Books that have Jewish connections have always appealed to me. As early as kindergarten and only subliminally aware what being Jewish even meant through family dinners and Sunday school, I was drawn to stories that featured families that somehow conveyed to my developing brain that there was a connection, something “yiddishkeit.” Early walks with my mother to the library resulted in finding scary tales of the holocaust and children who were abandoned or hidden. Soon followed Anne Frank and her bravery. Eventually Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Elie Weisel and Philip Roth, among many others were my predilection for gleaning the face of Jews of the diaspora, these authors American who had lived knowledge of the “Der goldene medina”–the land of gold.”
Canadian versions of immigration from my parents’ quiet talk concerned a subtle anti-Semitism with shocking references to “ dirty Jews”, number restrictions in the professions and an alignment with any who had broken through the Jewish barrier to be acknowledged without any slur to their religion. Forest Hill-where I attended school although our store was perched at the farthest edge of the public boundary- celebrated more Jewish holidays than I knew existed and the population was almost 100% Jewish. So in spite of the wealth and airs of the country club kids and their summer camps, there was a safety in numbers and a push towards the student body making their mark in the world and not being defined by religion.
For whatever reason, Roth spoke to me of a contemporary American (and Canadian ) experience relatable to my personally alienated condition of life. Goodbye Columbus presented the misfit, the worries, the search for the American dream, all part of my own growing up and awkwardness. My Jewishness was not overt, but it was there. Brought up with traditions that forbade mixing milk and meat, eating pork, being a mensch, giving anonymously and feeling insecure, particularly about my curly hair, along with a need to know who might hide me should another pogrom or holocaust erupt, Roth’s scenes felt familiar. So throughout my life, I followed Roth, sometimes growing away from his exaggerations and hyperboles, but occasionally embracing them. In deed, much much later, I was caught breathless when he published American Pastoral, now a film I refuse to see- lest it dislodge the strong images he has engrained with words in my imagination. What shook me in American Pastoral was his depiction and the demise of The American Dream. If The Great Gatsby was the apostasy of the dream, American Pastoral was the crushing ruin of broken America in pieces, perhaps our own contemporary reality of the ruination of unattainable dreams, racism, and discrimination. In shock at the dissolution of the family and by extension America, I grieved for the loss.
Jonathan Foer is a worthy successor to Roth. His most recent book Here I Am is much like the proverbial stone that ripples outward and poses so many essential questions, wherein personal crisis stands in for the public one. Jacob Bloch, the protagonist is first an everyman representative of the metrosexual who is a sensitive, loving, a hard working screenwriter. He too is a Jew, a Jew in America whose Jewishness is as familiar to me as is his privilege in society, his wisecracking irreverent humour ( he wonders if the Germans will run out of “ guilt and lampshades”), his listening to NPR podcasts, his support of civil libertarianism, his Vitamix, his Ball & Farrow paint, his upscale home in Washington, D.C. There he espouses the markers of Jewish life: bar mitzvahs, the two days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at synagogue, family suppers celebrating minor holidays, a certain lapsing devotion to one’s parents, kvetching, questioning, sarcasm, and a loose relationship with Biblical stories from Hebrew school. He is a familiar face of a certain kind of non-observant Jew still governed by the tales and traditions of his faith.
Somewhere between the holocaust and the creation of Israel as the safehaven for the Jewish outcast and the wandering American Jew stands this story, the novel caught between a sadness for the relatives one can never know and Israel the tenuous land where one will never live. Foer’s ripples extend from Jacob’s progenitors to his sons and then on to his cousin Tamir, a sabra who lives in Israel.
What does the Jew in America look like? He is indistinguishable from anyone else. He eats bacon and shrimp, protests unjust causes, cares deeply for his children, is careless about his email, ponders putting down his dog, and worries a lot. But because his heritage is Jewish and Foer the writer is too, there is an embediness of Jewish schtick, the Woody Allen angst in much Jacob does. He is a likeable man in spite of his technological sloppiness and his self awareness that makes him try over and over again: to get it right. Much like Sisyphus, he rolls the stone up the hill, only to be dragged back down to the bottom of the heap. He confronts his fears, as early as the night before his own bar mitzvah, jumping into the lion’s den at the zoo like the Biblical Daniel, the intensity of the moment surpassing almost all others. Yet he laments to Tamir, regretfully,“ I am smaller than life.”
He wants to believe that his son Sam has not written inflammatory words in Hebrew school and champions him. He engages in truthful conversations with his other sons, attempting not to scare or scar them. With Julia, his estranged wife, he practices how to explain the marriage separation to the boys. Unable to fulfill Isaac’s, his great grandfather’s, last wish to be buried in Israel, Jacob sits beside the corpse for days, a responsibility usually fulfilled by Jewish others at the funeral home. He assumes the burden of putting down Argus, rubbing the animal’s stomach to ease him to sleep. And because Foer adores lists, when Jacob tells the reader about the times he will not forget, the last “times” the tiny details of our lives are noted, they resonate with our experiences, particularly with our children as babies, toddlers, and adolescents: the last bath, the last bedtime, the last bedtime story, the last whiff of an infant’s head.
