Ever-Dying People: Review of Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Jacob Bloch, the grandson of Isaac, a survivor of the camps, and Julia, an architect who has never had her designs built, have three sons: Sam, Max, and Benjy, wise and lovely kids. Jacob’s father Irv is an outspoken enemy of Arab states and his opinions lean on the rest of the family: his blog manifestos are pretty much the opposite of what you would find in Tikkun. They all live in Washington, DC. Sam, the eldest of the Bloch children, is studying for his bar mitzvah, but has been caught writing a list of vile racial epithets, quite out of his character, but perhaps under the influence of his grandfather.
The rabbi brings Julia and Jacob in to discuss their son’s sin, and threatens to disallow Sam’s bar mitzvah, a much anticipated event that arguably keeps great-grandfather Isaac alive. Sam claims he did not do it, though the words are in his handwriting. Jacob, his father, believes Sam. Julia, his mother, does not. This is the first sign of a rift in their sixteen-year marriage, one that has been full of love, tradition, organic mattresses, and goofy and touching family rituals. And then Julia finds a burner cell phone that Jacob has been hiding from her, full of filthy texts to another woman. “There is not a single story about a cell phone that ends well,” a friend cautions Julia, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t a great one.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a massive earthquake has devastated Israel and all the Arab States, which escalates tensions to the brink of warfare before our very eyes. Family friends of the Blochs, a sort of mirror family with Tamir, Rivka, and their sons Noam and Barak, live in Israel; and while Noam has just started his commitment to the Israeli army, Tamir and Barak come to Washington for Sam’s bar mitzvah, and the earthquake leaves them stranded, while Noam heads to battle.
This is epic stuff, but always written at close quarters. While marriage, families, and the nation of Israel explode outward, the tensions and conflicts are carried out in chambers, conversations, and imaginations. Julia retreats to her architectural drawings of homes she dreams of building. Jacob labors on his unproduced television program, the ruefully-titled, Ever-Dying People. And in a game called “Other Life”, which recalls The Sims (“it’s not a game!” protests Sam), Sam pretends to be other people and builds and destroys a series of virtual synagogues.
As each family member withdraws into the generation of private paraphernalia, life, for the Blochs, heads resolutely toward one of those moments most people would do anything to avoid. In Here I Am, Sam claims he is not destroying his synagogues, but “carving a space out of a larger space.” In essence, this is what Foer is doing with this great quarrelsome, painful, thoughtful, fearful, and at times, very funny novel. Reading Here I Am is not unlike attending a raucous seder where everybody got invited and everybody came.
“’Judaism,’ explains a rather unwelcome new rabbi in his unexpectedly moving eulogy at the grave of a character that has been killed by one of these conflicts, ‘has a special relationship with words. Giving a word to a thing is to give it life. “Let there be light,” God said, “and there was light.” No magic. No raised hands and thunder. The articulation made it possible. It is perhaps the most powerful of all Jewish ideas: expression is generative.’” Readers may wrestle with, or nod at, the generative expressions throughout this novel, but these too, the arguments and the agreements the reader might contribute, are also part of the generation—Foer’s novel is not a podium speech; it is a conversation. There is, here, something of the great Yiddish tradition of folktales, a kind of oblong realism marked with exaggeration and exclamation marks, both of which are joyfully plentiful in the novel.
And every form of generative expression imaginable is sewn together in order to tell this story. Rabbinical eulogies, Model UN debates, bar mitzvah speeches, yarns, rants, manifestos, text conversations, television scripts, radio interviews, presidential speeches, declarations of independence and war, rumors, whispered secrets, prayers, psalms, poems, eulogies, dirty talk. In a year of politically brain-dead megaphones and outraged one-way tweets, the novel’s vitality comes not from jacked up pronouncements but invitations for real conversation, which is sorely needed these days. Irv likes to have his grandchildren argue any point of their choosing; the boys try to convince Irv that people shouldn’t have pets, that escalators encourage obesity, and that it’s okay to swat flies, and if he likes the debate he’s had with them, he gives them five dollars. Jacob sets up a little postal system with his boys in the house to deliver messages. Sam wants carrier pigeons. Jacob secretly knows American Sign Language. Every member of this family wants, more than anything, to communicate, and they will go to any lengths to do so—and this is the generative expression of Here I Am.
