Last week I had the privilege of attending an event at Mishkenot Shaananim in Jerusalem. Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” presented an evening together with Israel's well known author Etgar Keret.
Safran Foyer opened by reading a story he had recently written called “Here We Aren't, So Quickly" (The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010). I've tried to download this breathtakingly brilliant and beautiful piece on the internet, but no luck, you have to be a subscriber. I'm thinking of subscribing to the New Yorker just so I can get hold of this story. When hearing Safran Foer read it, I felt I was in the presence of something bizarre, something al-tivi (above nature) as we say in Hebrew. I don’t mean the standard cliché of being wowed by a Great Writer. I mean being in the presence of the creative force itself, an absolute gift of God. Actually I’m thinking that this kind of writing is not a gift of God, it is God, God as God presumably would like to be revealed in the astonishing things that humans can do.
In the story, which really isn’t a story in the conventional sense, Foer dispenses with characters people care about, the narrative arc, logical sequence, and even the ends of sentences having anything to do with their beginnings. Actually he dispenses with sentences entirely. Foer stands at the podium, he’s reading the story, and the audience has collectively stopped breathing. How does he do it? After all the writing that’s been written, all the books and essays and articles and poems, how can someone write something that's not like anything that's been written before?
Foer, all of 33 years old and apparently devoid of the usual arrogance and pomposity so common in successful people, wrote “Here We Aren't, So Quickly" after a long period of not writing fiction. He describes this return to fiction as “definitely not getting back on a bicycle”. With humility he depicts for us the unpredictability and fickleness of the creative force in humans. He captures a scene for us: he's sitting at an empty computer screen, unable to write a word. This is after “Everything is Illuminated” and “Incredibly Loud” have been published to world acclaim. Sometimes writing comes to the writer, and sometimes it most definitely does not come.
Foer himself appears to be not at all sure how the whole being-able-to-write thing works, but he attempts to delve into it together with Etgar Keret, making for some very interesting debate. Surprisingly, he never saw himself as a writer when he was younger. He was most moved and inspired by the visual arts and only after he experimented with these did he turn to the written word to try and achieve in writing what others had achieved in photography and painting. He explains that he doesn’t use words as a vehicle to articulate something else. The words can be a vehicle but they must also end in themselves. Preferably in a resounding crash. Sentences need to “smash themselves against a wall”, Foer explains, and Keret agrees.
Foer is intrigued by dissonance, and the way it can reveal the heart of things. Children are great at dissonance, mainly because the world is not a very coherent place for them. Foer describes how, earlier that day, he has visited the Western Wall with his four year old son. The child wants to place two separate scraps of paper into the crevices of the wall. One says, “God, you are a wonderful guy”, and the other says, “A big Mac, with cheese”.
Etgar Karat reads “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door”to us, the first story in his new book. An author sits on his couch while an armed intruder demands he produce a story at gunpoint. The author tries to explain, with the cold metal of the pistol up against his face, that this is perhaps not the best way to illicit results from an artist. Not only does the intruder disregard this, but two more knocks at the door bring a survey-taker and a pizza delivery boy into the room, both of whom add their clamourous demands to those of the first intruder. A story must be created. Now. They express no shock that the author is being held at gunpoint, on the contrary, they acquiese to the violence, they collaborate.
It doesn’t take long to work out that the story satirizes the inherent aggression in Israeli society, that everything from judicial process to social advancement must be produced at gunpoint or not at all. The audience collectively stirs nervously in its chair. Please don’t remind us about all that stuff, it beseeches Keret silently. All day we deal with this, can’t you help us to think about something else? The laughter in the audience is almost too loud, too relieved (the piece is, apart from anything else, incredibly funny).
Etgar says the force of his writing comes from his conviction that we humans are beautiful pieces of machinery created for something and that we have no idea what that something is. So we’re using ourselves as tin openers or other things, because we’ve lost the user’s Manual of what we are for. On the day that aliens finally arrive here in a space ship to try and find out what our redeeming features are, Keret says, he hopes they won’t be asking him for an opinion. “I’ll send them over to you”, he says to Foer with a wink.
Keret describes how his Holocaust survivor parents imbued in each of their three children a desire to get out into the world, to challenge it and to change it. His parents had spent their youth trying to grab the next piece of food or the next night’s shelter, he explains. This is why there was a brick wall between them and the futures they would like to have had. “My parents could only get us far as the wall,” says Keret. “but they knew that we, the children, could jump over it.” And the three of them did. Etgar’s brother became a left wing social activist, his sister became ultra orthodox and had eleven children. Etgar became a world famous author (my description). “We were all, in our different ways, doing exactly what our parents had imagined for us”, says Keret.
