The ProsenPeople

Interview: Etgar Keret

Wednesday, June 24, 2015 | Permalink

by Becca Kantor

Israeli author Etgar Keret is internationally known for his short stories, graphic novels, and screenplays. His latest book, The Seven Good Years, is his first work of nonfiction. The memoir spans the period of Keret’s life between the birth of his son and the death of his father.

Becca Kantor: The Seven Good Years is your first autobiographical work. In the past you’ve published several short story collections, and this memoir is also written as a series of vignettes. What in particular attracts you to the short form? What inspired you to turn the experiences you describe in The Seven Good Years into an autobiographical work and not into fiction?

Etgar Keret: I don’t experience my fiction and nonfiction as short, but as concise. There is something very intensive and full of energy in my writing experience. I once said that, for me, writing feels very much like an explosion—and I haven't yet learned how to explode slowly.

As for my personal nonfiction writing: I think that the urge to directly document some of my personal experiences began, literally, the day my son was born. It is as if my entire conception of time had changed and I no longer lived in a never-ending present. Becoming a father made the terms “past” and “future” become more tangible, and overnight I became my family’s historian. The idea to make a book out of these pieces documenting the life of my family between the birth of my son and the death of my father became clear only very close to my father's death.

BK: Tell me about the title. Did you always have “the seven good years” as a unifying theme for the memoir, or did the idea for the title come later on in your process? The biblical allusion is also very intriguing.

EK: The working title was “Insincerely Yours,” but as soon as my father died I found myself returning to The Seven Good Years both because those years in which I had the gift of being both a child and had a father were probably the best I've ever had, and also because I couldn’t ignore the parallel between my father's terminal illness and the unstable future of the country in which I live. This is because of the existential dangers it faces both from the changes in the region we live in, and from the changes in the Israeli society itself.

BK: In “Imaginary Homeland,” you describe your complicated feelings about Poland: “Although most of my family had perished under horrendous circumstances there, Poland was also the place where they had lived an thrived for generations, and my attraction to that land and its people was almost mythic.” Has your relationship with Poland changed as a result of the time you’ve spent there? Has living in Warsaw demythologized the city for you? If so, how do you feel about this as a writer?

EK: I have quite a few close and dear friends in Warsaw. I’m sure the intimacy I’ve reached with them had to do with the difficulty my family has had with the country. Next month I'll visit Warsaw with my family. My brother, my wife, my son, and I will join my mother for her first trip there since the war, and I have to admit that I'm both anticipating and dreading this upcoming trip. Poland might become demythologized for me at some point, but that time seems—at least for now—as though it will be in the distant future.

BK: You write about your heightened awareness of being Jewish when you’re outside Israel—especially when you’re in Eastern Europe and Germany. Do you feel that your books have helped to normalize Jewish people for those who haven’t had much previous contact with them? Has this ever been a conscious goal for you when you write?

EK: I don't have any conscious goals or articulated plans when I sit down and write, but writing, when it finds a curious reader, has the tendency to humanize. That's why I've always loved reading and that is also, I guess, why I began to write. The Seven Good Years has already been published in quite a few countries. From readers’ responses I've felt that, more than it has humanized Jews in the eyes of non-Jewish readers, it has humanized Israelis in the eyes of many Europeans whose information about Israel comes mostly from news shows and news magazines. Reading about the parental problems a person experiences when he is caught in the middle of the street with his seven-year-old child in the middle of a missile attack seems to transcend—at least with some of the book's readers—political views, and reminds them for a moment that the human experience is more complex and ambiguous than a Star Wars movie.

BK: When your first book came out in Poland, your mother told you that you weren’t an Israeli writer, but rather a “Polish writer in exile.” Your father certainly seems to have shared your love of storytelling and your ability to address tragedy through sympathetic humor. How much do you feel your parents influenced style of writing?

EK: I think that my parents had a huge effect on my writing. The bedtime stories they invented formed the most powerful storytelling experience I've ever had. My father's infinite empathy and compassion for people together with my mother's amazing imagination were the best advertisements a kid could have had for humanity and mankind. I think that the fairy-tale quality of many of my stories comes from my continuous, unconscious attempt to echo something from those amazing bedtime stories that had a crucial role in forming my identity and yearnings as a child.

BK: Can we look forward to more autobiographical works from you in the future—or to works inspired by family history?

