Curious by Profession

American Jewish journalist Joshua Foer, 27, apparently has one of the best memories in the world - and there's even proof to back this up.

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

Apparently American Jewish journalist Joshua Foer, 27, has one of the best memories in the world - and there's even proof to back this up. In 2005 he attended the United States Memory Championship for the first time, an annual event bringing together devotees of mental exercises of all ages from around the country. Foer, there to cover the event for Slate magazine, was immediately captivated by the astounding abilities of the human brain. A year later he was back, but this time as a participant - and he won first prize.

Memory Championship competitors participate in five different events. First, they have to memorize 99 names and faces within 15 minutes, then memorize a 50-line poem, after that they must remember series of random numbers and words, and finally reproduce the exact order of a shuffled deck of cards. Legendary memory champions, most of whom come from Europe, manage to memorize the order of a shuffled deck within less than a minute.

Foer pictured in Jerusalem earlier this monthCredit: Emil Salman

During his first visit, as a reporter, Foer met a British memory champion who offered to train him personally. "He taught me all kinds of techniques that were invented in ancient Greece about 2,500 years ago," explains Foer. "People have used them throughout history to memorize entire books. We don't use our memory the way people used it in the past. The iPhone, the Internet and even the library didn't used to exist. Nowadays I don't need to memorize a whole book because I can simply order it from Amazon."

The human brain, he explains, is not built to remember abstract signs like digits or cards, but anyone who succeeds in translating those signs into clear images can easily memorize long series of them. This basic technique was developed by the Greek poet Simonides in the year 477 B.C.E. and is based on a kind of imaginary walk through a palace where you "deposit" images in various rooms.

"It might sound ridiculous," says Foer, "but if you actually stroll in this imaginary palace you can keep images in your memory for a very long time."

He not only succeeded in improving his memory, he also wrote a book, "Moonwalking with Einstein," in which he describes his experiences in great detail. According to reports, in 2006 Penguin publishing house paid Foer a $1.2 million advance on the book, set to be released soon. Negotiations for him to write a Hollywood script are also underway.

'A naive encounter'

Foer, who lives with this wife in New Haven, Connecticut, is a sworn fan of adventures - and not only mental ones. As an independent journalist who has written for publications like National Geographic, Outside and the New York Times, he is interested in topics that "expand our knowledge of what is possible in the world." In other words, Foer is curious by profession.

Last year, for example, he visited a remote site in Congo where a troupe of chimpanzees that had never encountered humans live. "Most chimpanzees run away when they see humans because they know we are bad for them," he explains. "These ones were curious. They called their friends to see what was going on in their territory." This, says Foer, is called a "naive encounter."

Surprisingly, he developed his writing skills on his own. Foer studied at Yale, where he focused on evolutionary biology, and apparently "inherited" the attraction to writing from his two older brothers. The middle of them, Jonathan Safran Foer, is a well-known writer of fiction, while the eldest brother, Franklin, edits The New Republic. Joshua Foer grew up in an ambitious and loving Jewish family in Washington. His father is a lawyer and his mother runs a public relations office.

"It's funny we all became writers," says Foer. "My parents don't write and neither did anyone in my family. When we meet for dinner we speak about regular family issues." His two brothers, adds Foer, are his best friends.

He has translated his academic background into writing on various topics in popular science, while also satisfying his curiosity about the wonders of the world. He has found a patron in Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century German scholar who engaged in a variety of fields - from geology to medicine - and is often compared to Leonardo da Vinci.

"He was one of the most interesting people in Europe in that time," says Foer. "You would see him showing in all kinds of places. He was this crazy person who basically wrote about everything interesting."

As an ardent fan, he founded an organization called the Athanasius Kircher Society and appointed himself secretary. About 500 people attended the evening of wonders he organized in New York. Among the speakers was a so-called "Rain Man," able to give precise answers to questions about any date in history.

As part of his search for wonders of the world, Foer also established a site called Atlas Obscura, "A catalogue of the singular, eccentric, bizarre, fantastical and strange out-of-the-way places that get left out of traditional travel guidebooks." In Israel, for example, the site recommends the unique geology of the Ramon Crater in the Negev, as well as the secret collection of pornographic Stalag fiction on Nazi exploitation at the National Library in Jerusalem.

Reinventing the sukkah

Foer's latest adventure is connected to the wonders of the Jewish world, but is already attracting attention from across the globe. Last year, as he was building a sukkah - for the celebration of the Sukkot holiday - in his backyard, he thought about holding an international sukkah competition.

"The idea," he says, "is to take an ancient Jewish tradition and see how it can be given an innovative interpretation suited to our time. We hope to change what the world knows and thinks about the sukkah," he explains.

He enlisted Roger Bennett of the New York-based Reboot organization, which addresses issues of contemporary Jewish identity, and architect and critic Thomas de Monchaux of Columbia University.

"The Sukkot holiday expresses amazing philosophical and social ideas, but in Judaism in the United States it is considered less important than Rosh Hashanah or Passover. The moment people realize the tremendous potential of the sukkah, they might reconnect to it," Foer says.

The Sukkah City competition, which will take place over two days in September, will see 12 experimental sukkahs erected in Manhattan's Union Square. Foer hopes the entries will be planned by leading architects, designers and artists from around the world. From among the 12 sukkahs, one will be chosen to remain at the site for the entire holiday and will be open to the public.

While this might sound like quite an esoteric idea at first, the response from the professional audience has been astounding. So far more than 800 contestants from around the world have signed up - both Jews and non-Jews. Foer has also succeeded in recruiting outstanding jury members, like New York architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Pritzker Prize laureate Thom Mayne, Israeli-British designer Ron Arad and the most important architecture blogger, Geoff Manaugh of Bldgblog. As of now the number of registrants from Israel is relatively small; Foer hopes this article will encourage local architects to participate.

Registration will close on July 1 and a month later participants will be required to submit detailed proposals. Among those who have promised to participate are nearly all the outstanding young firms in New York, including SO-IL, which is responsible this year for designing the publicized temporary pavilion at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Brooklyn.

The 12 winning entrants will have to build their sukkahs under their own steam - like the Children of Israel who built their sukkahs in the desert. With the significant response thus far, Foer hopes the competition will become a tradition in New York and will gradually spread to other cities around the world. Israel is certainly the first obvious destination.



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