The ProsenPeople

Interview: Assaf Gavron

Tuesday, November 04, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Assaf Gavron is a writer and translator, and the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) Scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for 2014-2015. He is the author of seven books and numerous translations, including those from English to Hebrew of J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Audrey Niffeneger, Nathan Englander, and Jonathan Safran Foer. Multi-talented, he is the captain of the “Israeli national football team of writers and poets,” according to his website (www.assafgavron.com), and a singer/songwriter with a band called “Mouth and Foot.” He has lived mostly in Israel, but has also spent time in England and Germany.

Jewish Book Council caught up with him by phone to discuss his most recent novel, The Hilltop, winner of Israel’s Bernstein Prize and the first work of fiction to grapple with the unauthorized hilltop West Bank settlements.

Beth Kissileff: You have a tremendous ability to por­tray different types of people in the book. The char­acters change throughout the book and the book chronicles their changes. There are two different baalei teshuvah, returnees to religious Judaism, Josh and Gabi. They are not stereotypes, but individuals. Even the Shin Bet informer is seen as sympathetic.

Assaf Gavron: Thank you, I’m happy you thought that way. Any novel, if it aims to be a good novel—regard­less of what the subject is—shows a variety of people in a place. There is a stereotype of a settler, but there is never one type. Also, a person is not one-sided or clear-cut. Not only do people change over the years, but at any given moment there are conflicts, and facets.

To write a novel, if you don’t display that variety you lose credibility.

With the settlers—with any group of people that others have clear opinions about—everyone thinks they know what the settlers think, but if you dig deeper, they are human beings with motives and histories and pressure and reasons, the different things that make up our lives. I like to do that with subjects that seem to be clear.

BK: This is one of my favorite passages. Can you comment on it? “Longing is the engine of the world. The beginning and the end. Longing comes with so much pain that can break you. Whatever we do, we’re broken vessels. Rabbi Nachman brought music out of longing. The heart beats and lets up. Longing—touches, and leaves.”

AG: This is one of the themes of the novel, in terms of this very basic connection settlers have to the land. Longing for physical land but also for a different time, a Biblical time when things were more clear, God would punish the enemy and so on.

BK: You are able to create sympathy even for people who do terrible things. One charac­ter, Nir, is a self-involved pothead who doesn’t help his wife at all; another, Gabi, beats his toddler. We learn from their emotions that they are not just stereotypes.

AG: I like to do that in a way, to confuse, to get away from simplicity with a character. We know we are supposed to hate Gabi, but we like him because Gabi is a likable character. A novel should do that; it should give a complex picture, not the easy one. Human beings are people, with a charming side and a horrible side. I never met anyone who is only a monster or an angel—it doesn’t exist. A realistic novel should show this complexity.

Some perceive the settlers as bad, violent, stopping the peace process, but you know, maybe there are some different people there. Maybe even if I don’t agree I can see where they are coming from.

Especially with the Middle East and conflict, people have opinions and don’t move. But some people change [and realize] it is a little more complex than what it seems.

BK: What motivated you to write?

AG: I wanted a more rounded view of Israel—those who are good, who inform, who fuck up, who lie and cheat, and who forgive.

I separate my political opinions from the book. I don’t think the book makes a political point or reaches a conclusion. Yes, these settlements are against the law, but they’re still there forty years later.

I won’t spoil the end of the book, but in the end the fight is still going on. Bottom line, the settlements are not something that I am supporting; I show the complexity.

BK: There is a scene when Gabi loses it with his son—a slow burning of anger, his whole life reacts with anger. And then there is a lovely reconciliation scene with someone he hurt badly in the army that could be read for the High Holidays as an example of repentance.

AG: If you are writing a novel about Israel, I think violence is part of our society, the way it affects people. Not everyone is violent, but I want this subject to be part of the personal life of the main characters. Gabi is not 100% violent, not a mean person, but it is part of him. There are gentle parts, loving parts, peaceful parts. That is Israel also, not only Gabi.

But Gabi has a burst of violence at the end: he takes part in the tag mehir [price tag at­tack]. I am hopeful that on the national level, we can show different sides, our gentle side, our loving side, our reconciliation side.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of aca­demic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the Univer­sity of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

Related Content:

Digging Deeper Into the New Anthology Tel Aviv Noir

Monday, October 27, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

The anthology Tel Aviv Noir is the newest in a series of noir crime books pub­lished by Akashic set in cities all over the world: Delhi, Venice, Mexico City, Helsinki and Wall Street are among the destinations writers explore through stories of the illicit. Tel Aviv Noir is the first Israeli volume; a Jerusalem Noir is in the works too. If you are interested in great writing by the younger genera­tion of Israeli writers (Gadi Taub, 49, and Shimon Adaf, 42, are among the old­est writers in the book, down to Gon Ben Ari, who is not yet 30), this volume will reward you. Jewish Book World had the chance to catch up with co-editors Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron by phone recently. Here are pieces of our con­versation with each of them about the volume and Tel Aviv.

