Welcome to our first “Read On” discussion post! We’re diving deeper into Section I of “Here I Am,” titled “Before the War.” What do you think of the book so far? We would love to know, so please comment below. And as you digest the story, here’s some food for thought to get you started.

I’ve been thinking of the phrase, “Out of the mouths of babes.” Did you know this common idiom comes from the Book of Psalms (Psalms 8:2)? In “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary,” scholar Robert Alter wonders about the origin of this expression. Noting that it’s broadly used to imply that the simplicity of children enables them to see the world more clearly, he suggests a slightly different interpretation. He writes: “One distant possibility: God draws strength from consciously aware humankind, made in His image, even from its weakest and youngest members, against the inhuman forces of chaos. Perhaps the innocence of infants is imagined as a source of strength.”

The more life experience we accumulate, the more we see the world through an increasingly complex lens, often unnecessarily. “Here I Am” character Benjy Bloch epitomizes the child who sees the world clearly, because he sees the world simply. (His brother, Max, sees the world clearly too, but in sharp relief and with mistrust.) “The sound of time. What happened to it?” Benjy asks. He is the simple son of the Haggadah, his mere presence evoking the question, “What is all this?”

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It would be easy to dismiss Benjy’s question as one of the seemingly pointless and unending questions asked by a child. But if you sit with the question for a moment and move past its surface absurdity, you may find yourself growing increasingly uneasy in the face of a question of great magnitude. It is, as the spaces Julia craves to design, an idea whose “insides [are] larger than its outsides.”

The title of the novel, “Here I Am,” evokes Abraham’s response to God at the moment of the binding of Isaac, and is part of Sam’s assigned Torah portion for becoming a bar mitzvah (Genesis 21:1, 11). “Here I am,” Abraham says, his response a sign of his readiness for the task at hand, for the sacrifice he is being asked to make. “Here” is not a geographic concept for the Bible as much as it is a statement of presence and sense of self. Where are you in this moment? A wandering people has limits to its geographic identity. Time becomes the dimension in which it must abide: “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals…” (from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Sabbath”).

To locate ourselves in time, we need to be present—fully present. This can be manifest in the brief sliver of time in which we light Shabbat candles on Friday night, or in the mindful moments in which we are achingly aware of the condition of our world. There’s an encompassing totality to being present, and it’s a condition we must actively cultivate in lives that are otherwise defined by multitasking and channel surfing.

Over the course of “Here I Am,” Jacob Bloch will discover how present he has failed to be, and though he’s not the only character in the book to suffer this malady, for him it will become a matter of life and death. He will need to peel back the layers of fear, avoidance, anxiety and shame to embrace the challenges (not all bad) of the life in which he finds himself. Jacob’s journey impacts each member of the family, and in many ways is channeled through Sam’s commitment to a parallel life and attendant resentment of creating himself, Jewishly and otherwise, in his parents’ image.

Benjy may well be the “consciously aware humankind” to which Robert Alter refers. His innocence could be the pipeline for the entire family to aspire to something greater, if the burden doesn’t break him.

In which spaces do you feel part of “consciously aware humankind?” What does it take for you to be fully present? Have you seen any glimmers of possibility for Jacob at this point in the narrative? Share your thoughts below!

Glossary of References

Have questions about any of the terms or references used in the book? Please let us know in the comments. Here are three references from Section I you may have wondered about:

Adas Israel (page 4)
Adas Israel Congregation is a Washington, D.C., synagogue known for its innovative outreach and commitment to social justice.

“This too shall—?” (page 27)
The phrase “This too shall pass” may come from a parable about King Solomon. Other sources are possible as well, since there are examples in Persian (In niz bogzarad) and Turkish (Bu da geçer yahu).

Vayeira (page 102)
Vayeira is Sam’s bar mitzah portion and the biblical source for the phrase “Here I am.”

Read On with CJP’s Jewish Learning and Engagement here. And order a hardcover copy of the book here, a Kindle version here and a paperback version (coming in June) here.

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