In the parsha we read on Rosh Hashanah, God calls out “Abraham”, and the latter replies, “Here I am”. So begins the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, in which “Here I am” signals Abraham’s readiness to serve God. Yet a few lines later, Isaac calls out, “My father”, and Abraham again replies, “Here I am”. How is this possible? How can Abraham be there for both God and Isaac? How can he kill his son and yet still protect him? And more broadly, can he be both a good Jew and a loyal father? The point is that Abraham is willing to try to be both, which is probably why God lets him off the hook.
In Jonathan Safran Foer’s long-awaited third novel, modern Jewry is exposed as cataclysmically inept at juggling its various duties. And in spite of what is hinted at in the Book of Genesis, now God is letting no one off the hook. An earthquake, triggered from the depths of the Dead Sea, strikes the Middle East; synagogues, churches and mosques are obliterated and thousands of people are crushed beneath the rubble. Israel is invaded by Arab forces and all vestiges of morality fly out of the window. By the time a ceasefire is signed, the world is too disillusioned to celebrate.
Here I Am moves deftly and irreverently between the cosmic and the microcosmic; while the Middle East crumbles and Jerusalem burns, the shortcomings of modern Jewish life are encapsulated in the character of Jacob Bloch, a kind of Everyman, American–Jewish version. Jacob’s life is a mess: he and his eldest son, Sam, who is about to celebrate his bar mitzvah, have both been accused of writing something unforgivable. The two offences—and their content—are not linked: Sam is in trouble with the rabbi and Jacob is in hot water with his wife, Julia. In the eyes of Jewish law, Sam, still a child, is not yet accountable for his actions, while Jacob, aged 44, is bound, body and soul, by the covenant of marriage.
What are the consequences of their actions? In a world where consumerism vies with escapism, is there room for spirituality? Jacob and his wife Julia certainly mean well; in the first throes of love they envisage a “religion for two”, marked by tender rituals. They “collect, when travelling, things whose insides had an aspect of being larger than their outsides: the ocean contained in a seashell, a used typewriter ribbon, the world in a mirror.” But eventually, the daily grind of life takes over and “the inside of life became far smaller than the outside, creating a cavity.”
The search for meaning in the modern world is no small matter; Foer’s portrayal of a family on the brink of “floating off into that emptiness” is ambitious—the novel is almost 600 pages—and sobering. It is also humorous, and riotously dirty with passages that would make Philip Roth blush. There is much of the postmodern playfulness and linguistic acrobatics familiar from his first two novels. Here I Am regularly switches between narrative styles and typefaces: from straight prose, to text messaging, online gaming forums, news reports, screenplays and fanatical hate speeches. But unlike the precocious ruminations of nine-year-old Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or the mind-boggling earnestness of the Thesaurus-toting Alexander Perchov in Everything is Illuminated, both of which roused equal measures of admiration and irritation, the members of the Bloch family make for soothingly easy company.
Here I Am is ambivalent about the state of modern Jewry. When Sam Bloch asks his parents about a theological paradox—if God was everywhere, where did He put the world when He made it?—we read that the answer is the Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum: God, in an act of extreme humility, made Himself smaller. Foer’s novel ponders the same question in reverse: amidst the everyday clutter of our lives, the relationships, the affairs, the sexual anxiety, the ambition for power and wealth, the impressive bar mitzvah buffets and the shiny renovations, are we able to make space for God? Or is it the case that three short words, “Here I am”, are the very hardest to say?
Here I Am
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Hamish Hamilton, 2016
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