Beth Kissileff: How did you decide which writers to include in the an­thology? What were your criteria? 

Assaf Gavron: We wanted to give Israeli writers who are not yet trans­lated into English an opportunity to publish in the U.S., people like Gadi Taub, Matan Hermoni, Shimon Adaf, whose work has appeared in the UK but not in the U.S.

The main theme is noir, and we expanded on that theme. The stories are not all classic noir. Akashic—the publisher—said that most collec­tions in the series are a handful of classic detective stories, and a dark element of the city. That was the direction.

We worked out within each section a nice balance, a progress, from first to last. We started with lighter stuff and put the bodies at the end.

BK: What does it mean to be grouped with Teheran Noir and other cities?

AG: It is nice. I think Tel Aviv deserves its status as an interesting city, with culture and literature and with noir as well as everywhere in the world. I like to be grouped with other cities in the world, and not in the usual context that Israel is given.

BK: A question about your story, “Center.” If the people in the company need proof that the guy is dead, why do they hide the body?

AG: They are not professional detectives or murderers. By the time they figure out what to do, they get caught.

I like the location of Dizengoff Center, since it is full of different parts that are distinct. There is a commercial part with an office building, there are shops, a car park, and bath and water and clubs, a whole world in one or two buildings. I like the idea of an amateur detective, who does things out of his own curiosity.

BK: Etgar, how did you get involved in doing Tel Aviv Noir?

Etgar Keret: I met Johnny Temple from Akashic, and he suggested to me that I edit Jerusalem Noir. I said, ‘I don’t live in Jerusalem, I don’t know it, call me if you do Tel Aviv Noir.‘

From the beginning, this was not a genre book. It is meant to reach writers who were not translated into English. It was very rewarding for us as editors.

BK: What has the reaction been?

EK: The anthology just came out in Israel, and what I liked about it is that everyone has different favorites; as somebody who had published short story collections that is a good thing. There is something about an anthology when it works. There is an amazing synergy, creating a greater whole.

To be honest, when we worked on this, we looked at it as a collection of stories by young Israeli writers to be published in the States, and we thought about the American reader. That was the prime goal and as a bonus it was published in Israel. The best case is if people reading it will catapult these writers and get them published in the States.

BK: How can we get more Israeli writers, and a variety of them, to be known better in English?

EK: Well, what I think is that it is not a uniquely Israeli problem. There are many great writers, and getting translated is difficult. I can talk to foreign publishers, and see how they just met five other writers from five other countries who recommend other writers.

Literary fiction is not extremely commercial anywhere.

BK: Tell me about your sense of Tel Aviv?

EK: I’ve traveled and seen other cities, and Tel Aviv contains all the qualities and advantages of a big city with those of a small town.

In Tel Aviv, if you go to the old bus center station early on Sunday morn­ing, you see many well-dressed African families going to church. You feel like you are in a different place, people speak a different language, and there’s a different social structure, like in Deakla Kaydar’s story.

If you don’t look for this, or find yourself in one of these places by accident, this life exists in this place you feel you know like the back of your hand. For instance, Allenby Street; my son and I know it well, and go there tons of times. I know stores and shop owners, but after 11 PM, it is a totally different city, different drives, different motivations, almost like a parallel place that exists under your nose.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Question­ing Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

Related Content:

More on Assaf Gavron…

Friday, April 30, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Did you like Assaf Gavron’s posts on the blog last week (find them here)? If so, read more about his new novel, Almost Deadhere on the MyJewishLearning blog.

Almost Dead: Gaza, 1988 / Tel Aviv & Jerusalem, 2002

Friday, April 23, 2010 | Permalink

In his last posts, Assaf Gavron wrote about hanging out in the West Bankmoonlighting as an Israeli mover in New York City and about Israeli fast food. His most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He’s been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

As a soldier in Gaza in the first Intifada, I unknowingly started the research to a novel I was to publish 18 years later (22 years later, this month, in English translation). Gaza hardly appears in the pages of this novel, Almost Dead, but what I saw in its refugee camps, their streets and their houses, was the main inspiration to the story of Fahmi, one of the two storytellers of the novel.

That period of a few months in 1988 was the first time I was exposed to Palestinian life. The first time I understood what “occupation” means, how it works, and how life under it looks like. How young kids behave when they are given power over other people, and how those people react to them.