Among all the genres and subgenres of writing, those meant to be said aloud, those things of rhetoric that are forms of persuasion, they are not as often taught or sorted out in writing courses or criticism. Yet the transformation, as they are placed on the page and brought back to life by the reader, is vital. Foer, whose prose is known for its energy and enthusiasm, gives over his own intelligence and ideas to his characters, so that none of this feels like soapboxing, but conversational, confiding. Though there are many oral deliveries in Here I Am, none are “apostrophes”—addresses to somebody absent—always and even, a speech or eulogy or list of naughty words is addressed to other people, both invented, fictive people and readers, too, real people who look for the experience of conversational intimacy when opening a book, even a big epic book.
Through all these natural conversational and storytelling forms, Foer fashions what looks like realism, but of the sort Iris Murdoch would generate with her many chatty educated bourgeoisie characters. Murdoch will suddenly thwart her own realism and have the narrative climbing into a dog’s head, before the reader realizes that they’re reading something fantastical, taken for real. Foer, too, in the midst of so much talk and will cast into an imagined future, or an event far away in Israel with people we don’t know. And it is worth saying that Argos, the Bloch’s aging pet, is as important as Murdoch’s sentient dogs.
There are only a few places where the endless invention falters, in which the characters are not much more than talking heads, specifically in a cannabis-driven conversation between Tamir and Jacob, one representing a love for homeland, the other for home; An American Jew and an Israeli Jew, having it out. Though the subjects are important in this long scene—what is more important, love or belief? Between people and in God?—This didacticism is brief but perhaps glaring in a book that is artful and seems artless.
There is much written and sermonized about “hineni”, the “Here I Am” that represents Isaac’s binding, and is also the prayer offered at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, almost everybody will have heard many sermons on the story and will have their own, strong opinions about it. But this is the strength of Foer’s conversational mode—all opinions are welcome. Perhaps one worth bringing up here is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who distinguishes Jewish belief from Kierkegaard’s Christian take on Abraham in Fear and Trembling when he says, “Christianity is a leap of faith; Judaism is a leap of action.” Tamir the Israeli pushes Jacob toward the leap of action, but Jacob builds a house of words.
The battles in earthquake-wrecked Israel provide a backdrop of escalating tension, and the possibility of losing it to both natural and man-made disaster. Foer’s families, both American and Israeli, quarrel and agree on what must be done and not done for Zion, and why. Because this is a story about talking and the tools of talking, Foer is engaged in the simultaneous rebirth of Hebrew and Israel. Consider all the territories and protectorates of the world in which the language requires a land—Catalunya, Basque Country, Navajo. On the other hand, Foer points out, all the languages that were ever created to be ideal, like Esperanto or those made of colors or pictures, these “perfect” languages have never been spoken. Language is culture, and culture needs homeland.
“Eliezer Ben-Yehuda single-handedly revived Hebrew. Unlike most Zionists, he wasn’t passionate about the creation of the State of Israel so that his people would have a home. He wanted his language to have a home. He knew that without a state—without a place for Jews to haggle, and curse, and create secular laws, and make love—the language wouldn’t survive. And without a language, there wouldn’t ultimately be a people.” The Israel of Ben-Yehuda is the Israel Foer is willing to fight for.
Homes and homelands alike, synagogues and Wailing Walls, both imagined and real, are destroyed but built again. The Wailing Wall is, after all, already a vital ruin. That four generations of fathers and sons who dwell in fantasies of worst case scenarios can be presented with a real worst-case scenario—an earthquake, a divorce—and find a way to rebuild, again and again, that is both the wedding and the funeral that Here I Am celebrates.