How do you prepare for a Jewish Book Week event with Jonathan Safran Foer? If you’re Etgar Keret, you shave your sideburns.
Tonight’s event isn’t their first together, and while each is a fan of the other’s work, Jonathan mercilessly sent up Etgar’s hairdo when they last shared a stage. Even though Etgar gets to play chair this time round, he isn’t taking any chances.
Both are inventive, zingy authors, and both turn out to be vegetarians. They’re here to discuss Jonathan’s new book, Eating Animals, a polemic against factory farming that fuses memoir, history and investigative journalism.
Etgar’s approach to the debate is altogether more laidback. ‘I’m just a confused guy who doesn’t eat meat. I’m an apologetic vegetarian,’ he confesses at the start. He’s found that vegetarianism elicits an ironically violent response, and is hopeful that Jonathan’s book will save him from future dinner party spats. ‘Now I can just hand over your book.’
In case anyone thinks to argue that kosher meat is more humane, healthier, Jonathan reasons against that, too. He grew up in a household whose approach to dietary laws was ‘We’re not kosher but we don’t eat that.’ Nevertheless, he understood kashrut to be about stewardship and respect for the natural world. Today, he says, vegetarianism is the only reliable way to fulfill that duty.
The title of a Jewish Book Week session only hints at the ground that will be covered. Despite the excitement of a fire alarm and an evacuation at the start, Jonathan and Etgar crammed in reflections on the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, forbidden desires, and a pope joke.
And then there was this. While Jonathan and his wife are raising their two sons vegetarian, Etgar and his vegetarian spouse have spawned a baby meat-eater. When asked by his four-year-old why he doesn’t eat schnitzels, Etgar explained that he thought about the animal being killed and lost his appetite. ‘I think the same thought,’ his carnivorous son grinned, ‘But with me it has the opposite effect.’ That, quipped Jonathan, is the difference between American Jews and Israelis.
p.s. You can hear me talking with Jonathan about his bubbe’s vegetarian recipes and more in the next Guardian ‘Sounds Jewish’ podcast.
Hephzibah Anderson is the author of Chastened: My Old-Fashioned Adventure in Modern Romance (Vintage). She has spent the past five years writing a monthly debut fiction column for The Observer. She was Fiction Editor at the Daily Mail from 2003 until 2007 and previously spent three years as an art critic for The Evening Standard.