THE BOOK OF LIFE - Family Stories with the Foers (Live Show)
3:28AM Jun 26, 2021
Esther Safran Foer
[COLD OPEN] I happen to have written a book; I'm not going to suggest that for everybody, because I have to tell you it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be! But share your stories.
I found that looking through boxes of old photos with my grandma was like a really great way of learning tidbit to stories and connecting with family history.
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly, I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Before we get started, I've got news! I'm excited to tell you that in August, I will be in full geek-out mode. Not only will I be bringing you a conversation with Nancy Werlin about her young adult novel on the power of fandom, called Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good. I will also be a guest on the podcast, Star Trek and the Jews, a monthly podcast using Star Trek to boldly explore the world of Jews and Judaism. I'll put a link in the show notes, and please listen for a word from trek host Josh Zel, after today's interview.
On with the show! Esther Safran Foer and her granddaughter Sadie Foer joined me for a Book of Life live show in May 2021. Let's hear a recording from that event.
[LIVE SHOW RECORDING] I'm so happy to be presenting this Book of Life podcast live show in conjunction with the Jewish Grandparents Network. And I'm so happy to be part of the Jewish Grandparents Network family. I first met co founder David Raphael when I interviewed him for The Book of Life podcast. It was an episode called The Bubbes and the Zaides, and it aired last summer in July 2020. That episode also included an audio book of a story called Bubbe and Zaide by Anne Marie Asner. And it included the voice of the actor Ed Asner as Zaide, and that's from Matzah Ball Books.
I've been podcasting since 2005, and so I invite you to check out my extensive back catalogue, and episodes since the summer of 2019 also have written transcripts. I don't have advertising, but I do accept donations to support the show, both directly and through Patreon. And in fact, I want to take a moment now to shout out Jacqueline Jules, who is my newest patron. She's an author and a poet who enjoys The Book of Life from Arlington, Virginia. So thank you so much for your support, Jackie.
So I'm very excited to introduce you to today's guests. Esther Safran Foer is the past CEO of Sixth & I in DC and the author of I Want You to Know We're Still Here, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. And since we're talking about family stories today, I'm going to tell you a little bit about her family. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She is the wife of Bert Foer, an attorney and public interest advocate. She's the mother of three sons: best selling authors, Frank, Jonathan and Joshua Foer, and the grandmother of six. Now Sadie Jean Foer, who is with us as well, is one of those six grandchildren, and she's a high school student and self described family historian. And I am very pleased to tell you that she has just started a podcast of her own on Spotify, called Rooted History. So thank you both for being here. Esther, your recent book is called I Want You to Know We're Still Here: A Post Holocaust Memoir. And it's very much about your connection with your family's history. So can you just briefly tell us your family story, standing on one foot, as it were?
Okay, on one foot, I will tell you quickly, it's a story of my search for the secrets in my family history. So I'm the child of Holocaust survivors, which means there's a tragic past. And it also means there are lots of stories that aren't told. And this is an interesting case where there's another book involved. The family story first emerged as a work of fiction. When our middle son Jonathan went to Ukraine and found nothing, he wrote Everything is Illuminated. And partly because of his book, I was able to uncover a lot of information. People called me and said, You know, he wrote this book, it's just not true. And then the book became a movie which, you know, added more phone calls. And I'd say of course it's not, it's a work of fiction. It's a novel. But people didn't want to hear that. What they wanted to do was tell me, they know the real story. And I started to hear pieces of stories, and put them together, just kind of catalogue them in the back of my head. Then in 2009, I took a trip to Ukraine, and I took it with Sadie's father, actually our eldest son, Frank; we found so many of the missing pieces, we found much more than we ever expected to find. We found the family that hid my father for some part of the war, I found the name of my half sister, it was not recorded anywhere in any databases. So the book is actually three parts, it's my parents story in Ukraine growing up, it's when I came into the picture in post war Europe spent the first couple of years of my life in a DP camp. And then, of course, it's the story of the search and what we found. The book has just come out in paperback, which has also a reader's guide from the Jewish Book Council with new information in it.
So the title, I Want You to Know We're Still Here, who is the you? And who is the we that you're referring to?
