She Made Herself Smaller: On Israel, the Schlemiel & Tzimtzum in JS Foer’s “Here I Am”

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Anyone who has attempted to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am knows that it is an arduous task.   To finish it and understand the novel, one has to connect a lot of threads.  The book explores the family dynamics of the Bloch family and situates it within multiple contexts that span the Holocaust, a war in Israel, and Jewish American family life in the age of social networking and virtual reality.  At the center of the novel is Jacob Bloch, a schlemiel character who, because of his inability to properly understand and communicate with his wife, Julia, loses touch with her.   As Harold Bloom would say, Jacob’s understanding of what has happened to his relationship is belated.    And this realization comes to him – more often than not – not from himself but from other people around him.    His failure, arguably, has not only to do with his lack of understanding of his wife and himself, but it also has a lot to do with a confused or indifferent understanding of the meaning and place of Jewishness in his family.   Jacob takes a passive role and for that reason he pays a major price.  Each generation, it seems, is farther away from the source, which can be traced back to Jacob’s great-grandfather, a Rabbi from Eastern Europe, and his grandfather, Isaac, who passes away in the midst of the novel.    The funeral brings up questions about what it means to be Jewish.

But before the encounter with losing Jewishness through the death of a beloved family member occurs, these questions start arising when Jacob and Julia discuss how they will share the bad news of their break-up to their family.   This discussion leads Jacob to reflect on something his son, Sam – who is “supposed to be” Bar Mitzvahed and isn’t because of Jacob’s negligence – asks him about God.     This prompts Jacob to reflect on the meaning of Tzimtzum.   The discovery of this concept fits within the context of his absent mindedness and in the midst of a war that irrupts over an earthquake in Israel which Jacob is unable to properly digest.  His relationship with his wife and son – as well as his belated reflection on Tzimtzum – is situated within this context.

The narrator tells us that when the Bloch family receives the news of Israel’s tragedy, they over-react and repress the feelings that emerge in its wake.  And this, in some way, reflects the dysfunctionality of the post-Holocaust American Jewish family, which has much to do with an inability to communicate with itself in an affective manner.  They are, as it were, too shocked to know what to do.  They are anxious and unable to act, which leads, consequently, to repression and denial.  And this – suggests he narrator – is a pattern in post-Holocaust American Jewish history:

News that reached America was scattershot, unreliable, and alarming.  The Bloch’s did what they did best: balanced overreaction with repression.  If in their hearts they believe they were safe, they overworried, talked and talked, whipped themselves, and one another, into forms of anguish….It was a game whose unreal danger was to be talked up and savored, so long as the outcome was fixed.  But if there was an inkling of any real danger, if the shit started to thicken – as it was soon to do – they dug until the blades of their shovels threw sparks.  It’ll be fine, it’s nothing.  (312)

Tamir, Jacob’s Israeli cousin (who is on a visit while this goes down), ignores what is going on.  He doesn’t even talk about it: “to Jacob’s amazement, he still wanted to sightsee.”  Like Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, Jacob sees in the Israeli a dark mirror: “It was so easy for Jacob to see in Tamir what he couldn’t see in himself:  a refusal to acknowledge reality. He sightsaw so he wouldn’t have to look”(312).  Jacob, meanwhile, watched the TV report with a glazed look in his eye.   In the midst of this, Julia “shakes her hand in front of Jacob’s face” to remind him that the greater crisis, the one that he is ignoring and repressing, is the demise of their marriage:  “I realize they Middle East is collapsing, and that the entire world will get sucked into the vortex, but this is actually more important now”(313).

Following this, he discusses who in the family they should tell first.  Julia suggests that they gather them all together and tell them. That way they can all “cry together”(313).  In response, Jacob suggests that they tell Sam first because he will “have the strongest reaction” and will also be “the most able to process it”(313).    In response, Julia asks a question that beckons for a response: “What if I cry?” she asked. But Jacob fails to act on what is suggested by the question.  The narrator characterizes how he thinks the right thought but distracts himself with other thoughts (about Israel, the kids, etc) thereby leaving her alone, once again:

The question embodied Jacob, made him want to touch her – grasp her shoulder, press his palm to her cheek, feel the ridges and the valleys of her fingertips align –  but he didn’t know if that was acceptable anymore.  His stillness throughout the conversation didn’t feel standoffish, but it did create a space around her.  What if she cried?  They would all cry. They’d wail.  It would be horrible.  The kids’ lives would be ruined.  Tens of thousands of people would die. (314).

