The only time I ever visited Israel, more than 20 years ago, I encountered a rabbi who subjected me to a friendly interrogation on the subject of my tribal bona fides. That’s what happens when you’re caught wandering around Mount Scopus with a cloudy birthright and an Anglo-Saxon surname. Upon learning the tangled facts of my background—not necessarily his business or yours—he smiled and exclaimed, with mock (or mocking) gravity: “Long live the Jewish identity crisis!”
As if there could ever be just one. For modern American Jews, bred in an atmosphere of religious pluralism and consumerist freedom of choice, the question of what it is to be Jewish grows more complicated with every generation. Does the essence of Jewishness dwell in religious observance or ethical questioning? In obedience to Jewish law or a taste for certain jokes and foodstuffs? In reverence for your parents or rebellion against them? And while we’re at it (deep breath, heavy sigh, clenched teeth): What about Israel?
The great virtue—and also the great vexation—of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, his first in more than a decade, is its meticulous, exhausting attention to such matters. Thinking in cascades of questions, and answering questions with more questions, is a trait he and his characters share. (“Did it thrill Jacob? Did it depress him? It depressed him. But why?”) Even the simple declaration of the title, taken from the Book of Genesis, raises a million questions. Here I Am. But where is here? Who are you? And what dimension of being is this?
“Here I am,” Foer informs us, is what Abraham says to his son Isaac on their way to the place of sacrifice. It’s also what a child who is worried about not being found might say during a game of hide-and-seek. Geographically, “here” might be the diaspora, where most Jews throughout history have found themselves. The book’s specific diasporic locus is Washington, D.C., where four generations of the Bloch family live in reasonable comfort. Their experiences of home are shadowed by terrible memories of Europe and by the ambiguous promise of Israel, which even the happiest exiles are supposed to regard as an ideal future home, or at least a refuge of last resort.
Where the Blochs belong—where, by implication, the rest of us comfortable, conflicted American Jews belong—is the biggest conundrum this big book confronts. Israel is not exactly a taboo subject for American Jewish novelists, but it isn’t a very popular one, either. Here I Am joins Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock on the very short shelf of novels dealing with the competing claims of Zionism and what Roth’s manic mouthpiece Moishe Pipik called Diasporism. But the book’s political themes don’t emerge right away. They fester for a while in the shade of other Rothian preoccupations, including sex, psychotherapy, and the inter- and intragenerational conflicts between men.
Fathers and sons (brothers, too) figure prominently here, as they do in so many Jewish stories, both secular and sacred. If the book’s frontispiece were adorned with a family tree, in the manner of the old-fashioned family sagas it sometimes resembles, the trunk would be the male Bloch line. Isaac, the patriarch (who bears the name of the most famous son in the Torah), begat Irv, who begat Jacob, who fruitfully sired Sam, Max, and Benjy. There is a lot of cultural history in that sequence of Hebrew- and Anglo-Saxon-derived names, and also in the biographies attached to them. Isaac, a Holocaust survivor whose wrenching life story is evoked in Foer’s lyrical opening paragraphs, is a paragon of suffering and stoicism. He was a shopkeeper whose son grew up to be a creature of the Beltway, a civil libertarian and media gadfly obsessed with the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in the modern world and the importance of Jewish toughness in response to it.
Jacob, with whose travails Foer is principally concerned, is a successful but creatively frustrated television writer with a prizewinning novel in his past and scripts for a deeply personal unproduced series in his desk drawer. His wife, Julia—mother of Sam, Max, and Benjy—is an architect, and the collapse of their marriage is one of the twin catastrophes that ground a hectic, sprawling narrative. The other is the destruction of Israel, an event foreshadowed in the novel’s first sentence that arrives, more or less, some 250 pages later in the form of an earthquake and a war.
The incommensurability of these disasters is the novel’s central problem, by which I mean both its main concern and its major difficulty. Here I Am asks how an individual person—a man, to be precise—can exist in two realms at once, in the broad, rushing stream of collective history and in the kiddie pool of his own special qualms and urges. For Isaac, this isn’t really a question at all. “Not to have a choice,” he likes to say, “is also a choice,” which can be taken as a statement of ethical integrity in the teeth of impossible circumstances. Tamir, Jacob’s Israeli second cousin and childhood companion, has similarly been cured of ambiguity by circumstance, and echoes Isaac’s wisdom. Once the destruction begins, Tamir, who is visiting Washington for Sam’s bar mitzvah, can think only of returning home to fight, and to find his oldest son, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. Jacob is distracted by homelier crises: marital malaise, filial estrangement, the looming necessity of putting down the family’s aging, incontinent dog.
Irv’s answer to the dilemma of American Jewish existence is to politicize everything, to turn every private conversation into a harangue on matters of public principle. Sam, a sensitive adolescent, literally—which is to say virtually—splits himself in two, living much of the time as and through a female computer-game avatar named Samanta. Poor Jacob, a resentful son, a worried dad, and a less than fully committed husband, is perpetually stuck in the middle. He listens to NPR and a lot of podcasts, and isn’t exactly indifferent to what he hears—in fact, he and his creator both have the annoying habit of interrupting the action to share what they have learned—but the defining glories and traumas of his existence can be found close to home. The family is still haunted by an accident in which Sam’s hand was caught in a door and badly injured. Jacob and Julia once had amazing sex at a rural inn in Pennsylvania. Now he exchanges filthy text messages with a co-worker on a secret cellphone. His inner life is a rich tapestry of ambivalence, anxiety, and misplaced aggression. “I’m smaller than life,” he complains to Tamir, after mockingly cataloguing the triviality of his problems.
