Safran Foer shakes up notions of identity, Jewish family

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In the first paragraph of his new novel, Jonathan Safran Foer hints at what will unfold later on, and goes on to describe Isaac Bloch, a Holocaust survivor living in Washington, D.C.

In “Here I Am,” Isaac is the father of Irv, an ardent blogger and defender of Israel, and the grandfather of Jacob, a novelist-turned-television writer. Jacob and his wife have three children, with the bar mitzvah of the eldest looming.

Safran Foer

Later in the book, Jacob is remembering his grandfather’s home, where his earliest memories are hidden “like afikomens.” He recalls the eyes in Golda Meir’s portrait that seemed to move, games at the kitchen table and things lying around the house, such as “yesterday’s bagel” and “last week’s Jewish Week [newspaper].”

Foer said there weren’t many places in the book where he drew upon his own memories — although the description of Isaac’s home is one of them. It’s much like his grandmother’s home, Foer said.

The novel’s title refers to the biblical book of Genesis, when God calls out to Abraham before ordering him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and Abraham responds “Hineni” (here I am), and then again soon after, when Isaac calls out to his father.

In a phone interview during his book tour — which includes a Wednesday, Sept. 28 talk at the JCC of San Francisco, plus two other Bay Area appearances — Foer said the title only came to him when he was finishing up. When he wrote that passage in the book, he didn’t know how central it would be.

Foer, 39, is the author of two previous bestselling novels, “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” along with a bestselling nonfiction book, “Eating Animals.” One of the best and brightest of the under-40 generation, Foer was 26 when his first novel, adapted from his thesis at Princeton, was published in 2003. “Extremely Close” was published in 2005.

In the years since, Foer has been doing other things, such as having children, teaching, writing nonfiction, editing the “New American Hagaddah” and working on a comedy show for HBO about a Jewish family in Washington, D.C. (a project he ultimately killed).

“Here I Am” by Jonathan Safran Foer (592 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

At nearly 600 pages, “Here I Am” is full of ideas and complicated issues he turns inside out, including Jewish identity, marriage, the unbridgeable distance between people, forgiveness and the connections between American and Israeli Jews.

Since it’s mentioned on the book jacket, it’s not giving away too much to say that midway through there’s an earthquake in the Middle East, its epicenter deep under the Dead Sea, and much is shattered by the shaking ground.

This novel is Jewish in its content, language, humor and the presence of Israel. “There’s not a point I was trying to make,” Foer said. “That’s not the way I write. I was interested in writing something authentic.”

He said when he lived in Israel for a summer several years ago, the idea of a possible earthquake there piqued his curiosity and he spent time at a geophysical institute involved in earthquake preparedness, learning about the realities. “This is how I work,” he said. “There are things that draw my attention and curiosity, and I pursue them. Some go nowhere. Some take years. Some coalesce.”

Foer was quick to point out that this fictional family has nothing to do with his own, and that the marriage in the novel does not reflect his marriage (and break-up) with novelist Nicole Krauss. “I wrote much of the divorce stuff before then,” he said. He is now in a relationship with actress Michelle Williams that has lasted a couple of years.

While the narrator is omnipresent, seeing into everyone’s hearts and sharing their voices, in the first person, said narrator spends most of the novel seeing the world through Jacob’s lens. Foer said none of these characters are him. “The average of them are me,” he said. “The chorus of them feels personal to me. The chorus of arguments felt familiar and personal.”

As for the influence of Judaism in his books, he said, “I’m always surprised by Judaism’s place in my writing, in my work. I didn’t think of myself as having a particularly strong Jewish identity, whatever that means. If I had read a description of my first book, I don’t know that I would have been interested in reading or writing such a thing, but I’m regularly really surprised, by the persistence, the irrepressible presence of Judaism in my imagination.

“My formal Jewish education ended when I was 13. I was planted in that soil, that kind of Jewish literacy, a familiarity with ritual and the calendar and stories. It not only stuck with me, but has probably meant more to me as time has passed. Most things mean less to you.”

Is writing a book with Israel as a theme risky?

“That you can’t write about Israel without someone asking if it’s risky says something about the world’s relationship to the place, the mere mention of the place. It’s a fraught word, there’s no other country like that. Using Israel in a novel increases the stakes of that fraughtness and discomfort. Imagining Israel near destruction gives the impression of being political. What’s meant by being political? I cannot imagine an intelligent reader saying I was suggesting that Israel be destroyed.”

About Zionism, he said, “I think it’s a word that has very little meaning that isn’t anti-Semitic. Zionism is a word with a historical context — a belief in, working toward and fighting for the creation of the State of Israel. Israel exists. It’s not going to stop. The word implies the question of whether it should exist. It’s a question that has no significance anymore.”

He tied in the distance in personal relationships and loneliness.

“Domestic lives are so consuming, distracting,” he said. “There are health scares, emotional scares. I’m writing about things everyone experiences, about the paradoxes of identity. How can I be present unconditionally for two different things, which can be contradictory, like being a devoted parent and professional? I’ve never met a person who is able to do both optimally. You just balance it.”

Jonathan Safran Foer will speak at 7:30 Tuesday, Sept. 27 at City Arts & Lectures, S.F. ($29); with author Molly Antopol at 12 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28 at the JCC of San Francisco ($28-$38,; and at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28 at Book Passage, Corte Madera.