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by Jonathan Safran Foer
Instant New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book of 2016
A Time Magazine Top 10 Novel of 2016
A Times Literary Supplement Best ...
How would you rate this book?
Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer, author; Ari Fliakos, narrator
What is the point of Foer’s book? Is he comparing American Jewry to Israeli Jewry, America’s position relative to Israel, regarding the rest of the world’s opinion, the underlying reasons about why America supports or doesn’t support Israel, the perception of Israel if perceived as weak vs. strong, the world’s possible reactions to either scenario, including America and its own Jewish population’s reaction, the loyalty of American Jews vs. the loyalty of Israeli Jews toward the Jewish homeland? Do American Jews have any loyalty toward Israel other than a shared religion? Was he trying to show the immaturity of a country like America that attributes more responsibility to words used than actions taken when compared to a country fighting the heinous actions of those who are name callers and enemies in the Arab world, those who often translate their words into terrorist behavior? The book posed lots of questions but provided few answers for me.
The novel is somewhat interesting, but I believe it would have been far more interesting if it simply contrasted American Jewish reactions to Israeli reactions in the face of the possibility of catastrophic events in Israel. Contrasting Israeli Jews with American Jews by comparing their lifestyles, religious perspectives, family values, and feelings of loyalty toward Israel and each other did not have to include a highly dysfunctional family with idiosyncratic behavior I never experienced growing up, in a world inhabited by many Jews, in a world that would be called a Jewish ghetto. I found it difficult to complete the book, at times, because the language and subject matter was so crude, for no reason that I could possibly justify. It was often actually painful to listen to the narrator, and I had to turn off the audio to remove myself from the vile, lewd scenes and words. I kept wondering why it was necessary to include such filth in the book when it seemed to serve no purpose other than to shock the reader, paint the Jewish characters with a broad brush of bad behavior, and divert from the actual meaningful elements of the story. I wondered why a fellow Jew would use his voice to denigrate the people and culture he is a part of by focusing on utterly disgraceful behavior as he characterized an earthquake, which caused the Arab world and then almost the entire world to perceive them as weak, an attribute which caused the enemies of Israel to mount a war against them, with no other intent but to cause its compete destruction, to finish what the earthquake left undone. I thought that someone reading this book might get the unfair and unjust opinion that every Jewish man is a pervert, every Jewish woman is either at first preoccupied with her family and/or herself, ultimately, eventually putting herself first, and overall, Israel and the Jews were without compassion for their enemies, enemies intent on their complete destruction. Yes, their enemies were in need of the same supplies and medical care as they were after such a devastating natural event destroyed so much infrastructure in the Middle East, but to help their enemies would have meant neglecting their own citizens. Their own were fighting for their survival while their enemies ultimate goal was their destruction; for their enemies to expect their help defied common sense. They would only come back to fight them once again.
To be fair, Foer also seemed to try to depict the deep love that fellow Jews have for each other, emotionally and almost genetically, but it also showed their lack of understanding of each other’s homelands and the events that each considered a major crisis. In one country, surviving in a bomb shelter was of utmost importance and, in the other, the idea of euthanasia for a pet was a priority. Foer also made it seem like Israeli Jews resented American Jews and American Jews were simply unable to fully grasp the dangers that Israeli Jews were forced to endure on a daily basis. It made some Jews seem very shallow and without real substance. The one truth it did stress, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was that the world finds it very easy to use the Jews as scapegoats because of the enormous power that lies in the hands of the oil rich Arab countries, because of their self-righteousness perhaps, as well, because of the Israeli belief that they are better and deserve to be respected and protected. It stressed the fact that although the “powers that be” might want to destroy Israel or sacrifice Israel, to satisfy the demands of these Middle Eastern countries, for political and economic reasons, Israel seemed to be destined to remain a viable democracy in the Middle East.
From marriage to divorce, from infidelity to sexual misconduct, this book traversed a twisted route to reach a cataclysmic event, which shook the world. A terrible earthquake that caused devastation throughout the Middle East with only one country able to handle the tragic events, led to a war; a Bar Mitzvah led to epiphanies for many as a child led the way to a larger meaning and understanding of life and purpose, but the book simply seemed to often lose focus, and certainly it lost mine, often making my mind wander away from its message. An event would suddenly be brought up and then just as suddenly be submerged, only to later rise back to the surface as the author simply assumed that the reader’s memory would be able to reengage and remember which subject had been dropped.
Every aspect of life was included in this narrative, from the trivial to the most serious, from how we treat life to how we face death, from the young and the old to sickness and health, from plagiarism to sexting, from sacrifice to compassion, from American Jewish ideas about life to Israeli Jewish ideas about life, and all of these conflicting ideas created a void between all of the concepts raised, that often became unbridgeable.
The family of Jacob and Julia Brooks, extended and immediate, all seemed to be in crisis, all seemed to be living through, and with, some type of dysfunctional situation. Jacob seemed to be channeling Anthony Wiener, Julia seemed to be channeling the sexually deviant behavior of our rich and famous, and their eldest son, Sam, is supposed to be channeling Abraham’s son, Isaac, coincidentally the name of his grandfather. Between the American Jews and the Israeli Jews, there was no shortage of faults. Although the Israelis seemed to be living on a somewhat higher plane, at first, on the surface, one only had to scratch beneath to find similar problems existing in their worlds as well. There was an abundance of deviant behavior, lies, secrecy and arrogance to go around.
From Sam Brooks desire to avoid his Bar Mitzvah to his finally understanding its importance after Israel comes very close to destruction, the reader is invited to experience the doubts and insecurities of American and Israeli Jews, both of whom are living in a world of enemies. The book is about conflict, conflict in families, conflict in cultures, conflict in ideologies, conflict between feuding countries and conflict between one Jew and another.
How much responsibility do Americans and American Jews owe to Israel? What priority should Israel occupy in the scheme of things? How much sacrifice is enough? How much compassion is necessary? All of these questions arise and go unanswered. I was disappointed with the book and truly found it hard to complete. Perhaps a more scholarly person would appreciate its symbolism more than I did; I found it a bit insulting to the Jew and the Judeo-Christian culture.
There is so much going on in this book that it gave us plenty to talk about. One of our livelier discussions, for sure.
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