Jonathan Franzen’s Jewish Riddle

By Joshua Furst.

November 22, 2010.

Originally published by Mischief and Mayhem.

I’m not here to coronate. Jonathan Franzen has written another Franzen-ish book and it’s everything you’d assume it would be: a multi-generational morality tale playing heavily on the big topics that have consumed so many of the past decade’s news cycles; a realist story told from multiple points of view with just enough stylish flourish to elevate its prose above that of all those other flatly realist stories clogging the bookstore shelves week after week; a wry yet precisely wrought examination of how the American upper-middle class experiences our present world. Freedom, the omnipresent new novel of which I speak, is, on the evidence, exactly the book Franzen set out to write.

I’m not here to pile on, either. Yes, this book has grandiose ideas of itself. How could it not with a title like that? Yes, it panders and spoon feeds its readers the “big ideas” it’s taking on. Just as he did in The Corrections, Franzen has in many ways yet again stationed himself in an elitist position vis a vis his essentially middle-brow story. He takes his flawed and hypocritical characters almost but not quite to their logical ends before rescuing them with some quick reversals, allowing the reader the requisite happy ending.

I’m not going to back these statements up with quotations from the text or a long plot summary to prove my point. There’s no need. You’re going to read this book. Everyone is going to read this book. Even before it was published, it had already become a cultural phenomenon. The cover of Time, two starry eyed New York Times reviews, Oprah’s Book Club—the accolades and awards will keep coming, I’m sure.

I’m not bitter about this. It makes complete sense. Franzen has written an accessible book with intellectual pretentions that, while never quite challenging its readers, allows them feel like they’re seriously engaging with the issues of their time. It’s a hard book not to like, regardless of whether you agree with its aesthetic and narrative ideas.

What I am here to do is something that seems to be missing in all the chatter about Freedom. I’m here to parse its meaning. What is it about? And what is it trying to say about its world? Because, let’s face it, if this book is going to be as omnipresent in our culture as it appears destined to become, we should at least grapple a little with its substance, lest it become an empty meme.

Freedom contains enough subplots to encompass unending arguments regarding its meaning. The environmental movement, Iraq War contractors, aging rock stars, women’s basketball, gentrification—there are threads in this book that focus on all of these topics and more. I’ll leave the overarching syntheses of these threads to the inevitable doctoral theses in Freedom’s future and focus here on a single one that seems to me to be central to the books thesis: Judaism.

All but one of the novel’s main characters are Jewish to one degree or another. The story revolves around the Berglunds, Patty and Walter, nice liberal strivers who at the start of the book, are homesteading in one of the more dilapidated neighborhoods of St. Paul, Minnesota. Though Walter is a typical Midwestern Swede, Patty, whose narrative consumes the first hundred pages or so, is half-Jewish, from her mother’s side. Walter’s best friend, and Patty’s inamorato, Richard Katz, around whom much of the story revolves, is a swarthy, sexy New York rocker who’s also half-Jewish, this time from the father’s side. Joey, Walter and Patty’s son, who will evolve into the fourth central characters in the book, periodically embraces his Jewish heritage, albeit usually when he has something to gain by the association. Add to this Joey’s Conservative Jewish college roommate Jonathan, Jonathan’s stupefyingly hot sister Jenna, and their unnamed neo-con father, as well as Patty’s extended family, notably her brother Edgar and his wife, who, as we learn near the end of the book, are experimenting with the Orthodox tradition.

That’s a lot of Jews for a book set mostly in the blond, blue eyed Midwest and written by a goy. And though comparatively little is explicitly made of this fact throughout the course of the story, the political and cultural station of all these Jews is central to Franzen’s analysis of the state of our nation and its discontents.

We could schematize this.

Patty Berglund grew up in Westchester County, New York, the daughter of a Jewish woman from Brooklyn who, turning her back on her faith, dove neck deep into liberal politics and spent her adult life as a member of the New York State Assembly. She—Patty’s mother Joyce—is in many ways the classic New York liberal Jew, having shucked off the religious baggage and replaced it with a Democratic Party membership card.

Patty herself has no relationship at all with her religious heritage—it’s noted, repeatedly, but her identity is never once influenced by the spiritual, cultural or historical weight of Judaism, rather it’s presented as dutiful, and incidental, back story. Her physical features even seem scrubbed of Judaism. In the very first sentence of her section of the novel, she proclaims herself an atheist. She’s the Jewish Defense League’s greatest nightmare, a fully assimilated Jew, vaguely liberal, though mostly apolitical, obsessive about her children and not much else, so at home in the great American void that one gets the feeling that she wouldn’t even be able to tell you what Rosh Hoshashana was, much less connect in any meaningful way with her Jewishness.

A nice parallel exists between Patty and Richard Katz, he of the famous Jewish surname, who isn’t technically Jewish at all, having inherited the genes from his father instead of his mother. He’s swarthy—described in the book as looking like Muammar el-Qaddafi, “the same black hair, the same tan pockmarked cheeks, the same satisfied-strongman-reviewing-the-troops-and-rocket-launchers mask of a smile.” He too is fully estranged from his heritage—the religion is sex, drugs and rock and roll in his case—but at least he’s got that late 70s New York hipster style with the black t-shirts and boots and ethnic cool. He’s the flip side of Patty’s suburban Americana: the edgy, hyper-intelligent urban artist trying so hard to retain his integrity. Another Jewish type, to my way of thinking.

