Here I Am

By Jonathan Safran Foer
Genre: Literary Fiction
Buy Now This book is on reading list for February 2017

Questions and Topics for Discussion

The Hebrew word “Hineni” (pronounced hee-nay-nee) means “Here I am,” and is mostly used when God personally calls on someone in the Bible to do something difficult and important. Abraham? “Here I am.” Moses? “Here I am.” It’s very complete and emotionally charged, and implies, “Here I am: ready, willing and able.” There’s a special prayer on Yom Kippur called “Hineni” which starts, “Here I am in deep humility . . . ,” which asks God for forgiveness.

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, the phrase Hineni takes on additional meanings. For instance, it can be read as a statement of personal identity. Many times in the novel the characters feel unseen. Jacob and Julia become unseen to one another, and the children fight to have their identities acknowledged. The characters struggle to express outside what they feel inside, to overcome the inadequacy of language and say what they really mean.

How is the idea of “Here I Am” rooted in failures of communication? Is there a universal need to be heard, understood, recognized? In what way does this novel challenge the literal and biblical understanding of “Here I Am”?  Are all things personal, historical, political, nationalistic? The novel pulls at this thread in many different ways.

So, in addition to the questions above, consider the following:

  1. The male characters of Here I Am complicate simple notions of Jewish masculinity. How do the expectations of manhood differ across generations and nationalities?
  2. Jacob and Julia are not traditionally religious, but early in their relationship they practiced a “religion for two” — their own Friday Shabbat, Wednesday strolls and Rosh Hashanah rituals, among others. What do rituals mean and how do they change over time?
  3. What did you think of Julia’s reaction upon discovering Jacob’s secret cell phone?
  4. Technology is central to the lives of the characters: texting, virtual worlds, tablets, the Internet, television, Skype, podcasts, blogs, and so on. What are the different roles that technology plays in the lives of these characters?
  5. In the chapter “Maybe It Was the Distance” (beginning on page 219), we learn that Isaac and Benny (Tamir’s grandfather) were the only siblings out of a family of seven brothers who survived the Holocaust. After a few years together in a displaced persons camp, Isaac settles in America, and Benny in Israel. Foer writes, “Isaac never understood Benny. Benny understood Issac, but never forgave him.” Did Isaac evade his responsibilities to the Jewish homeland by moving to Washington, D.C.? What did you think of Jacob’s decision not to go to Israel? Was he being cowardly or courageous? How do the other characters, like Tamir and Irv, define courage?
  6. Compare the early version of Sam’s bar mitzvah speech, which begins on page 101, to the final version, which begins on page 450. How has his view of the world, and of himself, been transformed?
  7. How does Jacob and Julia’s divorce affect their three sons? Does it bring them together? What did you think of the “family conversation” between the brothers that begins on page 437?
  8. After viewing a documentary on concentration camps, Sam is wracked with the notion that “his life was, if not the result of, then at least inextricably bound to, the profound suffering, and that there was some kind of existential equation, whatever it was and whatever its implications, between hislife and their deaths. Or no knowledge, but a feeling… The feeling of being Jewish, but what was that feeling?” (pages 338–39). How does the legacy of the Holocaust affect the Blochs? How do they define their Jewish identity?

(Some questions adapted from


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