In the first paragraph of his new novel, Jonathan Safran Foer hints at what will unfold later, and goes on, in one very long sentence, to describe Isaac Bloch, a Holocaust survivor living in Washington, D.C.
In “Here I Am” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Isaac is the father of Irv, an ardent blogger and defender of Israel, who is in turn father of Jacob, a novelist-turned-television writer. Jacob is married to Julia, an architect, and the reader gets an extremely close-up view of their faltering marriage. They have three sons, and the bar mitzvah of the eldest, Sam, looms ahead.
The novel’s title refers to the biblical book of Genesis, when God calls out to Abraham before ordering him to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham responds, “Hineni,” “Here I am,” and then again soon after, when Isaac calls out to his father. In a telephone interview with The Jewish Week, Foer says that the title only came to him when he was finishing up. When he wrote that passage in the book, he didn’t know how central it would be.
Foer, 39, is the author of two previous bestselling novels, “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” along with a bestselling nonfiction book, “Eating Animals.” Foer was profiled in a 2001 special supplement to The Jewish Week on the best and brightest of the under-40 generation. At 24, he was the youngest, with his first novel — adapted from his thesis at Princeton — then about to be published.
Now, it has been more than 10 years since he published a novel, and he has said he was doing other things, like having children, teaching, writing nonfiction, editing the “New American Hagaddah” and working on a comedy show for HBO called “All Talk” about a Jewish family in Washington, a project he ultimately killed.
At close to 600 pages, the new novel is full of ideas and complicated issues he turns inside out, including Jewish identity, marriage, the unbridgeable distance between people, forgiveness and the connections between American and Israeli Jews. Since it’s mentioned on the book jacket, it’s not giving away too much to say that midway through there’s an earthquake in the Middle East, its epicenter deep under the Dead Sea, and much is shattered by the shaking ground.
This novel is Jewish in its content, language, humor and the presence of Israel.
“There’s not a point I was trying to make,” he says. “That’s not the way I write. I was interested in writing something authentic.”
When asked about his inspiration, he cites a number of eclectic sources, including the HBO show he worked on and a biblical story he had on the back burner. Also, when he lived in Israel for a summer several years ago, the idea of a possible earthquake there piqued his curiosity — he spent time at a geophysical institute involved in earthquake preparedness, learning about the realities.
“This is how I work. There are things that draw my attention and curiosity and I pursue them. Some go nowhere. Some take years. Some coalesce.”
He includes lots of conversation in the novel: These are articulate characters who deal in arguments, quick banter and smart-alecky quips, along with sexual texting. An audiobook released at the same time, read by actor Ari Fliakos in many voices, showcases Foer’s fine ear for dialogue.
Foer, who is in the middle of his brothers (Franklin, former editor of The New Republic, and Joshua, an author, journalist and founder of Sukkah City), is quick to point out that this fictional family has nothing to do with his own, and that the marriage in the novel does not reflect his marriage (and break-up) with novelist Nicole Krauss. “I wrote much of the divorce stuff before then,” he said. Foer is now dating actress Michelle Williams.
While the narrator is omnipresent, seeing into everyone’s hearts and sharing their voices in the first person, said narrator spends most of the novel seeing the world through Jacob’s lens. Foer says that none of these characters are him. “The average of them are me. The chorus of them feels personal to me. The chorus of arguments felt familiar and personal.”
About writing all the characters, he says, “Julia’s voice is the one I feel closest to. Maybe. I was happy writing that.”
He says that there aren’t many passages where he draws upon memory, other than the descriptions of Isaac’s home, which was like his grandmother’s home, and also in certain tasks of parenthood, like collapsing a stroller or freezing breast milk.
As for the influence of Judaism on his writing, he says, “I’m always surprised by Judaism’s place in my writing, in my work. I didn’t think of myself as having a particularly strong Jewish identity, whatever that means. If I had read a description of my first book, I don’t know that I would have been interested in reading or writing such a thing, but I’m regularly really surprised, by the persistence, the irrepressible presence of Judaism in my imagination.”
Foer continues: “My formal Jewish education ended when I was 13. I was planted in that soil, that kind of Jewish literacy, a familiarity with ritual and the calendar and stories. It not only stuck with me, but has probably meant more to me as time has passed. Most things mean less to you.”
About the Jewish fluency of his references, he says, “To me, it’s a part of my vocabulary. These are stories I was steeped in, language I was steeped in. The stories and language come naturally, irrepressibly.”
He compares the uptight Jacob and his more casual Israeli cousin Tamir, wondering why they couldn’t be more like each other. “If they could meet halfway, they’d form a reasonable Jew.”
So what’s a reasonable Jew?
“I was trying to be funny,” he says. “I don’t know if I ever met one.”
“I joke that part of the pleasure of being Jewish is that it’s a religion and culture that prizes argument, even above a conclusion, something that’s in the best way unreasonable.”
Is writing a book with Israel as a theme risky?
“That you can’t write about Israel without someone asking if it’s risky says something about the world’s relationship to the place, the mere mention of the place. It’s a fraught word, there’s no other country like that. Using Israel in a novel increases the stakes of that fraughtness and discomfort. Imagining Israel near destruction gives the impression of being political. What’s meant by being political? I cannot imagine an intelligent reader saying I was suggesting that Israel be destroyed.”
He says that responses to the novel have been funny and diverse. “Nobody says it’s anti-Israel, only that it’s not what they were expecting. It’s not an argument against Israel, but the opposite. It’s not a case for making aliyah, but the opposite. It’s something more complicated.”
About Zionism, he says, “I think it’s a word that has very little meaning that isn’t anti-Semitic. Zionism is a word with a historical context – a belief in, working toward and fighting for the creation of the State of Israel. Israel exists. It’s not going to stop. The word implies the question of whether it should exist. It’s a question that has no significance anymore.”
When asked whether there’s a diaspora Jewish identity that’s as authentic as the Israeli one, or whether Israeli and American Jews need one another, he says, “I’m wary of saying what is authentically Jewish. I’m not making that kind of judgement. Tamir has a lot to say about it, questioning the shallowness of Jacob’s identity.
“A lot of the book is about making a choice, not making a choice. It’s one thing to have a casual relationship with Israel, it’s another when the prime minister of Israel is imploring all Jewish men to come to Israel.”
He ties in the distance in personal relationships and loneliness.
“I can only speak from experience,” he says. “I have a friend who has been married for 50 years, and I asked her what made it last. ‘I never understood him completely. There’s a sense of mystery that sustained us.’ That’s what beckoned me.”
He believes that part of what it means to be a person is to be not completely understood.
“Domestic lives are so consuming, distracting. There are health scares, emotional scares. I’m writing about things everyone experiences, about the paradoxes of identity. How can I be present unconditionally for two different things, which can be contradictory, like being a devoted parent and professional? I’ve never met a person who is able to do both optimally. You just balance it.”
The Jewish Week makes an appearance toward the end of the novel. Jacob is remembering his grandfather’s last home, where his earliest memories are hidden “like afikomens”: the eyes in Golda Meir’s portrait that seemed to move, games at the kitchen table, “just yesterday’s bagel, last week’s Jewish Week, and juice from concentrate from whenever in history was the last significant sale.”