Here I Am
by Jonathan Safran Foer
I have never read Safran Foer’s previous book so have thus faced this novel with a “tabula rasa” – blank page.There is an old Israeli song in Hebrew by Haim Hefer, performed by Yehuram Gaon which is also called “Here I Am”, in which the singer exclaims his longing to a woman. He is confident and sure of himself: “I am here like a rock, like a well … I am the man who always comes back, Back!”.
In Safran’s book, the (anti)hero is Jacob Bloch, an American Jew, whose self-confidence is far from Hefer’s protagonist a million light years.
Bloch, a father to three boys, struggles through his own midlife crisis; his deteriorating relationship with his wife “Jewish mama does all” Julia; his eldest son Sam’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony which is in jeopardy due to a hateful note he had written in school; his old grandfather holocaust survivor Isaac who lost the will to live as well as his old dog who is dying and suffering. This all amplifies by Jacob’s own insecurity and the feeling of lack of any real achievement in life.The other plot-line which is important (and used to reflect on Jacob’s own selfishness) is Israel’s destruction. Israel is facing a humanitarian crisis and a war to end all wars in the Middle East, while his cousin (and long friend and instigator) Tamir is “stuck” in Washington with his young son, visiting for the Bar Mitzvah. Tamir’s other son, Noam, is a soldier in the Israeli army when hell breaks loose, and while Jacob’s struggles with his own oh so Jewish triviality – the macho Tamir has to struggle with his home and universe crumbling down, and being helpless to help.
In an interview I have read with Safran in the British Times, he had said something like the book was a journey, a struggle to write hence took him so long. Well, it was the same to read… While I expected something new, I found on more than one occasion an attempt to be a new-age Philip Roth which did not succeed in my opinion, due to overly crowded pages in Jewish schmaltz: Wailing Wall included, Jacob is handling every Jewish stereotypical problem available. It was just too much.
However, on the occasions where Safran let himself run loose of the Jewish author shackles – the novel was a joy to read.In a sense, Jacob’s Via Dolorosa is the reader’s too: Some parts are too long, some chapters are extended beyond what is needed, but always the redemption (the conclusion) is in sight.
“The destruction of Israel” comes in the middle of the book, giving it a needed “kick in the shin” and to Jacob as well – stirring the plot line faster. A much needed event.
I did not suffer as much as Jacob does, reading this book. I thought the Safran’s characters are intriguing and deep (albeit the overly exaggerated Israeli cartoon-like cousin). I think better editing was in order. Brave editing would have gotten Safran to omit a large part of the final act which does not provide any life changing conclusions, not to Jacob – nor to the reader. This fact has kept this a 3 stars book for me, though a recommended read to any Jew in the diaspora or to anyone who wants to understand one.