No work of Jewish American literature since Operation Shylock has put Israel so at the center of its plot and its imaginative compass. Where Philip Roth’s earlier book entertained the possibility of all the Jews in Israel leaving the Middle East and returning to Europe, Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in over a decade goes one massive step forward: he imagines the Jewish State itself destroyed and indeed enacts Israel as a space at risk of being cancelled and undone, putting Israel in a state of both literary and literal peril.
Foer’s intentions are clear from the first page — even from the very first line — of the 600 pages of Here I Am: “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish home.” Foer starts with small-scale dissolution before moving on to larger scale destruction, spiraling outward from the implosion of one couple’s marriage and the slow-motion collapse of their family even as their sons grow.
Unhappy families have been grist for the mill for novels for as long as people have been writing and unhappy, and Here I Am is a worthy contribution to that dour company. Foer presents four generations of the Bloch family. Isaac is a Holocaust survivor at the end of his life; Irv, Isaac’s son, has acquired some notoriety as a right-wing blogger and incendiary conservative; Jacob, Irv’s son, is a writer (and National Jewish Book Award winner) who currently writes for a popular show vaguely analogous to Game of Thrones; his wife, Julia, is an architect, and they have three young sons.
If developments on the homefront comprise slower moving entropy, developments in Israel are rapid and dramatic. Alongside the undoing of the Bloch family, Foer stages a catastrophe in the Holy Land: an enormous earthquake that rocks the entire Middle East, reducing the West Bank to rubble and cutting out electricity across Israel, precipitating a humanitarian crisis. In the meantime, the surrounding states in the region mobilize en masse against Israel, echoing the events of 1967. The situation is aggravated by reports of a fire on the Temple Mount, which stokes the ever-present fears of a large-scale religious conflagration.
What does it mean when an American Jewish writer shares a fantasy with that of the Iranian Supreme Leader? Israel’s destruction precipitates a whole host of calculations on the part of the Bloch family about their relationship to Israel, Jewishness, and their own family history. Entertaining the possibility of Israeli extinction allows Foer to suss out the nooks and crannies of Jewish American identity and the limits of American Zionism. What kind of love is a love for place that is distant — or lost? What are its boundaries? How does it jostle for priority with other commitments? The book’s interest is in using an extreme scenario not to leap into fantasy but to dig deeper into the stressers and paradoxes already baked into the Jewish American relationship to Israel. Here I Am, which aspires to be a megillah of a certain Jewish American sensibility, builds its Rorschach test from the fever dreams of antisemites the world over.
Foer describes something different, and his redefinition of “destruction” speaks volumes about Israel as an imagined space for American Jews to project and reflect their own values. Hovering somewhere in between Jacob Bloch’s and Safran Foer’s narrative voice, Here I Am strikes close to the marrow of the Jewish American(s) who authored and populate the book:
Israel wasn’t destroyed—at least not in the literal sense. It remained a Jewish country, with a Jewish army, and borders only negligibly different from before the earthquake[…] Maybe it was worse to have survived, if continuing to be required destroying the reason to be.
After a long recitation of the ways in which American Jews never “stopped caring,” including vacations and tours and “finding themselves,” Foer gets to the nub of the matter: “But the feeling of having arrived, of finally finding a place of comfort, of being home, was disappearing.” Why? Jacob provides nearly a minyan of reasons:
For some, it was the inability to forgive Israel’s actions during the war[…] For other American Jews, it wasn’t Israel’s actions that created an emotional distance, but how those actions were perceived[…] For others, it was the discomfort of Israel being neither a scrappy underdog nor a bitty superpower[…] David was good. Goliath was good. But you’d better be one or the other.
Sixty-eight years after the founding of the State of Israel and 70 years after the Holocaust, mere survival is no longer an absolute value. Encoded in that “maybe” is the nagging sense that just surviving is no longer good enough, that preserving Jewish life and the Jewish polity is only worthwhile if the moral cost is not too high. There is a troubling decadence to this kind of moral accounting, especially after a century where the number of Jewish lives lost is its own kind of overwhelming arithmetic.