Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer MAG

March 25, 2009
By Hannah Weinberger BRONZE, Pepper Pike, Ohio
Hannah Weinberger BRONZE, Pepper Pike, Ohio
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I stared vacantly at my required summer reading book. All I knew was that it was about a Jewish boy and his heritage, which didn’t sound too enthralling. I’d already been immersed in horrific stories of concentration camps and the legacy of a Jewish heritage – why should this book be any different? Not until I read the first paragraph and found myself simultaneously confused and entertained did I realize how much I had underestimated this literary work.

Rarely do novels cause me to laugh out loud, but Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated did. Documenting the tale of a Jewish boy’s ancestors in Ukraine, the novel follows Jonathan and his new Ukrainian acquaintances as they search for the woman who supposedly saved his grandfather from the Nazis.

I fell in love with this book as soon as I realized that the syntax would always be humorously horrendous, that the gibberish used by the Ukrainian character Alex could be deciphered only with a thesaurus, and that humor would, ironically, be integral to this tragic epic.

I usually find myself avoiding depressing books or those that make me “appreciate” some solemn historical event. Safran Foer captivated me by making me laugh; I only realized that I’d learned lessons about the world and myself after I’d finished this book.

Initially, I busied myself with understanding Alex’s elegantly mangled words and getting to know the cast of characters. A plethora of nineteenth-century Ukrainian Jews, a dysfunctional modern Ukrainian family, a dorky Jewish boy from New York, and a psychotic, masochistic dog made for enjoyable reading. I soon found, though, that the serious nature of the book was apparent beneath the layers of linguistic humor.

The history of Judaism is scarred by anti-Semitism, and my teachers have insisted I be aware of this so that I can understand my roots. But reading books on the topic caused me to resent my heritage. I wasn’t exploring my religion to fulfill any personal curiosity. Using the playful wit customary of my people, Safran Foer encouraged me to value Jewish culture. Sometimes, I even ­forgot that I was engrossed in a book devoted to the horrors of genocide.

When I think about this book now, it is not a newfound appreciation for my heritage that first comes to mind, but uncovering truth. This book is about breaking down stereotypes. It’s about being willing to let others see “the real you.”

In the beginning, Alex boasts about his many girlfriends and nights at the discothéque, but in the end he admits that he is simply a confused, compassionate boy with a zest for life. By letting his guard down, he realizes that other people can accept him for who he is. He also comes to understand Jonathan and loses his anti-Semitic assumptions.

With this knowledge and an important year ahead of me, I plan to search for my own personal Augustine (as the mystery woman came to be known). I plan to let others see my flaws, and realize that I might be valued in spite of them.

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This article has 1 comment.

Duckie430 said...
on Oct. 20 2009 at 12:01 pm
Duckie430, Riverside, Rhode Island
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Favorite Quote:
“The secret to life is being who you are and being happy with who you are.”
"Whatever does not kill you only makes you stronger."

omg, i looove this book too! i thought it was really powerful, & i think you captured that in your review

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