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A Return to Jewish Roots in Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark

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Nicole Krauss
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Na’amit Sturm Nagel

In her seminal essay, “Towards a New Yiddish,” Cynthia Ozick addresses the divisive question of what makes a work of American literature Jewish. She argues that the hallmark of Jewish writing is connecting to one’s covenantal and liturgical past. American Jewish literature must be written in a uniquely Jewish language, which connects to Jewish history, prayer, and aggadah, if it is to endure. Ozick speaks directly to authors who renounce the title of “Jewish author” and she contends, “if we blow into the narrow end of the shofar, we will be heard far.  But if we choose to be Mankind rather than Jewish and blow into the wider part, we will not be heard at all” (177)[1]. For Ozick, only by staying connected to immutable Jewish texts can the Jewish writer make his or her mark.

While it has been seven years since Ozick published a work of fiction, Nicole Krauss carries this mantle forward in her recent novel, Forest Dark.  She blows through the narrow end of the shofar by employing biblical parallels and Jewish history as foundational elements of her work. Krauss’ literary approach is the embodiment of what Ozick termed the “liturgical.”

From the first section of Forest Dark,  titled “Ayekah,”—Where are you?—we feel connected to the wellsprings of Jewish literary traditions and wisdom. Yet Forest Dark is not just about any search for identity. This particular word, “Ayekah,” is the one word that God says to Adam and Eve when they eat from the Tree of Knowledge in the biblical creation story. By choosing this word as the first heading for her chapter, she subtly urges the reader to recall that primal search for identity.

The novel’s protagonists, who later in life both come to a certain kind of dangerous knowledge and need to recreate themselves, are, like all human beings, descendants of Adam and Eve. Krauss’ two central characters—an older, successful lawyer named Jules Epstein and an unnamed middle-aged female author—are in the later phases of their lives, but don’t know who they are anymore. They have lost that knowledge and escape the monotonous predictable cycles of their everyday life in search for answers. Both of their journeys take them to their modern Garden of Eden: Israel. The book presents Israel not as the literal home of the Jews, but as the spiritual sanctuary. It makes the argument that if you are Jewish and want to find your soul, you book an El Al flight.

The search for knowledge is dangerous and confusing for both Epstein and the female author (a possible surrogate for Krauss in the text), yet their primary aid is drawing on biblical parallels for their predicaments. Only by looking back at their ancient forbearers’ problems can they move forward. When both protagonists want to escape their familial and societal “bindings,” the original story of the binding of Isaac leads them to the realization that love and dedication come with great pain.

Like the original Jewish road-trip narrative of the Ancient Israelites travelling in the desert, this book emphasizes the journey over the destination. This central motif is perhaps the most Jewish element of the text. Krauss’ characters constantly reference packing bags and unpacking bags, commenting on those who pack light in life and others whose excessive baggage weighs them down. There is a general question of which of these travelers is happier. As the female author in the novel explains, her family members overpack because “for them, it’s a question of being prepared,” to which her interlocutor responds: “Prepared for unhappiness. For happiness one doesn’t need to be prepared.” Being weighed down by history and personal baggage is clearly not ideal, but being completely weightless comes with a different set of problems—you could float away. The same question is at the heart of Jewish peoplehood—how much should we be defining modern Judaism by the historical baggage we carry as a people, or to what degree should we be letting go of past hardships and trauma to move forward? Whether the characters do or do not find themselves on this journey is irrelevant. The goal is lightening their loads, or redistributing their pekalach along the way.

Krauss also looks to the ancient texts as almost a handbook for how to write, and, by extension, read. At one point,  the successful author portrayed in the novel describes her son’s writing by saying, “For a long time he’d spelled the words as he thought they might be spelled, without any spaces between them, which, like the Torah’s unbroken string of letters, opened his writing to infinite interpretations.” Krauss glorifies this esoteric style. Herself master of symbols and metaphor, there are “infinite interpretations” of Krauss’ text. At times she is a little heavy-handed with the symbolism; the reader never knows when the author is talking about a coat as a coat, or a coat as a symbol. Yet Krauss may place  certain images in the novel for the same reason symbols are at the heart of the Passover Haggadah—“so that the children would ask.” This style makes readers reflect on the text and deepens the meaning of the book. When Krauss vaguely alludes to an incident of a whale lost in Israeli waters, it becomes a metaphor for the lost Palestinians, or perhaps the lost Jews, or even the lost Jewish intellectuals. In Krauss’ world, meaning is up for debate, allowing for multiple possible meanings to pop up and inform one another.

Nicole Krauss’ writing reaches back to a Jewish biblical heritage, but she also draws on the rich Jewish Yiddish tradition, creating a modern lexicon of 21st century Jewish archetypes. While the stereotypes of the shlemiel, the yente and the shlemazel populate Yiddish literature, Krauss lovingly recreates her own modern Jewish stereotypes. She brings to life the swarthy long-lost Israeli cousin who keeps showing up, the surly Israeli professor who everyone assumes is an undercover Mossad agent, and the Jewish American tourist who travels to Israel, puts za’atar and Hazorfim Judaica in his bags and then gets back on the plane. As with their Yiddish predecessors, these stereotypes are painted with broad, mocking brushstrokes, but they feel familiar, enabling the reader to think about these archetypes in new ways.

The book is beautifully written and captures a uniquely Jewish journey, which leads me to wonder why it was so easy to put down. The weakest parts of the book were what I refer to as “the Kafka sections.” A large part of the text makes the case that Kafka may have not died in 1924 and actually secretly fled to Israel (to “find himself,” of course). The possibility that Kafka faked his own death feels a little too much like Anne Frank’s imagined survival in Philip Roth’s The Ghostwriter. What about bringing these Jewish figureheads back to life fascinates Jewish authors? Though Kafka represents a perfect metaphor for both protagonists—always wanting to escape and die to be reborn—the sections about him are not the most enjoyable part of the read. Krauss spends so long convincing you that Kafka actually lived that by the time you believe her, you don’t really care.

Forest Dark is somewhat of a tedious read because of the philosophical digressions in which it wallows. It feels necessary to put the book down to process all of the ideas that it raises.The novel may be about the journey and not destination, but Krauss can lose you in the circular nature of that journey. Her intention was undoubtedly that the reader truly feels the characters’ struggles by getting lost with them, but if your definition of a good book is one that you cannot put down, Forest Dark may not make the cut.  If, however, you define a good book by one that makes you think—well that is an entirely different matter.

In its own way, Forest Dark steers us towards answering Ozick’s essential question about defining Jewish literature. As the surly professor in the novel says to the Jewish female author,  “You think your writing belongs to you?” “Who else?” she responds, and without missing a beat he responds: “To the Jews.” The question of whether or not your writing is Jewish is not up to you, because writing ultimately belongs to the reader. Krauss’ avatar answers Ozick perfectly: “Jewish literature would have to wait, as all Jewish things wait for a perfection that in our hearts we don’t really want to come.” In the end, perhaps all we can do is kvetch and vacillate between different answers to the question of what is Jewish literature—because, of course, the answer was never the point.


 

[1] Cynthia Ozick, “Towards a New Yiddish” (Art and Ardor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf inc., 1983) 177.

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Na'amit Sturm Nagel
Na'amit Sturm Nagel teaches British and Jewish literature at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.