EK: The prime catalyst to publish this book was the death of my father. I think that this book is my way of saying goodbye to him. But my default when it comes to writing has been, and probably will always be, fiction. So I don't really see myself returning to writing nonfiction in the near future.

Becca Kantor received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived in Estonia, England, and Germany; currently she lives and writes in her native Philadelphia.

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How To Ask?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 | Permalink

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was born in Asheville, North Carolina. She is the author of the recently published book A Fifty-Year Silence: Love War and a Ruined House in France and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Ask questions. Make sure to ask them while you still can. How I always hated those sentences, proffered by well-meaning outsiders whenever the subject of my grandparents came up. I always wondered about those people and their families. Had they ever tried it? Because in my family, asking questions could feel about as natural – and about as considerate – as reaching over and pushing your hand into someone’s face.

In A Fifty-Year Silence, which recounts my efforts to uncover the history of my grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, and the reasons behind their half-century estrangement, I wrote:

I’d find myself at a loss for what to ask: the subjects about which I felt most curious sparked so much anger and chagrin […] that I didn’t usually have the heart to broach them.

In the near decade it took me to tease my grandparents’ story out of them, I would go days, weeks, even months without venturing a query, for fear of stirring that pot of bad memories. Asking questions was too dangerous, too painful, too sad. Asking questions just wasn’t how it worked.

In the months since the publication of my book, many readers have shared little shards of the family secrets they carry with them, and asked me where to begin, how to find out more. In most families, particularly families of trauma survivors – and particularly families of Holocaust survivors, questions are the dangerous objects you’re not allowed to carry onto the plane. When your relatives have lived through a war, fled for their lives, seen the world they grew up in reduced to dust, and suffer with the knowledge that they came through and their loved ones did not, they earn the right to bar all inquiries from the boarding line. Like a security agent impassively tossing out a nail file, my grandparents would, more often than I can count, shut down my questioning with a shrug and a shake of their heads.

In my experience, you don’t learn the most from asking questions. Or at least, not from direct questions, not from the questions you’d think were the ones to ask. The need to know and the impossibility of asking are at the heart of every family mystery, and when readers come to me for advice about how to begin, I generally say that the best you can do is pull a chair up to the table and wait. And I tell them about my great aunt in Jerusalem, who used to bake the most wonderful cakes. She’d use her hands to weigh out the ingredients, plunging them into the canister and letting the soft white flour sift through her fingers. When you asked where her recipes came from, the answer was always the same: “Auschwitz.” And sometimes, if you stayed at the table, she’d tell you more. Of how the women in her prison block memorized each other’s recipes as they worked, or at night as they lay talking to one another from their splintery beds. Of starving mothers and sisters and daughters recalling teaspoons and cupfuls of ingredients they’d never taste again, parceling out pieces of their lost lives just in case one of them got away, to remember for the others. Where did you get that recipe? You never know which question will open the door. And in the wake of each one answered, a thousand more inevitably linger, unasked – faces, names, whole lifetimes, reduced to a few sweet morsels, crumbs on a cake plate.

Miranda Richmond Mouillot currently lives in the South of France.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 19, 2015 | Permalink

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Back to the Bronx

Friday, June 19, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jerome Charyn wrote about New York as a crime novel and growing up Jewish in the Bronx. He is the author of the recently published short story collection Bitter Bronx and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Whenever I feel “a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” I don’t go out to sea, like Herman Melville. I go back to the Bronx. It wasn’t always that way. For a long time I avoided every trace of the Bronx, disturbed by its random chaos—drug lords shooting at one another from the roofs of the Grand Concourse while half the borough was on fire.

And then I did go back. The BBC was shooting a documentary on the Bronx. It must have seemed like an ideal movie set to the British, all that rubble reminding them of the London Blitz, and they wanted a novelist from the Bronx to accompany them. We roamed the badlands, and I felt a kind of delicious vertigo, as I realized that I had been shaped as a writer by that little paradise of ruin. I’d filled the void with my own imagination.

And now, when I stand on the corner of Sheridan Avenue and East 169th Street, a valley with hills on three sides, I feel like an explorer reinventing the sinews of his own past. I can still see the “crown” of the George Washington Bridge rising above the Grand Concourse like some magical moonscape. The apartment house where I had lived during World War II—a deluxe tenement one block east of the Concourse—is all gated up like a fortress, with a bold sign above the doorway: TRESPASSERS BEWARE!

