by Beth Kissileff

Jew­ish Book Coun­cil recent­ly had the chance to speak by Skype with Ofir Touché Gafla, whose first nov­el, The World of the End (Tor Books), was a best­seller in Israel and is now avail­able for Eng­lish speak­ing audi­ences to share the author’s vision of a con­sol­ing after­life beloved by read­ers of diverse reli­gious stripes. The book is about to be trans­lat­ed in Tai­wan, Turkey, and France, so its appeal is clear­ly uni­ver­sal. Gafla is as fun­ny and thought­ful in per­son as on the page, as our con­ver­sa­tion ranged over a dis­cus­sion of themes of his book and read­ers’ reac­tions, being a prose writer who teach­es at a school for film and tele­vi­sion writ­ers (the Sam Spiegel Film and Tele­vi­sion School in Jerusalem), the impor­tance of humor, what hap­pi­ness is, and how he coax­es the best work from his students. 

Beth Kissileff: Where did the sto­ry of this book come from? Not where did your ideas come from, but the sto­ry itself. 

Ofir Touché Gafla: When­ev­er I start writ­ing a book, there is a ques­tion. For me every book is the project of the ques­tion. I don’t have to answer it, but I have to make my read­er ask it as well. 

When I came up with this idea, I came up with the notion of end. The only end­ings that I know are manip­u­la­tions, not gen­uine. This is not just in art. For exam­ple, when a per­son dies, that per­son doesn’t real­ly die, he or she con­tin­ues to exist in your memory.

A friend died at twen­ty-sev­en in a car acci­dent, and when­ev­er I think of her— I think quite a lot about her — I think of her as liv­ing, because the only mem­o­ries we have are from liv­ing peo­ple. She con­tin­ues to exist in my mind. She was a musi­cian. When I play a CD that I think she would like, I think of her.

A month after she died, a CD came out by Por­tishead, a British band. I remem­ber I went out to buy the CD, and thought, there is no way she doesn’t know about this CD, so I was think­ing about the idea of end­ing, what does it mean….And then I thought, let’s write a sto­ry about a per­son who is writ­ing end­ings for a liv­ing, who is look­ing for an end­ing to his own story.

I think this book is about the idea of pos­si­bil­i­ty, people’s notions or idea of the process — what comes after­ward, what they think, what they have been told over the years. It was very impor­tant to me that if I talk about some­thing like the after­life it would be unlike any of the con­ven­tion­al after­lives that you read or hear about, since there always has to be an alter­na­tive to famil­iar ideas. The very idea of an alter­na­tive is incred­i­bly comforting.

BK: Your pro­tag­o­nist writes about his time in the after­life, The begin­ning of a sto­ry. It takes place here. In the Oth­er World. The poten­tial for sto­ry­telling in this world is sim­ply end­less.” Is there some­thing par­tic­u­lar­ly Jew­ish in this opti­mism, not in stay­ing in an end but cre­at­ing a world of begin­nings in the afterlife?

OTG: It is inter­est­ing because, as you may imag­ine, I’m not a reli­gious man, although some of my fam­i­ly is very reli­gious. My grand­fa­ther [Rab­bi Yosef Mizrahi of Rehovot] was a big rab­bi. I have always said I don’t lay great store by the fact that I am Jew­ish because I had no say in the matter.

Hav­ing said that, I have a deep spir­i­tu­al aspect. A good friend of mine, from France, who speaks Hebrew, read my books — we became friends through my books — argues with me you are the most reli­gious per­son I know. Your books are so reli­gious, the way you trans­late religion.’ 

BK: Why write about the after­life with humor? 

OTG: I think that if there is one thing Judaism has that oth­er reli­gions lack it is humor. Seri­ous­ly, you don’t find enough humor in oth­er religions. 

When­ev­er I saw oth­er works that had to do with the post-mortem world, they were very grim and severe, I didn’t like it. I mean, can you imag­ine the promise of eter­ni­ty with­out some humor?

BK: What is the genre of this book? It was pub­lished by a sci­ence fic­tion imprint, but I know noth­ing about sci­ence fic­tion, nor do I care to, and I found it wonderful.

OTG: I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, which might sur­prise some. I write fic­tion in the broad­est sense of the word. If there’s any­thing I tru­ly dis­like it is pigeonholing.

BK: You wrote in a lec­ture you gave in Iowa a few years ago about writ­ing being your work at hap­pi­ness in progress.” Care to add to that? 

OTG: I think I wrote in anoth­er book of mine, The Day The Music Died, about the para­dox of hap­pi­ness — you are only hap­py when­ev­er you for­get about your­self. I only for­get about myself when I read and when I write. This is true bliss, pure hap­pi­ness. I am talk­ing about read­ing because of all art forms, it is the most inti­mate and I think one can reach that state of hap­pi­ness at the most inti­mate moments. 

BK: Let’s talk about oth­er parts of your life. How is it to be a prose writer at a school for aspir­ing filmmakers?

OTG: I am proud of this school because it aspires to excel­lence and indeed the stu­dents keep get­ting awards, inter­na­tion­al and local, every year for their excel­lent work. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to be work­ing with such stu­dents, to see how they start and how they end in terms of the evo­lu­tion of their sto­ries. My stu­dents encom­pass all of the Israeli DNA, a human map, it could be a real­i­ty show: reli­gious, gay, Arab, set­tler, hard-core left winger.

BK: Tell me some­thing of your sense of Israeli writ­ing today, as part of a younger gen­er­a­tion of writers.

OTG: First of all, I think some­thing very good has been hap­pen­ing over the past decade. I think that writ­ers are more self­ish, and that’s a com­pli­ment. When I say self­ish, I mean a writer has to write about things that inter­est him, tru­ly inter­est him. A good book is a book in which one can hear an engine of truth pul­sat­ing. Israeli writ­ing today is very idio­syn­crat­ic; we write about stuff that real­ly inter­ests us. I think it makes for much bet­ter literature. 

BK: Does this con­nect to how you teach students?

OTG: I do encour­age them to self-probe — to write about the sub­jects that are dear to their hearts, to phrase and para­phrase key ques­tions, or in oth­er words, to find and explore their hid­den sub­text and then trans­late it into texts.

Ofir Touché Gafla’s oth­er nov­els include The Cataract In The Mind’s Eye, Behind The Fog, The Day the Music Died and The Book of Dis­or­der.

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.