Hineni-Here I Am- appears in the Torah portion Vayeira, where God tests Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is how Abraham answers God when he asks for him; how Abraham responds to Isaac when he inquires why there are no sheep for the offering; and how Abraham answers when God tells him not to sacrifice Isaac. It is more than a roll-call. It, and this novel, are about defining our identity through whom “we are there for”.
The family in question is an upper middle class urban, Reform, U.S. Jewish family, that is dysfunctional, neurotic, caring, indifferent, passively aggressive, precocious, and agnostic. Jacob and Julia have reached middle-age. Their marriage has dissolved into friendship and then divorce. Their son’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, in which Jacob, the last of the patriarchs, is assaulted by God or God’s messenger. Jacob grabs the attacker and refuses to let go until he receives a blessing (Jacob means “heel-grabber” because he grabbed the heel of his older brother Esau, because he wanted to be the first-born son). The assailant asks Jacob for his name. God rejects it, changing his name to Israel, which means “wrestles God.”
The novel has a political element to it. Israel following an earthquake is avenged by its neighbors and Muslims world-wide, with only tepid support from the United States. Tamir, Jacob’s cousin, is visiting the U.S. with one son when the war begins. His wife and other son stayed in Israel, and his daughter is safe because of a school trip to Auschwitz. Tamir is the stereotypical brash Israeli risk-taker who confronts Jacob’s, and American Jews’ passivity. Mr. Foer has fun with stereotypes. A TV interview of an Israeli engineer after the earthquake is an example.
“Siegel: Can you give us your professional assessment of what’s going on right now?
Horowitz: My professional assessment, yes, but I can also tell you as a human being standing here that Israel has endured a cataclysmic earthquake. Everywhere you look there is destruction.
Seigel: You are safe, though?
Horowitz: Safe is a relative term. My family is alive, and as you can hear, so am I. Some are safer. Some are less safe.
Why the fuck can’t Israelis just answer questions?”
The novel is both funny and poignant. It raises challenging issues. Mourning the death of a grandfather Holocaust survivor the rabbi asks,
“what can we say about Isaac Bloch, and how should we mourn him? There are only two kinds of Jews of his generation: those who perished and those who survived. We swore our allegiance to the victims, were good on our promise never to forget them. But we turned our backs on those who endured, and forgot them. All our love was for the dead.”
There is an implicit challenge to Zionism that is in part this legacy. “We choose to make life the ultimate Jewish value, rather than differentiate the value of kinds of life, or more radically, admit that there are things even more important than being alive.”
The Rabbi remembering Isaac Bloch conveys what Mr. Bloch had told him. “There are two things that everybody needs. The first is to feel that he is adding to the world. Do you agree? I told him I did. The second, he said, is toilet paper.”
The novel is above all about family: what each member wants and takes from life and each other and what he or she fails to ask or to deliver. At nearly 600 pages it is a very fast read, with the last two hundred pages being more uneven than the first 400. At times it uses explicitly pornographic language which some might find unnecessarily gratuitous. At first it seems out-of-place, but it does conform to the plot in an Anthony Weiner sought of way.
I have not read the author’s two other acclaimed novels to have a point of comparison: Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This novel is engaging and entertaining, even if it is not great literature. It is worth a read. You don’t have to Jewish, but it can’t hurt.