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.
Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundraising and writing grants to develop a program to assist rabbis of all denominations with writing and publishing books. Kissileff is a rabbinic spouse and author of the novel Questioning Return as well as editor of the anthology Reading Genesis: Beginings.