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Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

February 8, 2017

Here I Am? Jonathan Safran Foer’s Reflection on the American-Jewish Identity

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Open up a newspaper on any given day and you will find an article discussing some aspect of Israel: coverage from Netanyahu’s latest speech, the latest on a clash on the Temple Mount, or an editorial board debate on human rights. In the past ten years, the word “Israel” has, in a sense, become synonymous with “political”. Israel has always been fraught with complexity but it is now nearly impossible to disconnect it from a discourse of debate. There are merits and problems associated with this approach, both of which can and have been discussed in countless other articles and books.

Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the released novel Here I Am, is undoubtedly aware of the dialectic surrounding the topic of Israel, and has probably participated in these conversations himself. Yet in Here I Am, Safran Foer introduces an apolitical side to Israel, connecting it instead to the phenomenon of feeling Jewish in America, something very separate, in Safran Foer’s construction, from merely being a Jew.

One of my strongest memories from my middle school experience at a Jewish day school was of a party my teachers threw for two girls who were moving to Israel with their families at the end of the year. I remember the details with extreme clarity– the cupcakes decorated with blue and white frosting (think the Israeli flag), how the girls, Rachel and Ariana, were lifted on chairs into the air, and most poignantly, the sense of genuine joy and pride that imbued the air in the otherwise dingy school gym. Neither girl was particularly popular, but nearly everyone cried as they danced around the two girls.

Even after they left, our pride in their journey did not diminish. In the years following the party, they continued to be mentioned in conversation under new Harry Potter-esque names such as The-Ones-Who-Moved. Excited comments were left on the pictures they posted to Facebook in honor of eighth-grade graduations, the bat-mitzvah of a sister, the birth of a new cousin – all relatively monotonous milestones if not for the fact that for them, they had occurred in Israel.

Safran Foer, who came from a background where aliyah was held in similar regard, puts this feeling into the characters of Here I Am. The novel centers around the midlife crisis of Jacob Bloch, a soon-to-be divorced television writer one generation removed from the Holocaust. Like most American Jews, Jacob could most accurately be described as secular. He and his wife have essentially abandoned their attempts at observing Shabbat. Bacon is not cooked in the house, but the Bloch children have been known to enjoy the occasional lobster (both major no-nos in the Kosher world). With regard to the homeland, Jacob is one of the few characters whose spoken opinion of Israel would be described as “moderate”; he is critical of Israel’s actions, and refuses to visit with his family on the account of it being too dangerous. This stands in stark opposition to the rants of his father Irv, an aggressively pro-Israel radio host known for his unwavering endorsement of Zionist sentiments (and whose presence in the novel made me wonder whether Safran Foer had met some of my more vocal relatives).

Yet while the term secular is likely the best description for his Jewish lifestyle, Jacob is ashamed of this classification, and feels the need to compensate for it. This is observed especially by his thirteen-year-old son Sam, who understands his father’s guilt to be the driving force behind his unwanted bar mitzvah.

In this sense, Jacob achieves a better understanding of his self-identity when he comes into contact with his cousin Tamir, a stereotypically macho sabra. It is difficult for Jacob not to compare himself to Tamir, who grew up with a bomb shelter in his basement and who was busy commanding tanks in the Israeli Defense Forces while Jacob studied literature at Yale. Jacob’s worried thoughts regarding his sons’ reaction to their parents’ divorce seem trivial when compared to Tamir’s concerns over the safety of his son Noam, an active duty soldier himself. And whereas Jacob is quietly embarrassed by his lack of religious observance, Tamar flaunts his disregard for Jewish laws.

Unlike Jacob, Tamir never felt the need to prove his Jewishness, because living in Israel enabled every life experience to be inextricably connected to it. Being a Jew was not part of Tamir’s identity, it was his identity, and the backdrop to which every other aspect of his life played out. And it was this that Jacob envied most: the fact that Tamir could just be Jewish without having to feel Jewish.

Through Jacob’s discontent, Safran Foer forms a conception of Israel separate from the hotbed of political debate: he paints it as a place of freedom for the Jewish identity that starkly contrasts with the experience of many American Jews. In Jacob’s case, he hands his unease with his identity down to his son Sam, who despite identifying as an atheist, inexplicably feels the need to lie when asked by his great-grandfather if his middle-school girlfriend is Jewish (an incident characteristic of the young American-Jewish experience).

Safran Foer ends the novel with a critique of Israel’s action in a fictional destructive war. Jacob, once warmed by the thoughts of Jewish garbage men and firefighters, has lost his strong feeling of connection to the homeland. He no longer views Israelis as his “hairier, more muscular brothers…over there”, but but rather sees them as just over there; other than their shared religion, there is no longer anything connecting them. Yet even in critiques, Jacob’s thoughts continue to betray his self-consciousness in his identity, as he felt the need to factor in his feeling of Jewishness before forming his opinion.

The story of Ariana and Rachel’s party came to mind several times as I read through Here I Am. I wonder now if our tears were really shed out of happiness, or whether like Jacob, we were at least semi-aware that they were being freed from an identity crisis that was looming in our American future, and would instead be given the privilege of having their Jewishness be as given as their status as a human. I question too, whether this pertains to our longstanding devotion of checking up on their lives, and devoutly ‘liking’ their pictures representing their identities over there.

The issue of my American vs. Jewish identity does not occupy my thoughts too often, but I can’t honestly say it never does. As for many American Jews, my identification as a Jew has come hand-in-hand with a distinct feeling of being Jewish. Safran Foer echoed this throughout the novel, and with its articulation of my experience was saying, “Here I am, I hear you.”

Zoe Lindenfeld is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at zll3@cornell.edu.