Nicole Krauss and the Wandering Jew in the Post-Holocaust World

Nicole Krauss image

There are more than half a million Jews in Brooklyn-a whopping 25 percent of the New York City borough-and literary superstar Nicole Krauss, who has been preoccupied with Jewish themes since the release of her second novel, The History of Love, in 2005, is one of them. But that doesn't mean that the writer, now 43, feels at home in Brooklyn--or anywhere else for that matter.

A sense of dislocation-of being there and of not being there, of being in one place and of being in another place at the same time-haunts her just-published novel, Forest Dark , in which a writer, also named Nicole, facing serious writer's block and a marriage heading south, experiences significant shifts in her cosmos.

"The idea of being in two places at once goes back a long way with me," Nicole the character says early on in the novel. "[T]he possibility of being both here and there was stored substrata along with all of my other childish notions, until one autumn afternoon when I came through the door of the house I shared with my husband and our two children, and sensed that I was already there."

Soon after, the character leaves her husband and children behind in a gentrified part of Brooklyn for an extended stay in Israel, where she goes on a proverbial wild goose chase after some putatively unpublished work by the late Czech Jewish writer Franz Kafka. But she is not the only Jewish character in Forest Dark on a quest for a sense of place in the world.

The other character, Jules Epstein, a very rich, very successful partner in a Manhattan law firm, gives up his wife, career, art collection, and New York apartment with all the trimmings, and travels to Israel, where he becomes involved with a charismatic rabbi and a film about King David being shot in the desert.

The wandering Jew, the Jew on a journey, the Jew in the diaspora seeking a spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual home-these are issues with which Krauss, along with her characters, has personal experience.

Though she grew up in a cushy part of Long Island, surrounded by many successful Jews, Krauss said, in a recent interview before a national tour to promote Forest Dark , she never felt at home there. This was caused, in part, by geography. Neighbors' homes were spaced far apart, she recounted, and people didn't know each other. "My family didn't have local friends," she said. "We were very much solitary there."

But Krauss' lack of rootedness to her home turf was far deeper-and more existential-than that.

"Growing up, there was an abstract sense of home that created nostalgia for other places," Krauss said, alluding to the many corners of the planet from which her family hailed.

Krauss' mother had grown up in an Orthodox family in London, her father traveled as a child between the United States and Israel, and her four grandparents came from various Jewish communities throughout Europe: Germany, Ukraine, Hungary, and Belarus. "I grew up with a family whose original sense of home was elsewhere," she said. "It was a home that was left and lost."

In such an environment, Krauss said, "I never really had a sense of being an American." Jews are a people, she added, who early on "are taught that our identities are portable."

From a young age herself, Krauss traveled throughout the world with her family, visiting Jewish communities throughout Europe as well as her grandparents in Israel. Her understanding of her own Jewishness, she said, came not only from a family with "an urgency for preservation" in a post-Holocaust world, but also from her deep readings of Jewish writers--including Kafka, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bruno Schulz, Yehuda Amichai, and David Grossman-in the years since she earned degrees from Stanford and London's Courtauld Institute.

Like her Forest Dark character Nicole, Krauss lives in Brooklyn, as does her ex-husband, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, with whom she shares custody of their two children. Yet Israel has become a stronger draw in recent years. Though she is loath to call it or Brooklyn her permanent home, she goes to Israel four or five times a year to visit her Israeli partner and many friends and family. "I instinctively understand things about the people there," Krauss said. "Walking down the street there in Israel, I feel awake and alive to the unspooling narrative."   

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.  


Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.