Perhaps I am a trespasser now. I move on. I arrive at an abandoned lot on Marcy Place, where I encounter a wondrous form of cave art—a mural in brilliant color that covers the exposed side wall of another deluxe tenement, right near the lot. The mural depicts a Bronx garden with some tenement palaces in the distance. The garden is equipped with three multicolored cats, two musicians, a flowerpot, three birds and their birdbath, a kind of urban cactus tree that looks like a surreal ladder, several dogs, and a young girl in a yellow dress, sitting in the lower left corner of the mural, as a queen might sit, glancing at her own creation. The drizzly November in my soul has disappeared while I glance as the surety of that design on the wall. The muralist, Tova Snyder, who was raised in Israel and Provincetown, has imagined her very own Alhambra in the heartland of the Bronx.

I walk one block west to the Concourse, once a middleclass Jewish mecca, and now a maze of pawnshops, dental offices, and beauty salons, with the same Art Deco imprint of its apartment houses that had enthralled me as a little boy. I arrive at the Concourse Plaza. Sixty years ago it was the borough's classiest hotel, where a number of Bronx Bombers used to live during the baseball season. Now it’s a center for seniors, with a guard sitting in a cage inside the front door. He scowls at me, trying to establish his own sense of order. Smile, I want to say—laugh a little. Whatever music I have inside my skull has risen from the bedlam of the Bronx. I could be one of the creatures in that mural on Marcy Place. A musician perhaps, or a multicolored cat.

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan. Read more about him here.

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New York as a Crime Novel

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jerome Charyn wrote about growing up Jewish in the Bronx. He is the author of the recently published short story collection Bitter Bronx and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Sometimes it felt like the end of the line. There was no place to go beyond the East Bronx; you couldn't even drown yourself in the shallow waters of the Bronx River; you had to learn to survive on your own prowess.

I sort of lived in a comic book universe, because I was surrounded by maniacs and misfits - egg candlers who had lost the art of candling and lived out their days mumbling to themselves; Jewish baseball prodigies who had spent a month or so in the minor leagues years and years ago and still walked around with a baseball glove; victims of polio -beautiful girls - who would do entrechats in the street and stumble all over themselves, dreaming of a lost career . . .

This was my Bronx. Violence was the key to everything. Violence could erupt at any second; I would have ten fights every morning on my way to school. I threw someone off the roof once to save my own skin; I watched him plunge from one clothesline to the next like a boy on a trampoline. I might have killed him, but he landed in a great knot of laundry. I didn't rejoice. That's how it was living around defeated people.

Bronx, New York. 1947. Photo via Andy Blair.

I was only able to survive because my older brother - Harvey Philip Charyn - was feared in the neighborhood. He would later become a homicide detective, an expert on the Mafia. A tough guy once put a gun to Harvey's head, and my brother didn't panic. He clutched the barrel in his hand, and whoever was trying to kill him couldn't pull the trigger. There was no point in fighting with Harvey, because in the end you were going to lose.

This kind of chaos was a tremendous advantage, because it allowed me to see things that other kids didn't see. I'm used to chaos. I know how to dance with it, how to make love to chaos.

The only way I could survive the barren landscape of the Bronx was with words, and I had to teach myself. Language has always been a kind of weapon - a sword - and you're constantly scratching at things. Those scratches provide the rhythm for a writer, a fundamental music. And once you find the music - pull it right out of the chaos - language comes alive. Something within your soul urges you on, and you bounce from here to there. Your life becomes a series of picaresque adventures as you move from catastrophe to catastrophe, hoping that you'll be able to climb out of it. That's the only way I know how to write. Otherwise I would have become a crazy egg candler, mumbling to myself until the day I died.

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan. Read more about him here.

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Book Cover of the Week: 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die

Tuesday, June 16, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Becca Kantor

If your eye is caught by the host of colorful pen-and-ink caricatures on the cover of Ricardo Covolo’s 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die … just wait until you look inside.

Written (by hand!) as a diary tracing the history of music Johann Sebastian Bach to Chief Keef, the book is chock-full of portraits in Covolo’s distinctive, evocative style. This one will be treasured by music aficionados, art-lovers, and general readers alike.

