Sisterhood Reads

Book Review: Here I Am


by Jonathan Safran Foer

On its surface, this book is about the collapse of a Jewish marriage. Over a period of four weeks, Jacob and Julia Bloch’s lives undergo a profound shift, as Julia discovers that Jacob has been having an affair. This upheaval in their lives and the lives of their three sons, Sam, Max, and Benjy, is complicated by the death of Jacob’s grandfather Isaac, a holocaust survivor, and the bar mitzvah of a reluctant Sam, the couple’s eldest son.

As if this wasn’t enough to occupy readers’ attention, the 571 page book parallels the story of the demise of Jacob and Julia’s marriage with the collapse of the Jewish State, caused by a catastrophic Middle East earthquake and the ensuing war. 

Beneath the surface, this is a book about what it means to wrestle with life’s biggest challenges, and what it means to truly be there — to be present for — those you love as those challenges unfold. Underlying the story is the paradox of what it means to be present for two conflicting or opposing states at once—to be both an American and a child of Israel; to have a bar mitzvah versus to become a bar mitzvah;  to be simultaneously at the end of childhood and the beginning of manhood. The title of the book — “Here I Am” — comes from the Hebrew “hineini”, which is what Abraham says to both his son Isaac, as he leads him to be sacrificed at Abraham’s own hand, and to God, as God asks Abraham to perform this sacrifice. Abraham, caught in the middle of a choice between being there for both God and his son, makes the only choice he can: to be present for them both.

The father in the story, Jacob, is never able to reconcile life’s inevitable conflicts, instead always wavering between options. He cannot make a decision to put his sick, suffering dog Argus to sleep; he can’t decide whether to help Israel’s fight for survival; ironically, he is even unable to start the affair that leads to his divorce—his involvement only went as far as a few text messages because he panicked about meeting the woman in person. As a result, Jacob never really becomes a fully actualized adult and remains unfulfilled.

If Jacob, by virtue of his complete inability to face and engage with life, is the most unlikeable person in the story, his children, especially 13-year-old Sam, in the end, redeem him. When Sam realizes that his parent’s marriage is ending, even though his parents have yet to tell the children themselves, it’s Sam who calls a family meeting with his brothers Max and Benjy, and gently breaks the news to them. It’s Sam who shares with his brothers the plan to delay his bar mitzvah as long as possible in order to prolong his parent’s marriage. And it’s Sam who orchestrates plans with his brothers for choosing who they will live with after the divorce.

Tragically, it’s Jacob himself who recognizes how his children succeed where he himself has failed. To illustrate this, Jacob recounts the story of Max’s bar mitzvah:

“Max’s portion was Vayishlach, in which Jacob — the last of the patriarchs — is assaulted by an unknown assailant in the middle of the night. Jacob wrestles him down and refuses to let go, demanding a blessing of him. The assailant — an angel, or God himself — asks, “What is your name?” As Jacob holds on to the man with all of his strength, he answers, “Jacob.”  Then the angel says, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel — which means ‘Wrestles God.’”

From the bimah, with a poise far beyond his years or mine, Max said, “Jacob wrestled with God for the blessing. He wrestled with Esau for the blessing.  He wrestled with Isaac for the blessing, with Laban for the blessing, and in each case he eventually prevailed. He wrestled because he recognized that the blessings were worth the struggle. He knew that you only get to keep what you refuse to let go of.

“Closeness,” he said, surveying the congregation. “It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas. They’re close to us — sometimes so close we think they are part of us — and then, at some point, they aren’t close anymore. They go away. Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go.  What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn't the absence of struggle. Love is struggle.”

That sounded like the person I wanted to be, but couldn’t be. It sounded like Max.”

The book itself is long and meandering, and a less determined reader would have probably given up on it long before I did. The story of Israel’s collapse, while meant to parallel the collapse of the Bloch’s marriage and echo themes within the book, is confusing and ineffective, and the story would have been much stronger and the book much shorter and more readable if it had been left out. But the book is redeemed by Foer’s beautifully lyrical writing, which on more than one occasion took my breath away. The writing is what kept me going to the end of all 571 pages, and made me go back, re-read and savor parts such as the section quoted above, again and again. If you like such writing, and don’t mind wading through 571 pages to find it, I would recommend reading this book.

- Lisa Meng

Book Review


There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream

By Ben Sidran

If you love music and are fascinated by the history of American music, this amazing book is a must read. Even for readers already aware of Jewish contributions to the American music scene, the profound shaping of American myths by Jewish immigrants and the immense role they played is detailed by Sidran, a musician in his own right as well as a historian and master storyteller. The myth of a sentimental, gentle old south, for example, found in popular songs like "Mammy," and "Swanee," revealed a longing for a safe and loving environment totally at odds with the tenements and recent shtetl lives of the immigrant songwriters, but authentic for them because that kind of safety was a shared dream. 

Sidran asks at the beginning of the book, how can we possibly understand twentieth century American popular music without understanding Jews' contribution to it?" And as it turns out, Jewish talent, creativity and values paired with intense will to succeed in their newly adopted land ended up impacting American thought and American identity in deeply complex and layered ways. From Tin Pan Alley to the current corporate dominance of what we listen to, Jewish voices continue to shape our collective sense of self. 

Sidran's history is long (605 pp) and densely packed with insider stories, facts and explanations but the back stories provided by the author make this book difficult to put down. And his joy at pointing out again and again and again the Jewishness of songwriters, performers, technicians, agents and industry honchos is barely concealed. He clearly gets a kick out of the sheer numbers of Jewish music people. 

This is a fascinating but highly academic work, thoroughly and impeccably researched. If you're looking for a stimulating and informative read, There Was a Fire is well worth your time. 

Sisterhood gives this book: five stars

Sisterhood gives this book: five stars

-- Laura Schulman