, one of the last of the survivors of the Holocaust. There's a couple of paragraphs I'd like you to read from that section.
FOER: (Reading) Isaac Bloch was not the last of his kind. But once gone, his kind will be gone forever. We know them. We've lived among them. They've shaped us as Jews and Americans, as sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. But our time of knowing them is nearly complete. And then they will be gone forever, and we will only remember them until we don't. We know them. We know them with tears for their suffering, with silence for all that cannot be said, with song for their unprecedented resilience. There will be no more old Jews who interpret a spot of good news as the guarantee of imminent apocalypse, who treat buffets like grocery stores before blizzards, who touch a finger to the bottom lip before turning a page of their people's Maxwell House epic.
GROSS: That's a very funny passage in a lot of ways because you're basically saying that, you know, a lot of Holocaust survivors and probably a lot of people who survived war in general when they get to the buffet at the all-you-can-eat kind of buffet, they're, like, packing away sandwiches and filling up three plates as if, like, there might never be food again (laughter). So was that true of your grandmother, and did you always feel like there was something absurd about her relationship with food that you also completely understood?
FOER: Yeah, that's well put. It was very easy to make fun of as a kid, you know? It was very easy to be embarrassed by until I wasn't. And then I was embarrassed by my embarrassment, really ashamed of my embarrassment. She's of a generation of Jews who were, you know, deformed by trauma. And that's one true way of understanding the experience, and the other is that they are kind of geniuses of resilience. I remember spending a good portion of my life thinking about how unusual the way she lived was, you know? Clipping coupons for foods that would simply never be bought, protecting upholstery, arranging certain kinds of photographs in certain ways on certain surfaces and as I read, you know, treating buffets like supermarkets before blizzards, I thought how puzzling. And then later in life, I was in awe of the fact that she was a functioning human being, you know? That how few her peculiarities were, how rare her trauma seemed to express itself.
GROSS: Which she probably nearly starved to death in the two years that she was hiding.
FOER: Oh, yeah, absolutely. She was eating from, you know, garbage. Yeah, and the things that she saw and heard and knew and lost, you know, it's - there are things that would make it extraordinarily difficult to choose to get out of bed in the morning.
GROSS: So the passage that we're referring to ends with a reference to the Maxwell House epic, which is the Maxwell House version of the Passover Haggadah, which is the prayer book that Jews read from during Passover to tell the story of the Jews' exodus from bondage in Egypt to freedom. You've told us about your ambiguous relationship to Judaism, that there's certain rituals you practice but you don't belong to a synagogue. Maybe one day you'll become more religious, but right now you're not. But on the other hand, you did edit an English-language version of the Haggadah that was translated from Hebrew by your fellow writer Nathan Englander. Back in 2012 it was published. He says it was your idea to do it (laughter). So given your ambiguous relationship to the actual religion of Judaism, why did you feel strongly that this is something that needed to be done?
FOER: I guess I wanted a less ambiguous relationship. You know, having an ambiguous relationship doesn't imply that it's a place of rest, right? I don't - I don't know about you, I don't know if this, like, sentiment makes any sense but I'm not a believer. I wish I were.
GROSS: Well, how does that connect to actually going through the process of editing and - a new English translation of the Haggadah?
FOER: The Seder always moved me, the Passover Seder - the story, the occasion. You know, it's like a really singular event, gathering friends and family at a table to share a meal and have a discussion about the most important themes there are, like what is it to be a stranger? What is it to be in a community? What is good? What is evil? What is collective punishment? What is redemption? And what is home? And I loved it. I loved it as a kid, and I've always loved it. I've always felt unsatisfied at the end of seders, like this singular occasion was not fulfilled. So the Haggadah's like a user's manual for the night. It's literally the script, so I thought if there were a different script, might the evening be more fulfilling?
GROSS: And has it been more fulfilling since then?
FOER: Not especially.
FOER: I mean, it's changed. You know, first of all, like, it's a horrible experience to have to sit around a table and everyone obviously feels socially compelled to use the Haggadah that I made because it would just be such a gratuitous insult to me not to. And yet it's a little bit like sitting around the table and playing my voice on an answering machine aloud for an hour and a half. You know, it's just - it's uncomfortable. But seders change, you know? I chase around - first, I would hold kids, then I would chase them around, then they would chase each other around and everything changes. And so it's hard to compare, you know, the present to the past in that way.
GROSS: Jonathan Safran Foer, thank you so much.
FOER: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel is called "Here I Am." Our interview was recorded last week. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews one of the most talked about new books. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.