Here I Am: A Novel

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

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. 

Relat­ed Content:

Ari R. Hoff­man is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly a Dex­ter Dis­ser­ta­tion Com­ple­tion Fellow.

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