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The Land of Aardvark

Monday, June 15, 2015 | Permalink

Jerome Charyn is the author the recently published short story collection Bitter Bronx. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Has anyone ever really dealt with the Jewish underclass of the Bronx, where I grew up, next to the trolley tracks of Southern Boulevard and Boston Road? Some of us might look back with a kind of nostalgia, talk of a golden period, when families rambled around Indian Lake in Crotona Park, before Robert Moses ruined the borough with his super expressway. People ask me if the Bronx had ever been my playground. It was a little paradise of empty spaces, a garden where nothing would grow, except bitterness and regret. I had one book in the apartment where I lived with my parents and two brothers. It was the first volume of an encyclopedia that must have been sent to my parents as some sales gimmick—it was a treatise on the letter “A.” And so I memorized that book, starting with aardvark, and could sing out to you all the manifestations of “A.” Then my language stopped. And years later, when I read Walter Abish’s avant-garde novel, Alphabetical Africa, where every chapter begins with a different letter of the alphabet, I wondered if he too had started life with the same encyclopedia, but had been privileged enough to have more than one volume, since he could go all the way to “Z.” And here I am, like some wily pirate, trapped inside the letter “A.” Well, that’s the Bronx.

I began to wonder why the apartments I have in Paris and New York resemble barren, nondescript closets. Both apartments are in luxurious buildings in classic neighborhoods—Montparnasse and Greenwich Village—but they’re absolutely sparse, without much furniture at all. Does this void recall the void of growing up in the Bronx, where there was little “furniture” in the street—that is, nothing that could ever catch the eye? Is this “desert” more comfortable for me, and did it force me a long, long time ago to live inside my head? I must have been a novelist at five and six, or perhaps I was a walking, talking text, sucking in the movies I saw, the stories I heard, and the adventures of my older brother, Harvey, one of the boldest boys in the East Bronx, a Casanova at nine, prepared to take on any gang, a knight guarding his own turf, while I was frightened of anything beyond the reach of my nose, and lived only to imagine, to invent out of the nothingness I knew. Harvey would become a homicide detective, a catcher of cases, and I was the one who killed people off, the prince of an altogether different realm, a tumbler of words, who could only be adventurous on the page.

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan.

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Friday, June 12, 2015 | Permalink

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My First Midrash

Friday, June 12, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julie Baretz wrote about leading Christian tours of Israel and why she decided to make aliyah. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The idea for my book, The Bible on Location, grew from a study project designed to enrich my professional capacity to guide biblical sites in Israel. I set out to delve more deeply into the post-Torah books of the Tanakh – the ones that chronicle the Israelites’ trials and tribulations after arriving in the Promised Land – so that in addition to reading the stories on site, I could also provide commentary and food for thought.

Just as my teacher and I opened the Book of Joshua to the story of Rahab and the Israelite spies, an article appeared in the weekend newspaper about a rehab program for prostitutes in Israel. This led to an intriguing discussion of Rahab’s possible motivations for assisting the spies and betraying her people. As we read on, many fascinating questions arose, often in response to current events but also in the wake of cryptic information provided by the biblical authors and editors. Why is it stated that Ehud Ben Gera was left-handed? Why did Samson reveal the secret of his strength to the obviously manipulative Delilah? Why didn’t David punish his son Amnon for raping his sister Tamar? Did Ahab and Jezebel have a good marriage despite the zero-tolerance campaign she waged against his prophets?

Early on in the study process I knew I wanted to share what I was learning by writing a book. I chose twelve stories with compelling questions and set off to the library in pursuit of the answers, wading through books and articles on history, archaeology, literary criticism and rabbinic thought. I gathered threads from myriad sources and then wove them into commentary that answered my questions.

The process of literary sleuthing was exhilarating, but I soon realized that twelve sites didn’t sufficiently cover the biblical narrative arc or the geographic diversity of Israel. I chose eight more stories to complete the picture, but ran into a wall with the prophet Elisha, Elijah’s successor. I wasn’t able to connect to him, but as the subject of fifteen biblical stories, I couldn’t ignore him. I eventually found two illuminating articles on the story of Elisha and the wealthy Shunemite woman (II Kings 4). One lucidly explained the prophet’s role in the birth, death and resuscitation of the woman’s child, and the second discussed a commentary by an Israeli politician who, in a modern interpretation infused with Israeli political reality, accused Elisha of adultery. Good stuff, but neither article answered a curious question: why did the Shunemite woman, who had no sons, rebuff the prophet’s attempt to reward her with the birth of a baby boy?