Living in Tel Aviv in 2002 was the starting point for the second storyteller ofAlmost Dead, the Israeli 30-something hi-tech engineer Eitan “Croc” Enoch. The surreal and chaotic atmosphere, with suicide bombs going off on a daily basis in Israeli cities and people living in trauma and paranoia while trying to conduct their “normal” daily life, almost called me to deal with it through writing.

So here I was, with these two sides of the coin, two stories running parallel and at the same time bitterly colliding, so close and so apart, so similar and so different and all the other clichés (though clichés are sometimes true). I wanted to look into this point in time and to go deeper, to write about life at this time and place, as lived on both sides of the fence.

For Croc’s story, I only had to look around me. The people, the jobs, the city, the sensibilities were all around me. For Fahmi’s, I had to work harder. So I started with my Gaza memories for the looks, the smells, the alleys and the curfews. But my story takes place a decade and a half later, during a different, bloodier second intifada, and in the West Bank. And now it was much more difficult for me to gain access to this place. In fact, the actual refugee camp where Fahmi lives in is forbidden ground for Israelis. So I read books and magazine articles, watched the many documentaries made by Israelis as well as foreigners on suicide bombers and on the occupation, and traveled where I could — for example, to visit a friend doing a reserve army service in Ramallah.

The final part of getting Fahmi’s story right was to find Palestinians who can read Hebrew and would be prepared to read the texts and give me their comments. Through internet forums and cooperation organizations I found two readers, professors of Hebrew in the Gaza University. Connecting with them and sharing my texts with them was exciting and tremendously useful – their comments on things as small as the brand of cheese my character would eat and as big as the way he would behave near a woman were crucial. Most importantly, their overall approval of Fahmi’s character and reliability gave me the final courage to publish the book.

Almost Dead was just published by HarperCollins in the US. It was published in Israel in 2006, and since then has appeared in German, Italian, Dutch, and soon in French. A movie based on the novel is in production by Neu Filmproduktion from Berlin (”Goodbye Lenin”, “Run Lola Run”). 

Wild West Bank

Thursday, April 22, 2010 | Permalink

In his last posts, Assaf Gavron wrote about moonlighting as an Israeli mover in NYC and about Israeli fast food. His most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He’s blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

The Jewish settlers in the West Bank have fascinated me for many years, and especially those living in the illegal outposts – a few mobile homes on remote hills with no running water or electricity, who are in a constant cat-and-mouse chase with the authorities. Regardless of political opinion (if such a thing is possible in our region, especially in this part of it), the extreme situation in which they live seemed like the perfect setting for a novel: the combination of lawlessness, lack of clear borders, the sense of adventure and of conquering new frontiers, as well as the breathtaking landscapes, religious fanaticism and the violent national conflict, make it feel like a modern, surreal kind of Western – it is, in fact, the Wild West Bank.

The West Bank (often referred to as Judea and Samaria) is geographically nearby the Israelis who don’t live there: from Tel Aviv, where I live, it is less than a 30 minutes drive. Yet most Israelis keep as far away as possible. Seen as dangerous and controversial, some of it blocked by walls and parts forbidden, it is indeed “abroad” for many. Yet it is ever present on the news, on political and at dinner tables discussions. So after I realized it could be a great setting for a novel, I decided to go there. For over two years I travelled, sometimes once a week, sometimes more, sometimes staying overnight, or for the day. I went all over the West Bank – the desert lands of Judea; the greener, hillier Samaria; bigger, established settlements; and the tiniest outposts.

I wanted to see life behind the news headlines. I wanted to test the stereotype of the settlers as a crazy, secluded, fanatic, violent and racist bunch, armed with God’s orders to settle the Promised Land by Jews, regardless of other inhabitants, international law, Israeli government decisions or other petty “earthly” matters. I was curious to learn about the people, their thoughts, their way of life, and the ways in which their private life converge with the larger, political story. I wanted to find out what actually happens on the ground when the president of the US, the most powerful man on earth, forces Israel to freeze the construction in the settlements, and how it actually affects the inhabitants of the mobile homes in a tiny outpost on some neglected hill in Judea (hint: they don’t care much).

In one outpost, a stunning place on the edge of the desert, I found a small hut to sit and write. The bath and toilet were outside under the sky, the floor was hard rock and the wind whistled through the cracks, but it was inspiring and authentic. I met the locals and encountered their architecture, their pets (including a camel), their organic fields and olive groves, and their Arab neighbors. Obviously, I have found a much richer and more complex world than the stereotype predetermined. The novel is still in progress…

The Outpost (working title) will be published in 2011 in Israel. Assaf Gavron’s most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He’s blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s author blogging series.