This missed encounter engenders a memory of Sam who, on a visit to his religious grandfather Isaac – who passes away and prompts Jacob to reflect, later in the novel on the meaning of Jewishness – asked Jacob if “God is everywhere?”   The question “came out of nowhere” and, in his surprise, Jacob answered that “that’s what people who believe in God tend to think, yes.”  In saying this, Jacob excludes himself from belief in God.  This doesn’t stop Sam from asking questions:

“So here’s what I can’t figure out,” he said, watching the early moon follow them as they drove.  “If God is everywhere, where did He put the world when He made it?”(314)

Jacob  is unable to answer the question.

That night, after putting Sam to bed, Jacob does some research and discovers the notion of tzimtum.  It answers this question:

Sam’s question had inspired volumes of thought over thousands of years, and that the most prevalent response was the kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum. Basically, God was everywhere, and as Sam surmised, when He wanted to create the world, there was nowhere to put it.  So He made Himself smaller. Some referred to an act of contraction, others a concealment.  Creation demanded self-erasure, and to Jacob, it was the most extreme humility, the purest generosity.  (314)

Reflecting  on this, Jacob discovers that tzimtzum can be used to read Julia’s question: What if I cry?  But it is too late:

Sitting with her now, rehearsing the horrible conversation, Jacob wondered if maybe, all those years, he had misunderstood the spaces surrounding Juila: her quiet, her steps back.   Maybe they weren’t buffers of defense, but of the most extreme humility, the purest generosity. What if she wasn’t withdrawing, but beckoning?  Or both at the same time? Withdrawing and beckoning?  And more to the point: making a world for their children, even for Jacob. (314)

For the reader, it is obvious that this question is rhetorical. It is not a mere musing.  But Jacob, even after thinking it, utters the opposite to her:  “‘You won’t cry,’ he told her trying to enter the space”(315).  The passage goes on and when she says “you’re probably right,” he thinks he has done something right but in truth he has failed.  He missed an opportunity to give her love.  She was beckoning him to touch and console her.

What happens following this is telling.  He misinterprets the tzimtzum as an opportunity for himself to shine  and emote rather than love Julia.    Jacob tells her that “even if you don’t see me crying.  I’ll be crying”(316).   The emphasis, in other words, is on himself.  This turns into a “feeling,” namely, that Julia “believed she had a stronger emotional connection with the children, that being a mother, or a woman, or simply herself, crated a bond that a father, a man, or Jacob was incapable of.  She’d subtly suggest it all the time”(316).    This feeling is none other than the feeling of jealousy.  His response to the love she gives is competitive.  He wants to show her that he can also cry and love the children in a way that is even better.

Foer’s version of the schlemiel shows us that the blindspot has to do with the inability to love the other.  And even though he, for a moment, understands the true meaning of the tzimtzum, he doesn’t follow through.  He turns it back onto himself as if Julia is sacrificing herself so that he can love the kids but not her.  It’s as if God withdraws from the world but doesn’t beckon man to love him back.    It’s as if God withdraws in order for humankind – in utter jealousy – to compete with God and leave God behind.  Smallness has deeper meaning.  But the irony is that this God is not a paternal figure.  God is a maternal figure.   She made herself smaller in order to beckon man.  She didn’t simply withdraw.  And this, perhaps, gives the reader a window into Jacob’s problem with God and Jewishness.  It has a lot to do with his inability to act on the love that is communicated by the other’s withdrawal and smallness which is, if anything, a beckoning to return instead of a call to pull away.

Perhaps, Foer suggests, this blindspot can also be applied to Israel whose God seems to be withdrawn but is actually beckoning the Jewish people to return.  All of this, as the novel suggests, comes to the fore as Israel and Jacob Bloch’s relationship with his wife teeters on the brink of total destruction.  It all depends – as this allegorical figure suggests – on how we read tzimtzum.     How do we respond when she – the God of Israel and our beloved – makes herself small?  What is the schlemiel’s answer?  What is the reader’s answer?   If one overlooks Jacob’s (mis)understanding of tzimtzum, one will not be able to answer this question let alone understand the central motif of this large and difficult novel.  Exegesis, after all, must ask these questions if it is to understand the hidden meaning of the text and apply it to real life.  By paying close attention to how Foer’s schlemiel, Jacob Bloch interprets the tzimtzum and how it relates to his life and its problems, perhaps this can happen.

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