Here I Am: A Novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016. 592 pp)
Born in Washington, D.C., Jonathan Safran Foer attended Princeton University earning a degree in philosophy. While at Princeton, Foer developed a senior thesis around the life of his Holocaust surviving grandfather. Eventually, this thesis became Foer’s first published book titled, Everything Is Illuminated. The book received critical acclaim winning the National Jewish Book Award and a Guardian First Book Award. Eventually, the novel was adapted into a film starring Elijah Wood. Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel garnered both praise and derision for its use of 9/11 as a narrative tool and its use of visual writing. Foer currently teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University.
In Praise of Liturgy
There’s a moment in Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in over ten years that touches my core. A broken man allows his sons to experience his new circumstances. The turmoil from the plot, best left vague for spoiler reasons, leaves a family in a new scenario. The boys visit a new house for the first time and decide to perform a custom from their Jewish heritage. This ancient custom tears the father asunder, a connection to parents, grandparents, great grandparents and older ancestors.
I can’t help but think of liturgies as I read Here I Am. These sacred, ritualistic practices ground us in the rhythms of life. Even if you haven’t stepped foot in a church sanctuary in years, you live with rhythms. The way you go about your day exhibits your liturgical practices. The number of snoozes on the alarm clock, the activities surrounding your coffee intake, the way you respond to emails when you get to work. These practices root us in the rhythms of our life and they have meaning.
For example, coffee with the Today show in the background defines who you are differently than coffee and the morning’s Wall Street Journal. What you believe about media and the way you should intake it emerges from this daily practice.
At a spiritual level, the way you pray, the process of donating to charity, who you donate to—it all forms your liturgical practice and shapes who you are.
Given this tumultuous election. I couldn’t help but think of my liturgy and how it shapes my identity as 80% of my “tribe” (white evangelicals) went to the polls and voted for a racist, classist, misogynist, tax-dodging, sexual-assault boasting, vindictive, fraudster with a lack of self-control. Perhaps my liturgy does not align with what we now see as the current Evangelical liturgy. Honestly, I can longer proclaim Evangelicalism as my liturgical identity.
My liturgy takes serious the Scriptural call to the marginalized in society. The fears I see in my brothers and sisters most threatened by our elected demagogue are heard. And I stand with them.
These thoughts bubble to the surface as I process Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am.
Here I Am
Straightforward in its plotting, Here I Am explores the unraveling of a Jewish family in the wake of global political unrest. Jacob and Julia navigate the termination of their marriage and how to sustain their children and prepare for their oldest to become a man at bar mitzvah, even as a massive earthquake in Israel pushes global superpowers to the brink of war.
“Little was known, which made what little was known terrifying. An earthquake of magnitude 7.6 had struck at 6:23 in the evening, its epicenter deep under the dead Sea, just outside the Israeli settlement of Kalya” (251).
Despite this magical realist flourish in the geopolitical realm, the meat of the novel rests in the liturgies of family as they try to remain rooted even as their entire world falls apart.
With energy and conviction, Foer peels back the layers of family, always connecting it to the liturgy of Judaism. In fact, the central metaphor of the novel surrounds the steady presence of Abraham as his life falls into chaos.
“Sometime later, God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ Abraham replied. Most people assume that the test is what follows: God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But I think it could also be read that the test was when He called to him. Abraham didn’t say, ‘What do you want?’ He didn’t say, ‘Yes?’ He answered with a statement: ‘Here I am.’ Whatever God needs or wants, Abraham is wholly present for Him, without conditions or reservations or need for explanation” (102).
Acts 1 and 2 of Here I Am illustrate the brilliance of Foer, both in his writing style and his psychological character exploration. Unfortunately, Act 3 fizzles as Foer expands the narrative years into the future playing out the repercussions of familial decisions decades from now.
And yet, Here I Am is completely worth a read. Foer situates his narrative within liturgy. And those practices remind us of our liturgies. Especially given the tumultuous season we enter, our liturgies matter even more. I now work toward new liturgies as my family seeks formation in this new season.
Go read Here I Am.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5