With these three, we see, in broad strokes, the progression of a certain strain of postwar American Jewery: the replacement of religion with left leaning political activism—with Secular Humanism—which leads to great personal success, in both the social and monetary sense, followed in the next generation by a taking for granted of all that’s been won. The children are free, from hunger and fear, but also from all those pesky religious strictures that might stand in the way of their taking whatever they want from the world around them. They can ignore their heritage, like Patty does. They can us it as a marketable personal trait, build a persona around bits and pieces of it, as Katz seems to have done. Either way, their history is weightless, a bit of trivia, an interesting detail. As Patty puts it, “I think when it comes to religion, you’re only what you say you are. Nobody else can say it for you.”

One has to ask, though, if religion is irrelevant to these people’s lives, why does Franzen spend so many pages exploring the traces of Judaism in their pasts?

Much has been made of the scene midway through Freedom where Patty’s son Joey, himself rebelling by embracing the Bush era conservative ethos, spends Thanksgiving dinner with the neo-con family of his roommate. Here the paterfamilias gives a long disquisition, over the turkey, laying out all the tried and true justifications for the Iraq war and neatly tying them up in a Zionist package. People have questioned the believability of such direct and pedantic conversations taking place at the dinner table, they’ve questioned the veracity of characters with such an obsessive interest in their own Jewishness, its role and meaning in the political realm. I had no trouble believing this scene—the tangled blood knot between American imperialism and extreme Zionism is well documented and undeniable, and in my experience at least, when Jews gather together, they banter about, revel in, mock, and constantly reference the cultural heritage that sets them apart from the Christian majority. What struck me about this scene was how it contrasted with shrugging lack of interest the other characters take in their own Judaism.

And I can’t but think that this is a purposeful choice on Franzen’s part. The plot of the story—much like the events of recent history—unambiguously discredits the belief system of the neo-cons and their racketeering business partners. Joey surges out of this Thanksgiving dinner as a true believer in the twin causes of American capital war making and their ability to force liberty on the less fortunate parts of the globe. He goes into business selling junk truck parts, so rusty that they’re essentially useless, to a US Army in desperate need material support.

By these lights, it appears that Franzen is trying to say something about Judaism after all, about the ways it does and doesn’t contribute to the political and ethical siege our country has been undergoing for the past ten years. Or maybe—more likely—he’s recognized the roles Jews and Jewish thought have played in the intellectual and political history of America, and with due diligence, he’s weaving this history into his story.

When Joey’s conscience finally catches up with him, it’s not so coincidentally while he’s on vacation in Patagonia with the beautiful but craven Jenna, for whom he’s been pining for 200 pages. At the moment of truth, he rejects her, and eventually, he rejects the ethos of her father’s ideas as well. For the rest of the novel, he will search for ways to spend the gobs of money he has amassed on causes like saving the environment.

This dovetails nicely with the apotheosis of Patty near the end of the book. When she arrives at a provisional peace with herself, she does so by taking her private, essentially selfish concerns—with children, with family, with sports and the thrill of victory—and translating them into the public realm, “living in Brooklyn and working as a teacher’s aid in a private school, helping first-graders with their language skills and coaching softball and basketball in the middle school.” It is, according to her, and one assumes Franzen too, a “wretchedly paid but otherwise nearly ideal job.” She becomes, in other words, a model of the Secular Humanist ideal, secular but conscious of her responsibility to her society and the need to engage that society with compassion.

She also reconciles with her liberal mother and takes on the politically complicated job of brokering a way to break up the family’s estate and equitably distributing the fortune it represents. This requires her to navigate the entrenched resentments and passive-aggressive battles her family members have been waging against each other for their entire adult lives, and it’s in this context that we meet her brother Edgar and his wife Galina, who, together, are experimenting with Orthodox Judaism, popping out children by the bushel, haphazardly farming the controversial estate. They’re presented as colorful oddballs, a bit kooky, but generally good-intentioned. Patty inevitably succeeds in finding a way to coax compromise out of all her family members, leaving them each partially happy and in all cases emotionally and economically better off than they had been. Edgar and his wife move off the estate to live in an Orthodox community in upstate New York where they “don’t seem to be causing active harm to anybody.”

It’s dangerous to presume that characters in any given book are meant to signify something greater than themselves, but in Franzen’s work, the narrative and characterological parallels are so consciously tracked and the prose strives so consistently for social relevance, that he seem practically to beg you to search for significance. We’re meant to see Patty and Joey and the rest of them, not just as characters in a novel, but as proxies for ourselves and our lives. He’s dramatizing the social ailments of our times in hopes of leading us out of them. There’s an explicit claim, in his work, to social, moral and political righteousness, and so it’s completely appropriate to ask where exactly he’s trying to lead us.

The fusion of religion and politics horrifies him. Religion for its own sake is quaint, but he’s not one to condemn people for their private views. As each of Freedom’s heroes eventually discovers, the only socially responsible stance one can take, if one is to find a way out of our current quagmire, is Secular Humanism, which of course has its roots tangled deep in the history of Jewish thought.

(The original Mischief and Mayhem post of this piece is viewable at