That's a great, great question. And there are lots of you's in lots of ways. When I went to Ukraine, I felt I wanted to leave something of myself behind. I also wanted to take something back with me. And what I took back was dirt from the mass graves where my family is buried. What I decided to leave was our annual Rosh Hashanah card. That's a really big deal in our family. It started with our sons. I remember when Sadie was the first grandchild, for many years, it also included my mother. At its peak, it included 14 people. And my grandmothers were buried in those mass graves and different mass graves, my aunts were in those graves, my cousins. And at every mass grave, Frank and I borrowed a fork from the local hotel that we were staying in, dug a hole and buried this card. And so in its most literal meaning, it's that I was saying, I mean, this is very mystical. I was saying to my grandmothers, you probably thought no one survived. But we're still here. And we're a family that's growing. So that's the most literal, but who else? I decided to write this book because every generation, stories disappear. I heard a lot of stories at mother's knee, if you will, and I wanted these stories to be preserved for my grandchildren and their grandchildren. I remember sitting in my home office, which is a little chaotic with lots of boxes of pictures. And Sadie was with me, she loved to sit down there with me. She looked at me one day, and she said, Grandma, how will I know who these people are? And I realized how right she was. I knew who they were, I hadn't even put names on the backs of pictures, because I knew. And I knew I had to preserve those stories. I had to do it for Sadie, for her sister, for her cousins. And for future generations, because if I didn't, nobody would.
Sadie, I want to ask you, what do you think about all of these stories that your grandmother has shared? How do you respond to them? How have they influenced you?
I think that they have become just a really important part of my identity and who I understand I am. You know, the fact that I can look back and see a whole line of people, I think it puts my own life in a different context. Like Bubbe, who was my great grandma, Esther's mother, she would always say that we're her revenge against Hitler, you know, and I think that sort of showed that just my existence had a purpose and was a piece of the puzzle, you know, if you will.
We've heard that you consider yourself the family historian. How have you taken on that role?
Well, I say that my role is the tech help. When I go down into my grandma's home office, you know, I'm the one who's scanning documents and organizing them, making sure that everything's preserved online, navigating like Ancestry.com I remember as like a little child, helping her figure all that stuff out. She's gotten better at it. So she needs me less but I still enjoy it.
Oh, but I need you even more.
Very important role. Sadie, what stories do you have about your grandmother that you think you will pass on eventually to your own children or grandchildren?
I think her quality of always trying to preserve memories. She's a photographer, she always has her phone or a camera, taking photos and capturing memories. She hangs them on the walls, she makes art out of them. She'll always collect dirt or rocks or some sort of thing to take with her from every place she goes, and she puts the jars on her windowsill, that sort of quality of remembering and preserving moments.
Beautiful. Esther, we know that at least three of your family members are highly regarded authors and storytellers. So how do you account for this?
I have to add that Sadie's mother is a producer and has done documentaries and she is also a storyteller...
So Sadie's got it coming from all ends. Our sons write in different genres. One is a historian, one primarily a novelist. One is mostly in the biology, in the sciences. One of my sons was once asked, So how do you account for this? And he said, I think our creativity came from a family seder. You know at Passover, of course, as we tell the stories, we're supposed to visualize ourselves as though we went out of Egypt. And what that involves, when our kids were little, were plays and productions and casting calls and Sadie's generation took that on full steam. I remember when her cousin Leo was born, and they put him in a basket and he was baby Moses. But we also told family stories and one Passover, we talked about our own family's Exodus. We taped my mother, Sadie's great grandmother. And we'll always have those stories. And I remember as you taped it, your sister looked at my mother. And she said, Bubbe, when you were on the run, when you were escaping the Nazis, how do you know who to trust? I thought, Wow. It wasn't just the questions of the journeys. It was also very profound questions. I also remember my mother, at one point talking to her grandsons or great grandchildren, talking about when she came back to her shtetl -- the war hadn't ended, but it ended in that part of Europe -- and she and her friend who had been on the run together, wanted to come back and see their family. And of course, no one was there. And someone took them in for the night. But they knew they couldn't stay very long, because there was still pogroms and murders. And she said, You know, this guy was really nice. And he fixed dinner for her and her friend Sora. And my mother looked at the boys and she said, but I didn't eat. And they said you didn't eat? Why didn't you eat? And you said, What do you mean, why didn't I eat? And they said, but you were hungry! Was it because it was pork? And she said, If nothing matters, there's nothing to save. And I don't think it's the question of the pork or the kashrut, but what is it that matters? And in our family, the stories matter, or history matters. And I feel really great knowing it's going to be carried on with Sadie at the helm.
We mentioned your well known progeny. I want to give you a moment to kvell about them. So is there any particular achievements of theirs or projects they're working on or anything that you'd like the world to know about them?