Perhaps without meaning to—because really, who would set out to do such a thing?—Foer has made a significant contribution to the emerging literature of the Gen X male’s midlife crisis. Here I Am belongs in the diffident, self-conscious company of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask. The comparison may well infuriate the three writers, who of course each represent a unique and exquisite sensibility. But all I can say is: It takes one to know one.
And many readers in Foer’s rough demographic cohort—we know who we are, right?—will recognize Jacob: his neediness, his narcissism, his blend of ostentatious sensitivity and wounded macho pride. In his sext life he talks like a boss (“i’ll keep making you cum after you beg me to stop”), while at home he pouts and pleads, accommodates and equivocates. Julia has problems of her own, no doubt. She is bored with Jacob, tempted by a newly separated family friend, fed up with the imperatives of just-right motherhood, and longing, above all, to be left alone. She spends most of the novel in exile, not just from the sticky circle of male affection that defines the Bloch family, but also from the full measure of Foer’s empathy. His attempts to depict her sexual fantasies are voyeuristic. (“Her pants and underwear were pulled down only far enough to expose her ass. She pressed her face into the seat, and pushed her ass out. She spread her legs as wide as the pants would allow.”) And despite his overly demonstrative efforts to be fair to her, Julia is finally a bit of a cipher. She’s the cold mom, the distant wife, the skeptical spectator in the circus tent of big-boy feelings.
Like many people of their age and background—not only nice Jewish boys, by any means—Foer and Jacob struggle to adapt to the demands of adulthood. In his earlier novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, published while he was still in his 20s, Foer embraced the persona of the gifted, innocent child, filtering horrific real-life material—the Shoah and the 9/11 attacks—through the perceptions of naive, openhearted young characters. His subsequent nonfiction book, Eating Animals, a heartfelt argument for ethical vegetarianism, was similarly grounded in the moral and imaginative authority of youth. His voice was that of a wise and loving grandchild challenging (and gently shaming) his elders for their inconsistency and shortsightedness.
In Here I Am, Sam takes on this role. His younger brothers chime in from time to time with adorable kids-say-the-darnedest-things observations, but Sam possesses the Bloch family’s most refined conscience and its most receptive consciousness. He sees and understands more than the grown-ups do, and grasps their motives and actions with preternatural insight. In his gaming, he is a world-builder, capable of the kind of imaginative daring that his father has sacrificed to the imperatives of making a living.
In some respects, Foer’s own imagination seems to have been chastened and disciplined. Here I Am lacks some of the postmodernist fireworks—the poetic and typographic inventions, the flights of magic-realist mumbo jumbo—that decorated his earlier fiction, though there are times when the conventional narrative is disrupted by video-game transcripts, teleplay excerpts, and speeches taken from news broadcasts. But most of the action is folded into scenes of sitcom-esque domestic realism, featuring dialogue studded with beats of carefully inflected smiling-through-the-pain humor:
“How’s your grandfather?” Tamir asked.
“Compared to what?”
“To how he was last time I saw him.”
“That was a decade ago.”
“So he’s older, probably.”
“He’s moving in a couple of days.”
“Yup. To the Jewish Home.”
“What’s he got left?”
“Are you asking me how much longer he is expected to live?”
“You find such complicated ways to say such simple things.”
“I can only tell you what his doctor told me.”
“He’s been dead for five years.”
“A medical miracle.”
As in Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer is still capable of showing off for his readers like a precocious child, eager to impress us with how much he knows and the amazing things he can do. But with respect to his characters, he is more of a helicopter parent, affirming their specialness and shielding them from judgment.
In his first two novels, Foer turned unthinkable—but real—calamities into literary opportunities, illuminating the horrors of history with his own ingenuity and sensitivity. Here I Am does the opposite, using an invented disaster to shed light on the moods and muddles of people a lot like himself. The destruction of Israel feels like a distant abstraction compared with the upheavals of the Bloch household. While this may represent a failure of novelistic craft, it is consistent with the book’s conclusions about the place of the Jewish homeland in American Jewish life. The Promised Land is a shibboleth, a red herring, a monumental distraction.
Foer is so overtly sympathetic to the claims of Zionism—and, at least within the confines of this novel, so profoundly indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians and the schisms and snarls of Israeli politics—that Here I Am can’t be called, in any obvious sense, an anti-Zionist book. Rather, like Operation Shylock but even more insistently, it locates within the American Jewish experience a plausible counter-Zionism, a mode of Jewish identity that Foer refuses to regard as less authentic or heroic than the Israeli version. Jacob and Julia’s separation is not the only one enacted in this novel. We might end the Passover seder with “next year in Jerusalem,” but our horizons are fixed in Brooklyn and Brookline, in Bethesda and Berkeley, where we tend to our kids, our careers, and our libidos, and by means of these commitments sustain our beautiful Jewish souls.
Such a conclusion is sure to make some people angry, even—or especially—some people who already practice what Foer is preaching. One of the hallmarks of the bourgeois-liberal ideology that Jacob and Julia Bloch embody is the conviction of its own moral and spiritual insufficiency. The Blochs need to check their privilege, right? Surely they understand that in the history of their tribe (and every other tribe), hurt fingers and hurt feelings don’t amount to a hill of beans.
But maybe it’s a hill worth fighting for. Here I Am is a maddening, messy, marvelously contradictory novel: a passionate hymn to complacency; a wildly overreaching defense of modesty and caution; a big, bombastic celebration of the smallness of life.