Jerusalem, 1995-1996: Eating Standing Up

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 | Permalink

On Monday, Assaf Gavron wrote about moonlighting as an Israeli mover in New York City. His most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He’s blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My book Eating Standing Up started life as a weekly column for the Jerusalem local magazine Kol Ha’ir in 1995. The concept was simple, and is clearly evident in the title: to review each week one of Jerusalem’s hundreds of fast food joints — sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, shwarmas, humus places — and the jewel in the crown: falafel.

Jerusalem prides itself, among other things, for it's fast food, which derives its inspiration from the unique multicultural experience of the city: east and west, oriental and European, Arab and Jewish, ancient and new. My colleagues and friends found the idea that I should undertake such a task anywhere between disgusting and astonishing. But I -– despite a couple of undesired stomach troubles along the road -– simply loved the job, and within weeks the column became widely popular. My rave reviews were framed and hung on walls of the lucky joints, while angry reactions, threatening phone calls in the middle of the night and a handful of lawsuits were filed by the victims of my less favorable reviews.

As the column gained popularity, a story started to emerge within its pages, the ongoing story of “The Eater” -– a single, frustrated Jerusalemite in his mid-20s, along with a regular cast — his faithful right-hand man “The Arab-Issues Reporter,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in Jerusalem” (who was the target of The Eater’s desires), “The Vegetarian Commentator” — and several other recurring characters. As much as it was their story, it was also the story of Jerusalem in the mid-90s, a city in transition from the optimistic, quiet, peace-process days, through the Rabin assassination and the following bloody suicide bombings and their depressing aftermath.

In 2009, the one hundred or so reviews that appeared between early 1995 and the end of 1996 were collected in a book by the Jerusalem publisher Uganda. Even thirteen years later, with about half of the places reviewed not existing anymore, the book was received as an authentic slice of life, a memento from the not-so-distance past of the city. And for those visiting Jerusalem, here are a couple of must-eat joints which scored high on the Eating Standing Up scale:

Shalom Falafel, 34 Bezalel St., Jerusalem
A small, falafel-only joint just outside the center, with the unique, orange-colored falafel balls and a perfect, always fresh and inexpensive portion.

Burekas Musa, 30 Jaffa St., Jerusalem
Another tiny shop not far from the old city with only one item on the menu -– a large, triangular burekas (Balkan pastry filled with salty cheese), served with a hard-boiled egg, hot tomato sauce, tahina and a divine pickled cucumber.

Eating Standing Up was published in 2009 in Israel. Assaf Gavron’s most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. 

New York, 1998: Research for “Moving”

Monday, April 19, 2010 | Permalink

Assaf Gavron’s most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog series all week.

To research my novel Moving (published in Israel in 2003), I traveled to New York to work in the moving business for three months.

It is known, at least among Israelis and American Jews, that the moving business in New York has been largely taken over by Israelis in the last decades, as exemplified by firms such as Moishe’sShleppers and dozens of smaller companies in New York and elsewhere, owned by Israelis and employing young Israeli men after military service. This phenomenon has led to the creation of an Israeli movers community in New York, with its own habits, lingo (a specific kind of ‘Hebrish‘, Hebrew-English), blocks of residence in Manhattan, New Jersey and elsewhere, favorite restaurants and clubs to hang out in, and so on.

The idea to write a novel based on this community, and their experience as a group of young foreigners in a unique pursuit of the American Dream, came to me following a series of conversations with a close friend who had worked as a mover in New York for three years in the early 1990’s. This friend set me up with his contacts and I was invited to work in a moving company in New York.

Between January and May 1998, I became a mover in Trio Moving and Storage, a small company based in midtown Manhattan. I moved the furniture and personal belongings of families, offices and companies all over the U.S., and had an intimate inside look at the way the business worked, the life of Israelis in it, and the way they experienced America, its landscapes, roads, culture and people.

I worked in New York, but also traveled long-distance: to old-age homes in Florida, to Minnesota with Russian immigrants, to Texas, to northern Michigan with hippies, to Chicago, Boston and more. Being in a small company enabled me to quickly learn the different parts of the job and to reach the position of driving a truck on my own on long distance trips.

The experience was fascinating and inspiring, and provided me with plenty of fodder for the resulting thriller-comedy that is Moving. As I write in the first chapter of the book:

“Working as movers, you see changes all the time. You’re part of them. You see people at the moment of change… You see America from right inside its soft underbelly, right inside people’s fragile lives.”

Moving was published in Israel in 2003 and was a bestseller; It will be published in German translation in October 2010. A movie based on the novel is in production by Lama Films from Tel Aviv (“Paradise Now“, “Jellyfish“).

Assaf Gavron’s most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s all week. Visit his official website here.