That they produced amazing children. That is what I am most proud of. I am proud that they care about the world. That they have devoted their professional lives, whether it's writing books about politics, or novels, or... it's about making the world a better place. I already see that in my grandchildren. Sadie and Leo and I do chesed cooking once a month for homeless families, Sadie's an environmentalist. That's what's most important.
Sadie, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being surrounded by all these great storytellers?
Well, I think for one, I've always sort of seen myself as a storyteller. I think every kid sort of when they're little, wants to be what their parent is. And I think part of that is I have always thought, Oh, you know, I'm going to be a writer when I grow up, or I want to tell stories. I think that was part of it. On the other hand, yes, like what disadvantages I think sometimes because everybody's a storyteller, sometimes things turn into like, myths, which is a kind of a good thing and also a bad thing because in something being like a myth, you see the grandness, it's like this great tale of Bubbe escaping and coming to America. But also the flip side of that is that I think it sort of hides some of the pain, which, for a little kid is probably a good thing. But as you grow up, you sort of understand that and had to figure that out on your own.
So you consider yourself to be a storyteller?
I do. I think so, in my own way, in the way that all the other people in my family are storytellers in their own unique way.
So you've just started a podcast, which, of course, is also a form of storytelling. Can you tell us a little bit about your new show?
Yes, I can indeed. Plug it. It's part of the history project that I'm doing, where I'm looking at a certain plant and how it affects the history of that region and impacts that. So the first episode is about maize, in Latin America. And there's one about bananas coming soon.
What inspired you to talk about the history of plants?
Well, I am a plant nerd. I love gardening, inside and outside. As part of my history class, I've just really enjoyed learning about that history. And I want it to combine the two of them in the form of the podcast, which is something else that I really enjoy. So it's been a lot of fun.
So Esther, what recommendations do you have for other grandparents about sharing family stories with their children and their grandchildren?
It's one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Sadie just told you, she sees herself as part of a history. It's a history that's had ups and downs. But she's part of a continuum. There have been a lot of studies done actually which talk about the fact that kids who understand their family history are much more resilient as kids, more resilient as adults, they know that tragic things can happen, but that you can survive. When I think we all sat through the pandemic, and I found myself going well, my mother, my mother has been through a lot worse than this. I've just got to make sure that I have as much flour and sugar in my cabinet as she had in hers. Because she was always prepared for every catastrophe. It's a bonding experience, it creates stronger families, and stronger individuals. And you know, I happen to have written a book, I not going to suggest that for everybody. Because I have to tell you it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. But share your stories.
A number of years ago, maybe five years ago, our house was broken into. And among the things that were taken besides computerw, was my jewelry. And the police came, and they were doing fingerprints. And one of them said, You're not hysterical. You know, inside, I was a little hysterical, because I knew that I would not have that gold watch ever again. But I realized these were things. And if I were going to pass on, to Sadie Jean my aunt Jean's watch, she would remember that. And then she would pass it on. But it was who these people are that I want it to pass on. But things were just things. During Passover, two of Sadie's cousins came down for the week, I took our four year old granddaughter Bea to the bookstore to get something for her. And I very proudly said, Let me take you upstairs and show you where grandma's book is on the bookshelf. And she looked at the book and she said I'm in that book. Somebody had shown that to her. And she knows that's part of her story. And more amazing still, is there's family tree in it, and she flipped through it, and she can recognize her own name. And she said there I am. So at four she understood she's part of a family that's continued for generations, that she's part of the story. And by the way, that wonderful, beautiful little girl Bea, her middle name is Asya after my half sister, she carries that memory forward in a beautiful way. She somehow knows that's special because she will introduce herself as Bea Asya. She understands there's something special about that.
That's lovely. You've talked about why it's very meaningful. Do you have any practical advice about, like, how-to type of advice, about sharing stories between generations?
I definitely have some advice for receiving the stories. I think the number one thing is just to ask questions, you know, your family members, they have all of these stories. You know, I'll be at Grandma Esther's house, I'll find something and I'll be like, Grandma Esther, what's this? And she'll explain the story behind it. And I think a great place to start with that is your name. Like for me, my middle name is Jean. I'm named after Aunt Jean. And I think that that's like a great place to start is asking about who you're named after, and whose story you carry with you in your name. I would also add, as the person who listens to stories, I find that it's always a little more interesting when there are like photos or objects, something sort of tangible to look at and connect with the story. I found that looking through, you know, boxes of old photos with my grandma was like a really great way of learning tidbits of stories and connecting with family history.
