How do you define yourself when living a modern life in Washington D.C. and being a Jew? Jacob and Julia do not really struggle with this question, too much does everyday life demand of them. Their three sons Sam, Max and Benji are raised like any other child, but some of the Jewish traditions have to be maintained, e.g. Sam’s bar mitzvah and the schooling before the day of becoming a man. While caring for the kids, Jacob and Julia somehow have lost the love they once had and now have to face the end of their marriage. When an earthquake hit the Middle East and Israel as well as the surrounding Muslim countries are struggling to survive, Jacob has to ask himself if he actually leads the life he wants to leave, if he has become the person he wanted to be and most of all, what his religion means to him and how much, in times of greatest emergency, he is willing to give.
“Here I am” refers to Abraham’s response to God’s call to sacrifice his son. Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel is deeply religious and spiritual – on the one hand. On the other, we have an average family who struggles to remain what they are and not to forget their individual needs because of every day’s demands. And thirdly, it is highly political since it portrays typical reactions of Middle East countries and raises the question of what is acceptable.
Quite some topics all in one books. This sounds a bit too much and, actually, it is. At some points, I had the impression the author has lost the track and roams around not knowing where to go exactly. Then again, we have very acute observations and descriptions, also the very appealing typical Jewish humour makes you take a deep breath because you can hardly believe that anybody could really dare to pronounce what has been said.
The strongest aspects of the novel are for me definitely the account of what happens in Israel and the area around after the earthquake. Frighteningly, I believe that the countries in question would react exactly in the Way Jonathan Safran Foer shows them. Ignorant, selfish, despicable, inhumane. The unwillingness to seek enduring peace in the region, no matter who is to blame, is something which must be criticised in all possible ways. Literature should be one of them. The second interesting question is the one of identity of Jews not living in Israel. How can they stick to the traditions, what happens to the old rites when being a minority in a non-Jewish country, how strong are the bonds between Jews and Israel – when though they have never lived there. And to what extent are they also defined by what the Israel government does? The last is a question every couple has to confront at a certain point in their relationship: how can you save the initial state of being in love over many years and how can you hinder it from vanishing slowly and unnoticed?
A lot of food for thought in this novel. At points, it is hilarious, at others poignant. Jonathan Safran Foer can without the slightest hesitation be considered one of the best American writers of first decades of the 21st century. A bit less ambition in this novel and it would have been perfect.