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March 14, 2018 Shira Small

Why My High School Class Voted to Stop Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Depictions of Women

EverythingIsIlluminatedI love reading Jewish literature. Seeing my culture and experience come to life on the pages of a book can be meaningful and validating; it makes my idiosyncratic religious practices feel legitimate. The representation and recognition of Judaism in popular culture is crucial, but what do you do when the author gets it wrong? Or what if certain parts of your identity are illustrated perfectly while other facets aren’t done justice? I faced these quandaries when reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated this year in my English class.

Everything Is Illuminated has comfortably rested in my family’s bookshelf for many years, accompanied by other books my family read, enjoyed, then never touched again. I was excited when it was assigned in my “Immigrant Literature” class because I recognized the novel, and vaguely recalled watching the movie with my parents a few years back. Our copy was even signed by Foer, which I excitedly told my class. However, once we began reading, I noticed a peculiar and disturbing pattern: the female characters are repeatedly gratuitously objectified.

The book alternates between the present day, wherein a Jewish man, Jonathan, travels to Ukraine to explore the place his family lived pre-Holocaust, and a story set in the past, beginning in the 1700s, about Jonathan’s heritage and ancestors. One of these family members is a young girl named Brod, who grew up in Ukraine in the 1700s, and is Jonathan’s very-great grandmother.

It bothered me (and many of my classmates) that Brod, one of the only female protagonists of the book was often sexually harassed and assaulted, as well as excessively sexualized. We especially objected to the way that her character was sexualized even when it was completely nonessential to the plot. For example, in the moment when she discovers her father lying dead on the floor of her home, she randomly gets naked. Foer describes her pubic hair and her “cold, hard” nipples. She is 12 in this scene. When discussing chapters like these, we would get into in-class disagreements that felt personal and painful.

Eventually, my male teacher thought we should discuss whether or not to continue reading the Brod chapters in our study of the book. Although I was certain that these chapters were demeaning, and not crucial to our understanding of the book’s main plot line, I wasn’t sure if that meant we should stop reading them altogether. Authors are typically intentional with their plot and character decisions, and maybe we could learn from our discomfort surrounding Brod’s portrayal. Moreover, perhaps it’s unwise to censor literature in general. On the other hand, when words unequivocally feel demeaning, do the author’s intentions really matter? Ultimately, after an impassioned class debate, we voted to stop reading the Brod chapters.

Foer did a wonderful job illustrating a story about Judaism, and I appreciate his work. Yet, he wrote about women in a way that felt careless and belittling. He was able to write beautifully about Judaism, an identity that he shares, but wrote poorly about being a woman, an experience that he lacks.

It’s important that stories about women are told by women, or at least influenced by them in real ways. I’m not saying that men can write stories only about men and women can write stories only about women, but I do believe that getting a diverse group of opinions and people involved in your work is crucial. Everybody’s life experience is different, and we can’t expect to understand one another automatically, but we should work to listen instead of speaking on each other’s behalf. The main message I derived from Brod’s mistreatment is this: representation and diversity matter.

This article was originally published on Jewish Women, Amplified, the blog of the Jewish Women’s Archive, and was written as part of the Rising Voices Fellowship.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

  • Maja Schwarz

    I can definitely relate! Foer’s depiction of mothers/motherhood is similarly problematic. “Here I Am” uses the absent-mother-theme :/

  • Erica Manfred

    This article is very disturbing and represents the attitude of the Millenial generation that offensive speech should be deleted or not permitted in the first place. Why not read the whole book and discuss the offensive chapters and why they are demeaning to women. There is a lot of offensive material about women, Jews and others in world literature. Are students to start redacting passages that might disturb them? This is a slippery slope that can lead to a fear of free speech, which is more important than Johnathan Foer’s depiction of women.

    • Shira Small

      Hi Erica! I wrote this article and I can tell you that we discussed the slippery slope you mentioned at length before ultimately deciding not to read them, and it was by no means a flippant or easy decision. We were more than halfway through the book and had been trying to learn from our discomfort rather than evade it, but eventually it became clear that those chapters were not crucial to our fundamental understanding of Jonathan’s modern-day narrative, so after significant deliberation we stopped reading. By no means do I believe that all offensive media should be censored, because I don’t believe that we can fix any issues by running away from them and pretending like they don’t exist, and I hope that is not the message this article sent. Moreover, this was only my experience in one circumstance, and I don’t want it to be extended to the entire Millennial generation (of which, by the way, I am not–Gen Z’er here!).