Good advice, thank you.
There are collections in the house, identical little jars, they have memories in them. They include the dirt that I gathered in the mass graves that I visited. But also they include a lot of very happy memories, when we would take our annual family big trip together. Sand from the Tel Aviv beach, the first time you went to Israel, and it's memories of tragedy and memories of gratitude. I have these little boxes that are in the living room. And it's very carefully curated, there are boxes, there are old leather boxes; that collection actually started... I was with Sadie's father, and we were in the attic in our old house and my father in law had just died. And we had this box filled with papers stuffed in, no rhyme or reason. So Frank and I started to go through it. And we found this little tiny beat up leather box. And we said, Why did he save this? and we opened it up. And we found the date of birth and the date of death of his great grandfather. So somebody in the family had saved that. We thought well, we've got to preserve that. So it's on a table with my great aunt Jean's silver compact, and other boxes that have been part of the family, somebody's cigarette case. I remember when Sadie was born, of course, I remember when Sadie was born, my first grandchild. And my mother said, What can I give Sadie? her first great grandchild. And we put together a shadowbox of a silver spoon that my mother carried with her from Europe. And there's a note to Sadie, that said, I brought the silver spoon with me when I left after the Holocaust. And I hope you will always have a silver spoon in your mouth.
I have it sitting in my room now, in a place where I see it every day. Here it is, you can see the spoon and a photo of Bubbe and Grandma. And the note, which because it's in the sun it faded a little bit, but you can still read it.
That's so wonderful. Thank you for showing us.
It's all of the little things. It's telling pieces of the story. It's maybe the boxes on the table and somebody picking one up and saying What is this? The gifts that you give; it would probably be a little counterproductive to sit down and say let's tell the family story. And you couldn't come up with it in total anyway. But it's it's about weaving it into everyday life.
So on the podcast, we always have Tikkun Olam time, when I invite my guests to share with listeners an idea for helping to repair the world. Do either of you have any advice that you would like to share or action you'd like to invite people to take to help heal the world?
Sadie and I are both interested in climate change. She's much more of an activist than I am. Her uncle Jonathan, my son, wrote a book about eating animals. It's the small actions we can take. I mean, certainly, you know, on a global level, the nations are all trying to figure out what they're going to do. But by eating meat less, we can make a huge impact. You don't have to give it up. But maybe do it only one day a week. If we take some individual actions we'll have a huge impact on preserving our climate. You can make a difference.
Thank you. Sadie?
I think that was a great, very practical tip. I was reading about this idea of being fractal and the way that we are on a micro level in our relationships, and then our lives sort of can reflect how we are on a big level. So just focusing on friendships and relationships and making sure that those express the qualities that we want to see in the bigger world.
Interesting. So I'm not sure I understand what when you say fractals. Can you explain that a little bit more?
Yeah. So it's a mathematical idea. I don't know if you've ever seen like a fern leaf for example, where on each little part of the fern it looks exactly like the greater part of the fern. And really the more you zoom in, it just keeps looking the exact same. If you take that sort of mathematical concept and translate it to like a social context, that the way we are on a micro level reflects the way we are on a macro level.
Wow, interesting. All right. Thank you, Esther and Sadie, thank you so much for joining me on The Book of Life.
Well, thank you!
Thank you so much for having us.
And thank you again to the Jewish grandparents network for setting up this program.
[TEASER #1] This is Josh Zel, cohost of the podcast Star Trek and the Jews. Heidi will be joining us on our show to talk about Jewish books on August 9, 2021. So come and check us out at StarTrekandtheJews.podbean.com or Star Trek and the Jews at all the places one normally finds podcasts. And in Book of Life tradition. I'd like to dedicate that episode to our friends at the Yiddish Book Center who over the years have graciously allowed us at Star Trek and the Jews to use their wonderful archival audio of the late Leonard Nimoy.
[TEASER #2] This is Nancy Werlin, author of Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good. And I want to dedicate this Book of Life podcast to your in-person reunion with a group of people that you absolutely love hanging around with. For me, for example, that's my book club. I wonder who yours is.
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Don't be a stranger. Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473 or BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Book of Life podcast Facebook page, or our Facebook discussion group, Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter to at @bookoflifepod. Want to read the books featured on the show? Buy them through Bookshop.org/shop/bookoflife to support the podcast and independent bookstores at the same time. You can also help us out by becoming a monthly supporter through Patreon or making a one time donation to our home library, the Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. You'll find links for all of that and more at BookofLife podcast.com. Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading