In Jonathan Safran Foer’s newest novel, “Here I Am,” the protagonist, Jacob Bloch, makes a telling observation about contemporary Jewish life outside of Israel: “Jewish Americans will go to any length, short of practicing Judaism, to instill a sense of Jewish identity in their children.”
The conflicting identities of American Jews, a troubled marriage, a 12-year-old boy reluctant to become a bar mitzvah, the potential destruction of the Jewish state, a dying dog and an elderly patriarch seeking to avoid being sent to the Jewish Home, are all tackled in Foer’s 600-page tome, which is a surprisingly quick read.
Foer, known for his award-winning books “Everything is Illuminated,” about a young man who travels to Ukraine in search of the woman who 50 years earlier saved his grandfather from the Nazis, and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” about a boy whose father perished on 9-11, was at Rodef Shalom Congregation on June 9 to discuss his newest book — and anything else — with an intimate group of about 60 fans.
Foer grew up in Washington, D.C., and started writing while he was an undergrad at Princeton. It was author Joyce Carol Oates, from whom he was taking a creative writing class, who recognized his talent and became his mentor. His senior thesis became “Everything Is Illuminated,” which was published in 2002, when Foer was 25. That book, and his second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” were both made into films.
Foer began his conversation at Rodef Shalom by talking about his newest work, “Here I Am.”
“The book takes course over six weeks, in Washington, D.C., which is where I grew up,” Foer said, adding that the synagogue he attended as a child, Adas Israel, was similar to the one the Bloch family attends in the book. “I was bar mitzvahed, but like the character in the book, I had some reluctance to being bar mitzvahed. I had a sort of fraught relationship with my Jewish identity, which I probably still have. But maybe the difference between then and now is that then, the kind of questioning or the frustrations that I felt were symptomatic of something perhaps negative, whereas now the questions I have feel enlivening or sustaining.”
Like the biblical Jacob, who one night wrestles with an angel and is renamed “Israel” — which means “wrestles with God” — the central character in “Here I Am” wrestles as part of his own identity, Foer explained.
“This book wrestles a lot with a lot of different things,” he said. “It wrestles with institutional Judaism; it wrestles with the difference between American Jewry and Israel; it wrestles with the institute of marriage; it wrestles with what parenthood is like; with what it’s like to be an upper middle class American in the contemporary moment. But when I wrote it, I was writing it always from a position of love, even the things I was being critical of. So, the wrestling felt to me sustaining and good, like an honest exploration of things.”
The conflicts facing the book’s characters, as well as its language, resonate as true albeit not always pleasant, which the author acknowledged.
“There are certainly many moments in the book that are ugly or hard to look at,” Foer said. “There are characters who say things that you really wish they wouldn’t say because they’re politically incorrect, because they’re irreverent, because you simply disagree with what they’re saying. There’s a lot of sex in the book. There’s a lot of people behaving badly. And I wanted those things — I didn’t even want; I didn’t feel like I was choosing. In the process of writing a book that felt to me like a sincere wrestling with the things I care most about in my life, it was necessary to go the places that felt like honest aspects of a true portrait.”
The book follows the Bloch family through two crises, he explained.
“The first is a cell phone that reveals an affair — or we think it does, we’re not exactly sure what is being revealed; and then an earthquake in the Middle East that precipitates a war that becomes so extreme that the prime minister of Israel asks all Jews from around the world to come to Israel to fight for its survival.”
The two crises force Jacob and his wife, Julia, “to make some ultimate choices,” he said.
A central, and universal, theme of the book is revealed in its title, Foer noted, explaining that “Here I Am” refers to the story in Genesis about the binding of Isaac, which begins: “And God put Abraham to the test.” When God calls out to Abraham, he responds: “Here I am.”
“God said, ‘I need you to sacrifice your beloved son,’” said Foer. “And so, the ‘Here I am’ is a kind of unconditional presence without any reservations. I don’t need to know what you’re asking. I don’t need five minutes. The answer is ‘yes, I’m here for you.’”
The paradox is seen a few sentences later, noted Foer, when Abraham is leading Isaac up Mt. Moriah.
“Isaac senses that something strange is going on because they have all the makings of a sacrifice but no animal to sacrifice, so Isaac says ‘Father.’ And Abraham says again, ‘Here I am.’
“It’s paradoxical and it’s poignant because you can’t be unconditionally present for God, who wants you to kill your son, while being unconditionally present for your son, who doesn’t want to be killed,” Foer said. “You just can’t be both things at once. And in our lives, we don’t experience drama quite like that, but I think most people know what it’s like to have fragmented identities, to be unable to say, ‘here I am’ completely to your profession, while saying it completely to your kids. You have to kind of borrow a little bit. Sometimes you miss a soccer game to go to a meeting, but sometimes you don’t take a raise so you can have dinner with your kids.”
That fragmentation can also be seen in other facets of life, Foer observed.
“A lot of people experience friction between their secular American politics and their Jewish politics,” he said. “A lot of people experience friction between being in a marriage and being an individual in the world. None of these things are hugely problematic, you just make it work.
“But sometimes something happens, like a crisis that forces you to choose one identity at the expense of the other,” he said. “That’s what the book is about, about characters who are trying to find a place of rest in their identities, and that’s something that Jews probably feel especially much, and Christians feel especially much, and Muslims feel especially much, and agnostics and atheists feel especially much. It’s just a human problem.”
Foer is also the author of “Eating Animals,” a nonfiction book about eating meat, published in 2009.
Foer’s appearance at Rodef Shalom was sponsored in partnership with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.