But this is more than just a story about Jacob as it moves outward into America and gives us Israel. Like Roth, who teaches interesting information in American Pastoral such as how to make a glove in his factory in Newark, New Jersey, so Jacob a student of language also tutors us. He tells us that a group of swans are a “lamentation”, hummingbirds a “glittering,” orioles a “radiance.” After all, he is a storywriter, but also an enquirer, curious and wanting to learn, even writing a novel based on his family.
The stories of Jews are here too. At Isaac’s funeral, the young rabbi in running shoes with laces undone, surprises Jacob with his insight and visits to his grandfather, his eulogy focused on the Bible: what did Moses do with the broken tables hurled down from the mountain when he saw the golden calf used for worship? Why did Pharaoh daughter spy Moses in the bullrushes? What is Jewish crying like?
We learn there are three ways to mourn: with tears, silence and song, each proper in its own time and place. The word Israel comes from the root “ to wrestle”, a theme that we attach to Jacob’s manner of dealing (or not) , and are reminded that Jacob’s name in the Bible was changed to Israel when he wrestled with the angle; and even in Max’s bar mitzvah speech, he reflects, “What we don’t wrestle we let go. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is the struggle”. The emphasis on words, writing, miscommunication, word games and the need to communicate paramount in this novel.
Later when the prime minister of Israel summons Jews from around the world back to the homeland, he picks up a shofar and blows. The Biblical story of Abraham having to choose between sparing his son or responding to G-d is the backdrop to this novel. When G-d calls out to Abraham, he answers, “I am here”: the same words that are the title of this book. Abraham willingness to sacrifice what is dearest to him is also recalled by Jacob’s admission that he has too much love for happiness, that his love overpowers being happy for his children. Cousin Tamir asks,” You find such complicated ways to say such simple things”, but life for Jacob is incredibly complicated. And there are so many questions that this novel does pose: do we maintain tradition just for the sake of it? Are words so much more powerful than deeds that they should destroy a marriage? What role does Israel actually play for the Jew of the diaspora? Is it neurotic to love one’s children so deeply? Which choices are the right ones…
The novel is a meditation of sorts on loving one’s children, and how we must let them go. Sam’s bar mitzvah speech works out a compromise as he explains that unlike Hamlet’s question, to be or not to be is NOT the question. The question is “to be” AND “not to be”. The carefully drawn children are believable as they disregard their parents, mock them, experiment and find themselves. Sam’s extensive explorations into masturbation with rice pudding, “alien green aloe vera” among other substances and his desire to construct ( and demolish) a synagogue through the machinations of his female alter ego avatar on the internet’s, Other World, are likely the stuff of adolescent boys, even recalling Roth’s Portnoy’s fantasies.
The seemingly calm Tamir, Jacob’s cousin is his foil. Hairier, less worried about social niceties, out right brash and concerned for the fulfillment of the present, especially Israel, Tamir puts his own life on the line in the fight to save his country as does his son Noam. Tamir and Jacob, along with Sam and Noam, are two sides of the same Jewish coin, the one who stays; the one who goes, repeating their fathers’ and grandfathers’ legacies. In spite of the macro-conflict occurring in his life, Tamir patiently and kindly listens to Jacob’s micro-conflict with his wife, the destruction of the family paralleling the bombardment of Israel by a united Arab front when an earthquake happens there to destabilize the country.
Alex Clark in The Guardian speaks to “ the fetishizing their inner lives… that flirts with taboo and exposure.” In this way and others, I think of Jonathan Franzen’s books, most recently Purity in a desire to connect with one’s family, the intrusion of technology, casual relationships, over indulgences in today’s world, and an over-engagement in meta analysis. At the start of Foer’s novel, Jacob and Julia play word and mind games, wanting to identify what is bigger on the onside than the outside. Likely it is this over thinking, the abundances of thinking about too many choices and their consequences that leads them into the dark night of separation: regretfully, this is our society today, one that lauds multitasking and unriddling riddles, with a backdrop of oldsters, the baby boomers, wishing for a simpler time: when kids could cross the street and not worry about the pedophile or car rage- or the absolute best face cream or nursery schools for their kid.
Foer’s novel has been criticized but also praised, and by non-Jewish critics as well. It touches a deep chord on more than one occasion, promulgating the “ what ifs” and causing the reader to reread or lay the book down and actually think about something that Foer has thrown into the “eruv”, what he describes as a space in Hebrew as cordoned off, differentiated from the public into private. I like how Foer teaches me stuff, even Bible stuff. He’s not a self-hating Jew, or a particularly Jewish Jew. He’s an American with Jewish problems. He is a representative protagonist in American literature who deserves more than a glance, Jew or not.