Monthly Archives: August 2011

Dear Jonathan Safran Foer,

 Writing Everything Is Illuminated took courage. I’ve read that your marvel of a novel is a result of research you did on your grandfather’s origin in and escape from a Jewish Ukrainian village depopulated by the Nazis and further destroyed by partisans. It took guts for you to visit the scene of that bloodbath, to reimagine your grandfather and his life before the bloodletting, to make him and his doomed village live again for new generations.

I don’t remember my parents ever telling me about the Holocaust, but I’m sure they tried to explain it to me. Permanently scarred by the seemingly inexplicable shooting of Bambi’s mom, I probably was too afraid to fathom such a thing as genocide let alone to register and remember my parents’ explanation. Even now, I can’t imagine how my grandkids will take it when they learn that there’s more to Jewish history than matzoh, menorahs, and mitzvahs. In the small attic over the garage of our condo is a box of family photos, letters, and mementos, tangible testimony to the stories I didn’t want to listen to when I was   growing up. I’ve schlepped this box around the country for two decades waiting until I feel brave enough to open it.

Meanwhile I think about your quest and the moving novel you wrote about it. In Everything Is Illuminated you juxtapose the horrific with the hilarious. Much of the book’s humor derives from Alex Perchov, the Ukrainian translator who narrates part of your story. His delightfully discombobulated English idioms tickled me, and his perspective ─adolescent, Ukrainian, and gentile─ intensifies the horror of genocide by personalizing it. But Alex is more than a jokey foil who makes the bitter pill of Nazism easier for the reader to swallow. The teenage translator makes a few discoveries about his own ancestors and the stain mass murder leaves even in the minds of those forced to facilitate it.

I too needed a fictional translator of a language I don’t speak, read, or write. When I read Everything Is Illuminated, I was beginning research on a mystery set in Seattle’s Jewish community during the Gold Rush and in 1965. My story features a young Ukrainian woman’s diary written in Yiddish during the Nineteenth Century and translated in 1965 in Seattle. Inspired by Alex and my own ignorance of Yiddish, I made my translator an educated and assimilated Jewish housewife. Rachel Mazursky sees it as her mission to Anglicize the Yiddish scrawl of a semi literate immigrant girl so it will be easily intelligible to nonYiddish speakers. To do this she translates the diary into the unaccented Standard English she’s carefully cultivated and so makes the diary accessible and the diarist credible.

I’m also intrigued by your novel’s “hero,” a young American writer bearing your name. Last summer against the advice of my writing group, I began working on a mystery featuring a fictional writer named Jane Isenberg. Your deft handling of the writer as character will help me as I struggle to weave my own namesake into that story effectively. If I succeed, the resulting novel will be part murder she wrote and part how the hell she wrote it.

Another thing I admire about your book is that you don’t “write down” to some imaginary reader too simple, busy, or lazy to follow a story told in several voices, idioms, and time frames. On the front jacket of the hard cover edition, Nathan Englander calls Everything Is Illuminated “intricate in structure,” and he’s right. That intricacy suits the complexity of the tale you tell and compliments the readers you tell it to by assuming that we can follow it. Bravo!

Please write another novel soon. Meanwhile, thanks for this one.


Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction

Dear James Baldwin,

A good writer transports readers into a different world. Well, thanks to your moving novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, during the summer of 1965 without leaving my couch I spent a memorable few days in Harlem. I’d never dared to venture to Harlem even though I was raised just a few miles away in Passaic, New Jersey. In fact, I’d never read a novel by a black author before. I didn’t know there were any black novelists. Go Tell It hadn’t been on the syllabus of any of the lit courses I took as an English major at Vassar. Your soul searing coming of age novel had been in print for thirteen years, and I’d never even heard of it or you!

But then, after I’d been teaching English in a New Haven public high schoolfor three years, my department chair asked me to apply to a summer program for teachers called Minority Group Literature and Psychology. Your book was on its syllabus. So I finally met John Grimes and his tormented “Negro” family, all struggling to transcend their troubled history in the legally segregated South and to keep their faith on the cold gray streets of the unofficially segregated north.

Amazingly, I identified with John. I too had a patriarchal father prone to outbursts of rage and a meek mother, and I too felt misunderstood by them both. And although I’d never been as poor as John, I recognized the poverty he and his family face as not unlike the poverty my parents remembered from their own ghettoized tenement childhoods. But even then, I understood that John’s family is trapped in his ghetto while my parents had been able to get educations and escape.

Go Tell It on the Mountain not only took me to a part of New York I’d never visited. It picked me right up off my sofa and plopped me smack dab into a pew in the first row of a fundamentalist church there! All around me people sang, swayed, fell down, got up, and even spoke in tongues. They are believers who look to God and Jesus for strength and for sanity and who turn to each other to bear witness to their searches and struggles. The Jews and Christians I knew were not demonstrative.  In fact, I’d never known people whose faith in the deity and fear of the devil preoccupied them and whose membership in a church or synagogue was so important to them. If I had met people like this, they’d kept their beliefs and rituals to themselves, sensing correctly that I wouldn’t understand.

Your novel required me to face my racism and not a moment too soon. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find Go Tell It so lyrical, the work of a poet of despair and desperation with a gift for creating characters who speak as real people do. But if you think of my mind as a bookshelf, back then there was no room on it for black authors. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I was truly surprised that a black person could write such a moving and important book.

If Go Tell It on the Mountain was my passport to Harlem and to the worlds contained there, Giovanni’s Room was a visa to yet another place I’d never been. Oh, I’d been to Paris where this novel is set and which you describe so well, but already in my mid-twenties, I’d never been in the head of a man (or woman) struggling with what today we call sexual identity. I had to revise my blinkered view of same sex relationships.

Reading your memorable books expanded my narrow perspective on the world I live in and write about.

Thank you.



Filed under American classic, Coming of age story