The ProsenPeople

Interview: Jessamyn Hope

Friday, February 12, 2016 | Permalink

with Elise Cooper

Safekeeping is a novel about personal tragedy, hope, and suffering within the backdrop of Jewish history. Between flashbacks to Jewish history from the German pogroms, the Holocaust, and the founding of Israel, the story takes place in 1994 on an Israeli kibbutz, where six people connect through a search for their identity, each one looking to escape their own personal crisis.

Elise Cooper: How did you come to write this book that includes so much Jewish history?

Jessamyn Hope: I was raised Jewish and consider myself a Zionist, although I am not very religious. I am very much interested in Jewish history and the fate of the Jewish people.

EC: Your characters are a melting pot from around the world. What interested you in the multicultural characters?

JH: My mother was born in Italy and converted to Judaism; my father grew up in South Africa, where is grandparents immigrated to from Lithuania. Growing up, my father loved to travel and would save all year to take the family to places in the United States or overseas, and that love of traveling was passed on to me. I have visited over forty countries—by public bus in Rajasthan, in a third-class car on the Trans-Siberian railway, by bicycle from Istanbul to Gibraltar, and recently I was in Thailand and Laos. All of these experiences helped my writing of Safekeeping, which features an international cast of characters.

EC: Since the kibbutz is such an important backdrop for the story did you ever spend time in one?

JH: During my junior year in college I visited my uncle’s kibbutz. The following year I went back and stayed on Ramat Yohanan, my cousin’s kibbutz fifteen minutes outside of Haifa, which inspired the kibbutz in the novel. I met someone there who, like one the character Ofir, had recently lost his eardrums and some of his eyesight in a bus bombing.

EC: There seems to be a particular dichotomy between kibbutz life and New York in the book. How do these contrasting settings serve the story?

JH: New York is the opposite of the kibbutz: you can live autonomously and pursue your own passions without pressure to belong to a community. As an artist I am a very big individualist, a free thinker. But part of me is drawn romantically to a larger cause bigger than myself.

It’s not just about New York is all about being an individual while the kibbutz is all about community; New York City is a place where people come to reinvent themselves, to leave behind their past and go after their individual dreams, but the Zionist story of starting a country and being willing to sacrifice fascinated me. This was reflected in two of my characters: Franz, a Holocaust survivor, an individualist who lives day to day, while Ziva, a Kibbutzim pioneer, has a higher ideal, with a strength and energy to start up a new country. And because the novel takes place in 1994, the Israeli survival mode of the time, completely foreign to the American experience, contrasts directly with the cultural exchange post-9/11: now Israelis want to experience the Western culture of self-expression while New Yorkers live with the insecurity of terrorism—much more than they did twenty years ago.

EC: Is that why you put the scene in the book when Ziva tries to give Franz a Hebrew name after he escapes to Israel from the Nazis?

JH: “All I’m saying is that the Nazis tried their damnedest to do away with Franz, and if it’s quite all right with you, I’d prefer to not lend them a helping hand.” For me, this quote is crucial to the book. In building Israel, Jews were asked on some level to reinvent themselves. Franz had no Hebrew identity and wanted to hold on to his old identity, while Ziva, by extension, Israel, is asking him to give it up. She represented those who founded Israel by turning away from their past, reinventing themselves.

EC: What do you think the theme of the book is?

JH: Self-perseverance despite tragedy. I wrote the Russian immigrant character and Ziva as Scarlett O’Hara types. I was inspired by Scarlett and fascinated by Gone With The Wind. I wanted to write that type of character. The entire cast is morally ambiguous, extremely ambitious, yet you can’t help but be inspired by their grit and determination. They use any tool to survive.

EC: Does the brooch also signify human perseverance?

JH: It represents in some ways Jewish history, with the fears and desires passed down through the generations. Among my intentions with these brooch stories was to show how events from the past—moments we don't know about—affect who we are today. The brooch was a way to show readers that they are influenced by what happened to their family through past generations. Every single character in the book has a personal challenge, often an inherited one. My character Adam represents those who go through a tragedy and cannot adjust. How much choice does he have with his alcohol addiction and suffering?

