Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Foer's Phoey

Excerpts from this new short story, Maybe It Was The Distance by Jonathan Safran Foer for your judgment:

“Well, now I’ll have an answer,” Irv said, with a self-satisfied nod that resembled davening or Parkinson’s. He and his forty-three-year-old son, Jacob, and eleven-year-old grandson, Max, were on their way to Washington National to pick up their Israeli cousins. (The Blochs would sooner have renounced air travel than refer to it as Reagan National.) NPR was on, and, to Irv’s extreme revulsion, they had just listened to a balanced segment on new settlement construction in the West Bank. Irv loathed NPR. It was not only the wretched politics but the flamboyantly precious, out-of-no-closet sissiness, the wide-eyed wonder coming from the you-wouldn’t-hit-a-guy-with-glasses voice. And all of them—men, women, young and old—seemed to share the same voice, passing it from one throat to another as necessary.

“Answer to what?” Jacob asked, unable to swim past the bait.

“When someone asks me what was the most factually erroneous, morally repugnant, and just plain boring radio segment I’ve ever heard.”

Irv’s knee-jerk response triggered a reflex in Jacob’s brain’s knee, and within a few exchanges they were rhetorical Russian wedding dancers—arms crossed, kicking at everything but anything.

“And anyway,” Jacob said, when he felt that they’d taken things far enough, “it was an opinion piece.”

“Well, that stupid idiot’s opinion is wrong—”

Without looking up from his father’s iPad, Max defended National Public Radio—or semantics, in any case—from the back seat: “Opinions can’t be wrong.”

“So here’s why that idiot’s opinion is idiotic. . . .” Irv ticked off each “because” on the fingers of his left hand: “Because only an anti-Semite can be ‘provoked to anti-Semitism’—a hideous phrase; because the mere suggestion of a willingness to talk to these freaks would just be throwing Manischewitz on an oil fire; because their hospitals are filled with rockets aimed at our hospitals, which are filled with them; because, at the end of the day, we love Kung Pao chicken and they love death; because—and this really should have been my first point—the simple and undeniable fact is . . . we’re right! ”

Max pointed to the light: “Green is for go.”

But, instead of driving, Irv pressed his point: “Here’s the deal: the world population of Jews falls within the margin of error of the Chinese census, and everyone hates us.” Ignoring the honking coming from behind him, he continued, “Europe . . . now, there’s a Jew-hating continent. The French, those spineless vaginas, would shed no tears of sadness over our disappearance. The English, the Spanish, the Italians. These people live to make us die.” He stuck his head out the window and hollered at the honking driver, “I’m an asshole, asshole! I’m not deaf!” And then back to Jacob, “Our only reliable friends in Europe are the Germans, and does anyone doubt that they’ll one day run out of guilt and lampshades? And does anyone really doubt that one day, when the conditions are right, America will decide that we’re noisy and pushy and way too smart for anybody else’s good?”

...“The Germans murdered one and a half million Jewish children because they were Jewish children, and they got to host the Olympics thirty years later. And what a job they did with that! The Jews win by a hair a war for our survival and are a permanent pariah state. Why? Why, only a generation after our near-destruction, is the Jewish will to survive considered a will to conquer? Ask yourself, Why?”
“Why what, exactly?”

“The what doesn’t even matter. The answer is the same to every question about us: Because the world hates Jews.”

“What are you saying?”

“Nothing. I’m just saying.”

...Jacob first visited Israel when he was fourteen—an overdue present that he didn’t want for a bar mitzvah he didn’t want. The next generation of Israeli Blochs took the next generation of American Blochs to the Wailing Wall, into whose cracks Jacob inserted prayers for things he didn’t actually care about but knew that he ought to care about, like a cure for aids and an unbroken ozone layer. They floated in the Dead Sea together, among the ancient, elephantine Jews reading half-submerged newspapers bleeding Cyrillic. They climbed Masada early in the morning and pocketed rocks that might have been clenched in the fists of Jewish suicides. They watched the windmill break the sunset from the perch of Mishkenot Sha’ananim. They went to the small park named after Jacob’s great-grandfather Gershom Bloch. He had been a beloved rabbi, and his surviving disciples remained loyal to his memory, choosing never to have another rabbi, choosing their own demise.

...Tamir drank beer before Jacob, smoked pot before Jacob, got a blow job before Jacob, got arrested before Jacob (who would never be arrested). When Tamir was given an M16, Jacob was given a Eurail pass. Tamir tried without success to stay out of risky situations; Jacob tried without success to find his way into them. At nineteen, Tamir was in a half-buried outpost in southern Lebanon, behind four feet of concrete. Jacob was in a dorm in New Haven, whose bricks had been buried for two years before construction so that they would look older than they were. Tamir didn’t resent Jacob—he would have been Jacob, given the choice—but he had lost some of the lightness necessary to appreciate someone as light as his cousin. He’d fought for his homeland, while Jacob spent entire nights debating whether that ubiquitous New Yorker poster where New York is bigger than everything else would look better on this wall or that one.

After his service, Tamir was finally free to live on his own terms. He became hugely ambitious, in the sense of wanting to make shitloads of money and buy loads of shit. He dropped out of Technion after a year and founded the first of a series of high-tech startups. Almost all of them were flops, but it doesn’t take many non-flops for you to make your first five million...

...“Let me ask you something,” Tamir said. “Where do they make the best bagels in the world?”

“New York.”

