Two Jews, Three Opinions: Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer
In the Haggadah, the book of prayers used at Passover, there is an anecdote—the Rabbis Eliezar, Joshua, Elazer, Akivah and Tarphon held a Seder, but so engrossed were they in debating the finer points of Exodus all night that they did not notice that the sun had risen. Admittedly, it’s not the most thrilling of anecdotes, but it gives you some idea of what the Rabbinic tradition looks like—a tradition that Jonathan Safran Foer explicitly locates himself in. As they say, two Jews, three opinions, and it’s hard to find a character in Here I Am’s 600-odd pages who isn’t Jewish.
All this is a long-winded way of saying that Safran Foer’s family drama is an explicitly intellectual affair, one that makes a great deal of its own erudition. Loosely speaking, the novel follows the implosion of the Bloch family. Jacob and Julia try to navigate their collapsing marriage whilst causing as little upset to their young but preternaturally bright children—it’s not a Serious Literary Enterprise if it features a child acting their age, after all—as possible. Just as his parents’ commitment to each other is being tested, Sam is testing his and his family’s commitment to their Judaism in struggling towards a Bar Mitzvah that he feels he should want far more than he actually wants, one that is far more a gesture towards the idea of being religious than it is an act of religion. As Jacob observes, “He’d never not belonged to a synagogue, never not made some sort of gesture towards kashrut, never not assumed […] that he could raise his children with some degree of Jewish literacy and practice. But double negatives never sustained a religion.”
Quite a way through the novel, however, the stakes are radically changed when an earthquake strikes Israel and the wider Middle East. Its epicentre is the Temple Mount, holy to both Muslims and Jews, and much of Jerusalem is buried. The Israeli government—Safran Foer doesn’t explicitly say it’s not the Netanyahu government, but it’s not not Netanyahu’s govvernment—reaction does not exactly help relationships with Israel’s neighbours, febrile at the best of times. In short order, the Jewish state is fighting for its existence, and the Diaspora has to come to terms with a radical change in the terms of its own existence. The rhetorical claim that Israel makes on the Jews of the Diaspora becomes paramount as not-Netanyahu calls on hundreds of thousands of Jews to come to Israel’s defence and swell the depleted ranks of the IDF. To identify with the Diaspora is to navigate with a strange paradox, to tread a fine line between competing loyalties—or to be seen as treading such a line, sometimes more crucially, and Safran Foer brings this paradox into full view.
Sadly, all of this happens too late. Here I Am is a vast and capacious book, a huge and self-consciously erudite burlesque that pays homage as much to Woody Allen’s wry, self-aware comedies of manners as it does Philip Roth: it’s nigh-impossible to write a teenaged Jewish character without Portnoy’s Complaint coming to mind, and Safran Foer doesn’t shy away from this. One could easily argue that Here I Am is too capacious—there’s a few too many Bloch children, making a few too many wry and wise quips. Consequently, when Safran Foer’s critique of Diaspora politics comes to play, 300-odd pages through a 600 page book, it doesn’t make much of a splash in a pool that’s already choppy with a whole tradition of humour and wisdom.
A copy of Here I Am was generously provided for review by Penguin Random House.