I sniffed around for hints in the text. Shunem is mentioned a few times in the Tanakh, most notably as the hometown of Abishag, a beautiful young woman who was selected to warm the elderly King David in bed (I Kings 1). Maybe Shunem was well-known for its fetching females? Perhaps a limited but protected gene pool was producing outstanding beauties with similar features? It may then follow that the same inbreeding resulted in a tragic genetic mutation which caused death in infant males, which might explain why the Shunemite woman didn’t jump for joy at the prospect of conceiving a boy (I know, it’s a stretch). Yet, if the biological father came from a different gene pool the results could be different. This theory wouldn’t hold water academically, but I could respectfully present it as a midrash – traditional Jewish creative interpretation of text.

In a significant departure from the other nineteen chapters of the book, I wrote the commentary on II Kings 4 in the voice of the Shunemite woman. In presenting her version of the story, the two biggest challenges were explaining the genetic reality without using the word ‘genetics’; and elucidating how she conceived without specifically naming the father or casting aspersions on her husband or the prophet.

Is this modern midrash convincing? Read chapter 17 and decide for yourself.

Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Read more about her and her work here.

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Reading Tanakh with Christians

Wednesday, June 10, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julie Baretz wrote about why she decided to make aliyah. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

A man once got on a bus I was riding in Israel. He greeted the driver and a conversation ensued. Rapidly, however, the tones escalated until the two gentlemen were bellowing at each other. I didn’t speak much Hebrew at the time, but it looked like the passenger was about to sock the driver in the teeth. Yet, when we reached the next stop the tension evaporated as quickly as it had materialized. The driver opened the door, the two men shook hands and the passenger alighted with an amicable wave. I then realized I had just witnessed a thrilling round of Israel’s favorite national sport – the friendly argument.

A major impetus for writing my book, The Bible on Location, has been my work guiding Christian pilgrims in Israel. Christians who come to experience the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of Jesus comprise about 70 percent of incoming tourism - bread and butter for Jewish tour guides. I work frequently with American evangelicals; they are fervently interested in the context of Christian scripture and anything that will shed light on the Israel and the Judaism that Jesus knew. But their interest is not limited to the Gospels; they are just as passionate about Hebrew scripture. Most of them know the Tanakh very, very well; way better, in fact, then most Jews. Many of them have read it numerous times from cover-to-cover and almost all of them attend Bible study groups at their churches.

Jordan River Baptismal Site

How embarrassing it was, then, for me to realize that my Jewish smarts didn’t count for bupkis if I was only superficially acquainted with my own family history, the same one which the gentiles had so warmly adopted as their own. Serious study was in order, so I found myself a rabbi and together we dove deeply into the biblical texts. I was so intrigued by the timelessness of the biblical characters and by the endless associative modern parallels, that early on in the study process I knew I wanted to share my discoveries by writing a book. Meanwhile, I honed my commentary on my Christian pilgrims.

It’s been said that for Christians the Bible is the last word, while for Jews it’s the first. Jews like to question, to deconstruct, to dissect the biblical personalities, to up-end assumptions. In the attempt to crack the true meaning of a text we relish a difference of opinion and delight in debate. The smart aleck is king and there’s nothing we love more than a good argument l’shem shamaim, for heaven’s sake. But before I can spin an irreverent riff on Elijah the over-zealous prophet or the conniving, skirt-chasing murderer King David, I must first expound on the roots of our tradition to my gentile audience. That’s when I call on the undefeated champion of challenge, the super-hero of squabble, the Hebrew hammer of haggling: Abraham.

Abraham was fearless. When God threatened to destroy the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18, Abraham called him on it. “What if there are fifty righteous people there – will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” God conceded and Abraham boldly bargained Him down to a far better deal, convincing Him to save the two corrupt cities for the sake of a mere ten righteous people. This well-known and beloved story helps to explain that when justice is at stake, not only are we permitted to argue with the Creator, but we are obligated to do so. Hence our Jewish penchant for noisy disagreement. It’s helpful to point out that Jesus was a man of this culture; living at a time when Jewish law had not yet been finalized, he took an active part in the national discussion on how to interpret and understand the Torah.

After giving this explanation about Jews and arguing recently, a young pastor approached me with a concerned look on his face. It seemed he had something important to say. He took me aside. “Julie,” he said. “I think my wife is Jewish.”

Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Read more about her and her work here.

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