“I agree. The best bagels in the world are being made in New York. Now let me ask you, is a bagel a Jewish food?”

“Depends on what you mean by that.”

“Is a bagel a Jewish food in the same way that pasta is an Italian food?”

“In a similar way.”

“And let me also ask you, is Israel the Jewish homeland?”

“Israel is the Jewish state.”

Tamir straightened in his seat.

“That wasn’t the part of my argument you were supposed to disagree with.”

Irv shot Jacob a look. “Of course it’s the Jewish homeland.”

“It depends on what you mean by ‘homeland,’ ” Jacob said. “If you mean ancestral homeland—”

“What do you mean?” Tamir asked.

“I mean the place my family comes from.”

“Which is?”


“But before that.”

“What, Africa? It’s arbitrary. We could go back to the trees, or the ocean, if we wanted. Some go back to Eden. You pick Israel. I pick Galicia.”

“You feel Galician?”

“I feel American.”

“I feel Jewish,” Irv said.

,,,Jacob had grown up, as had every Jew in the last quarter of the twentieth century, under Spielberg’s wing. Rather, in the shadow of his wing. He had seen “E.T.” four nights in a row, each time through his fingers as the bike chase reached a climax so delicious it was literally unbearable. He had seen “Indiana Jones” and the next one, and the next one. Tried to sit through “Always.” Nobody’s perfect. Not until he makes “Schindler’s List,” at which point he is not even he anymore but representative of them. Them? The murdered millions. No, representative of us. The Unmurdered. But “Schindler” wasn’t for us. It was for them. Not the Murdered, of course. They can’t watch movies. It was for all of them who weren’t us: the goyim. Because thanks to Spielberg, into whose bank account the general public was compelled to make annual deposits, we finally had a way to force them to look at our absence, to rub their noses in the German shepherd’s shit.

Jacob had found the movie schmaltzy and overblown, flirting with kitsch. But he had been profoundly moved. Irv had denounced the impulse to tell an uplifting Holocaust story, to give, for all intents and purposes, a statistically negligible happy ending generated by that statistically negligible of species, the good German. But even he had been moved to his limits. Isaac couldn’t have been more moved: You see, you see what was done to us—to mine parents, to mine brothers, to me, you see? Everyone was moved, and everyone was convinced that being moved was the ultimate aesthetic, intellectual, and ethical experience.

...“Israel? Israel is thriving. Walk down the streets of Tel Aviv one night. There’s more culture per square foot than anywhere in the world. Look at our economy. We’re sixty-eight years old—younger than you, Irv. We have only eight million people, no natural resources, and are engaged in perpetual war. All that, and we file more patents every year than any other country, including yours.”

“Things are going well,” Irv confirmed.

“Things have never been better anywhere, at any time, than they are in Israel right now. Look, Rivka and I are in a triplex now—three floors. We have seven bedrooms—”

“Eight,” Barak corrected.

“He’s right. It’s eight. Eight bedrooms, even though we’re only four people now that Noam is in the Army. Two bedrooms a person. But I like the space. It’s not that we have so many guests, although we have a lot, but I like to stretch out: a couple of rooms for my business ventures; Rivka is insane about meditating; the kids have air hockey, gaming systems. They have a foosball table from Germany. I have an assistant who has nothing to do with my business ventures but just helps with life-style things, and I said, ‘Go find me the best foosball table in the world.’ And she did. She has an amazing body, and she knows how to find anything. You could leave this foosball table in the rain for a year and it would be fine.”

“I thought it never rains in Israel,” Jacob said.

“It does,” Tamir said. “But you’re right, the climate is ideal. So when we were walking through the new apartment I turned to Rivka and said, ‘Eh?’ And she said, ‘What do we need with an apartment this big?’ I told her what I’ll tell you now: the more you buy, the more you have to sell.”

...“And what about the situation?” Irv asked.

“What situation?”


“What? Food safety?”

“The Arabs.”

“Which ones?”

“Iran. Syria. Hezbollah. Hamas. The Islamic State. Al Qaeda.”

“The Iranians aren’t Arabs. They’re Persian.”

“I’m sure that helps you sleep at night.”

“Things could be better, things could be worse. Beyond that, you know what I know.”

“So how does it feel over there?” Irv pressed.

“Would I be happier if Noam were a d.j. for the Army radio station? Sure. But I feel fine. Barak, you feel fine?”

“I feel cool.”

“You think Israel’s going to bomb Iran?”

“I don’t know,” Tamir said. “What do you think?”

“Do you think they should?” Jacob asked.

“Of course they should,” Irv said.

“If there were a way to bomb Iran without bombing Iran, that would be good. Any other course will be bad.”

“So what do you think they should do?” Jacob asked.

“He just told you,” Irv said. “He thinks they should bomb those Stone Age psychopaths back into the pre-Stone Age.”

“I think you should bomb them,” Tamir told Irv.


“You specifically. You could use some of those biological weapons you displayed earlier.”

Everyone laughed at that, especially Max.

All Tamir wanted to talk about was money—the average Israeli income, the size of his own easy fortune, the unrivalled quality of life in that fingernail clipping of oppressively hot homeland hemmed in by psychopathic enemies.

All Irv wanted to talk about was the situation—when was Israel going to make us proud by making itself safe? Was there any inside piece of information to be dangled above friends in the dining room at the American Enterprise Institute? Wasn’t it high time we—you—did something about this or that?...

American Jewish fiction.

Oh, well.

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