I 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 normal, and real. 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.
The book 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 to read the book when it was assigned in my “Immigrant Literature” class because I recognized it, and vaguely recalled watching the movie with my parents a few years back. Our copy of the book was even signed by Foer, which I excitedly told my class. However, once we began reading the book, I noticed a peculiar and disturbing pattern: the female characters are gratuitously and repeatedly 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 the man’s heritage and ancestors. One of the family members we learn about is 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 excessively sexualized, and often sexually harassed and assaulted. 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, and Foer goes on to describe her pubic hair and her “cold, hard” nipples. She is 12 in this scene. My classmates and I, besides being uncomfortable with Brod’s portrayal, were also very confused as to why she’s made into a sexual object for seemingly no reason.
Eventually, my male teacher thought we should discuss whether or not to continue reading these particular chapters (the Brod chapters) in our study of the book. Although I was certain that the Brod 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, maybe it’s unwise to censor literature in general. On the other hand, the chapters unequivocally felt 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 on the other hand, he wrote about women in a way that felt careless and belittling. I find it interesting that he wrote beautifully about Judaism, an identity that he shares, but poorly about being a woman, an experience that he lacks.
After reading chapters that made me cringe and getting into in-class disagreements that felt so personal and painful, the main message I derived from Brod’s mistreatment is this: representation and diversity matter. It felt great to read a fulfilling story about a Jew, but it really hurt to see how Brod and other female characters were depicted. 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 only write stories about men and women can only write stories 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 to one another instead of speaking on each other’s behalf. The best way to understand each other’s life experiences is by listening and learning.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Small, Shira. "Everything Is…Complicated." 19 March 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 7, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/everything-is-complicated>.