EC: Are any of the characters based on yourself?

JH: No character is based on myself. In an earlier draft there was a character similar to me, but she got cut out and replaced with Claudette, the Canadian one. She is a young woman who lost her mother and suffered from OCD. I went through that as well, but fortunately I got better. Unfortunately, I found the healthy version of myself boring, so I wrote in the crisis with the orphanage where the province of Quebec falsely identified orphans as being mentally ill in collaboration with the Catholic Church.

EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

JH: We are living in a time where individuals need to speak up. On some level there is a competition between looking out for yourself and taking a responsibility for the larger community. I called the book Safekeeping for a reason. Israel is supposed to be a place where everyone can be kept safe. Sadly project forward to today where there is still a search for safekeeping, especially as the world turns its back on Israel. Safekeeping is less and less guaranteed.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and interviews for various outlets including the Military Press.

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Israel Then and Now: Tel Aviv, Security, and the Kibbutz

Wednesday, August 05, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week Jessamyn Hope described the first three of six major changes she observes in Israel between now and 1994, the year in which her novel Safekeeping is set on a kibbutz in Northern Israel. She follows up today with the remaining three developments, and is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

Welcome back to the time machine! We are traveling twenty-one years into the past, to Israel in 1994, the setting for my debut novel Safekeeping. Last time, we marked the changes in television, cars, and the addition of Russian to many road signs. If you missed that post, you can read it here. Now for three more changes:

1. Tel Aviv

Much can be said about the city’s journey over the last two decades—from its ascension to the number two start-up center in the word, after Silicon Valley, to its newfound fame as an LGBT destination, all while coping with eighteen suicide attacks (the first in 1994). We’re going to focus on the city’s physical transformation. Let’s just say Tel Aviv already had the attitude back in the day, but now it’s got the outfit. The first morning I ever arrived in Israel, a taxi ferried me from the old Ben Gurion Airport to the Kibbutz Program Center, through a low-rise city, its old Bauhaus buildings stained and dilapidated under the pink dawn sky. Today those buildings, many gorgeously restored and housing boutique hotels and restaurants, form a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site known as the “White City.” Older neighborhoods, such as Florentin and Neve Tzedek, are abustle with shops, bars, and galleries that rival Brooklyn in their hipsterdom. Add to the changing cityscape the redesigned HaBima Theatre, the striking new addition to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the old train station and seaports reinvented as nighttime hotspots. In 1994, Tel Aviv’s skyline had one building over thirty floors; now it has twenty-three, and nineteen more on the way. One thing has remained the same: there’s still a staggering number of stray cats.

2. The Security Fence

And yes, in some places, such as the environs of Jerusalem, a wall. An eyesore. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much has happened since 1994, but too little has changed. Erection of the barrier started in 2002, a year in which terrorist attacks killed 452 Israelis on buses and in restaurants. As the barrier came up, suicide attacks went down. It is not the only barrier along a border—the U.S. has one with Mexico—but the West Bank barrier has garnered much international criticism, in part for not adhering more closely to the “green line,” effectively annexing 9.4% of the West Bank. Proponents argue it only deviates where hills and tall buildings can host snipers and that the barrier is not the final border. Whatever your thoughts on the barrier—whether it’s the reason for the reduction in suicide bombings, whether it should fall only on the green line, whether it should be built at all—it is inarguably a sad manifestation of the failed peace process, which was at its height in 1994.

3. The Kibbutz

This is a change at the heart of my novel Safekeeping: the privatization of the kibbutzim. Set on a kibbutz near Haifa, the novel shows six lives becoming entangled and changed forever over one fateful summer, the summer the kibbutz will vote on whether to end equal pay. While living on kibbutzim from 1994 to 1996, I witnessed the end of several kibbutz customs. My fellow twenty year olds, who had all been raised together in a Children’s House, now had younger siblings growing up in their parents’ homes. Members began eating dinner alone or with their families instead of in the dining hall. But at its heart, the kibbutz still operated according to the socialist ideal “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Over the following years, however, the changes grew more drastic, until the first kibbutz I had lived on divided all its assets among its members. This gave my great-uncle, a longtime member, personal ownership of his apartment. Today, more than 200 of the 270 kibbutzim have either partly or fully privatized, paying members different salaries for different work.

