By Tova Norman
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Here I Am” is simultaneously about the human condition and the Jewish condition in 21st century America.
The main characters, Jacob and Julia Bloch, a Jewish couple in their early 40s with three sons, are struggling to accept the distance between life as they imagine it should be and life as it is.
When Julia discovers a cellphone that Jacob is using to have an affair, the earth shakes for the first time in the novel, hurling the Blochs toward a divorce that was on the horizon but not approaching.
The second time the earth shakes in the novel, it is an earthquake with its epicenter in the heart of Israel that puts the fate of the country into question.
Here the struggle is between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, which Foer shows by juxtaposing Jacob with his Israeli cousin Tamir, who has just landed in America to attend the bar mitzvah celebration of the Blochs’ eldest son, Sam, when the earthquake hits.
In this more grown-up novel, Foer, whose previous novels, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Everything Is Illuminated,” were made into movies, creates characters who are navigating the balance between family and self.
It is a novel for today’s reader and is particularly appropriate for Gen Xers.
Besides the cellphones, television and movie references, and chat room messages (some chapters are written entirely in these), the characters embody the modern age of self-exploration, self-fulfillment and self-indulgence.
They are not heroes whom people would seek to emulate; they are human beings whom readers will relate to.
Although the novel could be relatable to anyone, it is quintessentially Jewish.
Foer’s rich descriptions of modern American b’nai mitzvah, shiva houses and Hebrew school Holocaust lesson plans, as well as of Jewish people everyone knows — unapologetic supporters of the state of Israel, Holocaust survivors, newly ordained young rabbis — put the Jewish reader at home among the Blochs.
Foer explores, with keen understanding, the questions that plague American Jews: how to live as a Jew, how to respect the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, how to relate to Israel, how to be Jewish and not be religious, how to be religious and not be Jewish.
This last question that Foer explores, mainly through Jacob’s character, is addressed by Sam in an explanation of his bar mitzvah parshah, Vayeira.
The parshah contains the story of the binding of Isaac and the famous hineni from which the book takes its title.
Sam explains: “I think it is primarily about who we are wholly there for, and how that, more than anything, defines our identity.”
As Jews return to Israel to fight for its existence, as his marriage implodes, as his children struggle, as his dog nears death, Jacob must decide whom he will be wholly there for.
His answers are his own, but the journey — with Foer’s descriptive language, impeccable details, insightful understanding and laugh-out-loud moments — is one that American Jewish readers who have ever tried to make relationships work, questioned what it means to be Jewish or struggled in their connection with Israel should go on — all 571 pages of it.