“Here I Am,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, is a tragedy, a comedy, an intimate account of the dissolution of a family and an epic tale of an unearthly disaster that triggers a world war and the possible downfall of Israel.
The cataclysm lets Foer examine the threats to the survival of Judaism on a large scale, but Foer’s book is focused on the smaller picture: the preparations for a bar mitzvah that resemble a military campaign; the heavy-breathing Israeli relatives who insist on hugging and more hugging; the enormous verbosity; the mind-altering food. (In just one of his many gems, Foer describes the spread at his teenaged character Sam’s bar mitzvah, where “(i)mpossibly dense kugels bent light and time around them.”)
“Here I Am” is steeped in Jewish culture, making it a suitable intermezzo at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, which began Nov. 5 and continues through Nov. 20. Foer will speak about the book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at the Dunwoody center.
Writing about the book in The Atlantic, A.O. Scott says it tries to explain the essence of being Jewish, “a question that becomes more complicated with each generation.”
Yet Foer says that being Jewish isn’t his topic. “That’s not how I think of it,” he said, in a recent conversation from his home in Brooklyn. “Jewishness is a kind of context,” but his themes — of home, love and identity — cross borders.
It is, he said, “probably the most culturally specific book that I’ve written; I hope that it is the most universal book that I’ve written.”
Foer began to attract attention with his first novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” published in 2002, when he was 25; “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was published three years later. Both became best-sellers and were made into movies.
“Here I Am” revolves around four weeks with the Bloch family, of Washington, D.C. The cast includes:
- Jacob, a one-time novelist who now writes unsatisfying television scripts. He is a nonbelieving Jew who still wants his oldest son Sam to be bar mitzvahed.
- Julia, Jacob’s wife and an architect who never builds anything. She finds a secret cellphone that Jacob has been using to trade pornographic texts with an actress.
- Sam, a struggling adolescent, traumatized by a disfiguring injury to his hand he received as a child, who is permanently ill at ease, except when he’s in the midst of an online role-playing game called “Other Life.”
Then there is Irv, Jacob’s Zionist (but also racist) father; Isaac, his grandfather and Holocaust survivor, who doesn’t know whether to kill himself or go to the old-age home; and Tamir, Jacob’s Israeli cousin, who sees Jacob as a cosseted hot-house flower whose only problem is he doesn’t have enough problems. (While Jacob was hanging up pictures on his dorm room walls, Tamir was in the Israeli army, trying not to get killed.)
Like Sam, Foer experienced his own disfiguring trauma as a child, during a classroom science experiment when he splashed acid on his arms and face. “Traumas make us. More than every other kind of life experience, they are ones we spend our time and energy trying to redeem or reconcile or be at peace with,” he said.
What helped him get over his own trauma? “Time and nothing,” he said. “I haven’t gotten over it.”
Foer told NPR interviewer Terry Gross that while his other books leaned toward showmanship, this one is intended to bring fewer fireworks, more emotional honesty.
It is full of the finely observed details of lives. When the inevitable divorce happens and Jacob moves out, he looks around the house and sees that there are few things that he wants to keep, except the growth chart in the kitchen, an irregular ruler that witnessed his three boys getting tall.
“And what does it look like?” he asks himself. “A tiny ladder for tiny angels to ascend and descend? The frets on the instrument playing the sound of life passing?”
Jacob tries to solve his problems by volunteering to help Israel fight her war, but then he weasels out. “This is why I find him so sympathetic,” Foer said. “He’s a grossly, grossly imperfect person, just like every reader of him and the author of him. He does not overcome his imperfection, but he does wrestle with it.”
Foer also wrestles with the fate of faith in a world of reason. At Isaac’s funeral, the rabbi guides Irv through the ritual of tearing his garments and apologizing to the dead, even though Irv, like his son Jacob, considers these gestures atavistic witchcraft.
Irv complies, and his emotions pour out. Can religion work for people who don’t believe, but go through the motions? Pretty much, says Foer. It worked for him. Like Sam, he went through the motions at his bar mitzvah, and he discovered an unexpected spiritual reward.
As Irv apologizes to Isaac’s coffin, Jacob wonders why his family members can’t speak to each other until after they’re dead, and he gives voice to the essential tragedy of the book, and of the world.
“Why couldn’t Jacob lie in a coffin long enough to hear his family’s unspeakable feelings, but then return to the world of the living with what he’d learned? All the words were there for those who couldn’t respond to them.”
Jonathan Safran Foer
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, as part of the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (which runs through Nov. 20). $18; $13 (members). MJCCA-Zaban Park, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. 678-812-3981, www.atlantajcc.org.