This list of changes in Israel could go on, with every change warranting its own essay. Or book. For a more nuanced and immersive experience of Israel in 1994, read Safekeeping.

Jessamyn Hope's short fiction and memoirs have appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, and other literary magazines. Born and raised in Montreal, she lived in Israel before moving to New York City. Read more about her here.

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Israel Then and Now: 6 Big Changes Since 1994 (Part I)

Monday, August 03, 2015 | Permalink

Jessamyn Hope is the author of Safekeeping, which has received critical acclaim from The Boston Globe, The Globe and Mail, and Tablet Magazine. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

My debut novel Safekeeping takes place on a kibbutz in northern Israel over the summer of 1994. The world has changed a lot since then, and Israel, being such a young country with unique socio-political challenges, transforms at a particularly quick rate. Some of the changes that have come to Israel over the last two decades mirror those found in other countries: the sea change that came with the Internet; cellphones stowed in pockets instead of asimonim (phone tokens) or telecards; and no more smoking while browsing clothes in the Dizengoff Center. Many changes, though, have been distinct to Israel. Over the coming week, this blog will explore six of them. Here are the first three:

1. Television

When I was a volunteer in 1994 on my great-uncle’s kibbutz, I watched television only rarely on his fuzzy tube TV. The viewing options were slim. All the antenna caught were three choices: a staticky Arab soap opera coming from nearby Lebanon, and the only two Israeli stations at the time, both government owned—the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and the aptly named Channel Two. Television came late to Israel, in 1966, and only then as an educational tool for schools; and although cable came to the country in 1990, the vast majority of homes still did not have it in 1994. Now Israel digitally broadcasts over ninety national channels, and Israeli television is in midst of a golden era, with shows like Hatufim and BeTipul being adapted in the United States as Homeland and In Treatment.

2. Cars

While an ulpanist on another relative’s kibbutz near Haifa, I had a crush on a young kibbutznik who would take me on day trips by signing out one of the kibbutz’s white Subarus. Nearly every car in the kibbutz lot, and seemingly every car speeding down the roads of Israel, was either a white Subaru hatchback or a white Subaru mini-truck. Why all the white Subarus? For many decades, the League of Arab States boycotted any company that did business with Israel. Since the Arab market was much larger than the Israeli one—today it’s 450 million people versus 8 million—many companies, such as Pepsi and McDonald’s, agreed not to sell their products in Israel. And this was the case for all Japanese cars except the Subaru. Since the mid-nineties, a majority of Arab countries have abandoned the boycott, and today Israelis drive cars of various brands, and only a quarter of them are white.

3. Road Signs

In 1994, road signs and other government notices in Israel were written in Hebrew and Arabic (the two official languages) and English. Today, they often include a fourth language: Russian. In 1989, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Jews to leave the USSR, and soon afterward the United States ceased accepting them as refugees. Over the next decade, 1.1 million people flooded from the Soviet Union into Israel, a country with a population under five million. At the time, people compared it to the United States absorbing the entire population of France. Temporary caravans to house the immigrants popped up all over. Now 15% of Israelis claim Russian as their mother tongue, and their influence is marked not only on road signs, but in Israeli politics, literature, music, theater, science, and technology. By 1998, the number of professional orchestras in Israel quadrupled; by 2004, half of Israel’s Olympic athletes were immigrants from the former Soviet Union; and by 2009, one in four staff members at Israeli universities was a native Russian-speaker.

Want more time travel? Tune in to the next post. Or if you can’t wait, travel to 1994 Israel with my novel Safekeeping.

Jessamyn Hope's short fiction and memoirs have appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, and other literary magazines. Born and raised in Montreal, she lived in Israel before moving to New York City. Read more about her here.

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