Hilarously, Keret describes a tour of Israeli authors through some foreign country on a bus. The authors behave no differently then a gaggle of schoolboys jostling for importance. Each describes the structure of their working day, the alarm clock at six am, the hours at the computer to complete chapter six or chapter ten. When Keret is asked about his method and his work schedule, he admits he has neither. The authors are scandalized. Keret instantly becomes, he says, “the fat boy” on the bus. He is jeered at, then ignored. “I would have been the other Fat Boy”, responds Foer.
The two fat boys, Etgar Karat and Jonathan Saffran Foer sit next to each other on the small stage and discuss their writing. Periodically, they each sip at the standard glass of water on the table in front of them. Two successful Jewish authors whose books have been translated into many languages, who share a wicked sense of humour, who dabble in nonsense and dissonance and who use sentences which smash themselves against a wall. They appear to have much in common and indeed the fond back and forth between them, the excellent chemistry in the room, confirm that they do. But their stories reflect what we have known all along, that Foer’s American-ness frees him of Israeli angst. In “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly” Foer can afford to muse about a marriage of many years, because he assumes longevity and the coupling of a life time. Karat is concerned with the cold metal touch of the pistol at our heads – produce now, live now, have children now, before we all get blown to pieces. Karat‘s parents took him to a wall so that he could jump over it. Foer’s parents had already jumped. Foer went to Princeton. (I can’t find out where Karat went to college, if at all, but I don’t think it was Princeton.) To Foer’s credit, in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” he does craft the story of a family almost destroyed by the events of nine-eleven with extraordinary sensitivity. Not many Princeton boys would have been able to do that.
Yet Foer, on this stage and in this setting, cannot help but be that old cliché, the incredibly relaxed American Jew. There’s no mistaking him, especially when he’s sitting next to Etgar Keret. Life is good. There's no religion, no being Israeli, and no IDF. There is the intoxicating mix of Thanksgiving and Hannuka, Seder night and the Superbowl, the house in Brooklyn and the writer’s fellowship in Mishkennot Shaananim. There is Jewish identity.
If you think I am saying this bitterly, and with envy, you would be wrong and also right. I’m not bitter, because I’ve accepted in the last five years or so, that there will always be the Jews who do and the Jews who don’t. Live here, I mean. I felt bitter only when I felt the need to cross that bridge, back and forth and back and forth, trying to engage, persuade, create empathy, feel empathy, get respect, give respect, work out the relationship. Today I can no longer cross the bridge, nor do I want to. Don’t get me wrong, all my beloved diaspora friends and family - my arms are open wide. The guest room is waiting, here at our home in Bet Shemesh for anyone who wants to come stay. But I can’t go across the bridge to you where you guys are any more, out there. I have Gilad Shalit, the flotilla(s), the last Gaza war and the next Lebanon war, Obama and Iran, the hatred of Israel in every crevice of academic and political life in Europe, and J street, on my mind right now. I’m not bitter at all, but I have done what people do in times of crisis, turned inwards to take care of my own. And by my own I mean all Israelis, including Arab Israelis. Because they at least do. Live here, I mean.
You would be right about the envy. On my first and only walk through Central Park a few years ago I decided that in my next life I would like to be a Jew in New York. I’m not sure that there is anywhere really better and happier to be Jewish. Just put me in a Brownstone house in Brooklyn, I ask God, when it comes to my rebirth. Preferably with a good bookshop and a Macy’s round the corner, and a credit card of course. I could attend Yeshiva University or Stern College. I could celebrate the end of my exams around a table in Starbucks, drinking extra large mocha vanilla almond chocolate frappe lattes with my friends. I could crunch my feet on golden autumn leaves in November, watch the snowflakes fall and the tinsel hang in every storefront at Christmas time. I could go look at the statue of liberty whenever I wanted, and I could put my phone to my ear just to hear, over and over, a very polite woman saying “Thank you for using AT&T”. Why would I want any other life? I’d have to be mad, right?
Unless there was an Israel. Israel in flight with her broken wings, Israel with her fabulous successes and gut clenching mistakes, Israel with her acute water shortage and her drip irrigation, her Nobel prizes, her tire-burning Haredim, her sex crazed presidents, her Ethiopian kids in tenements, her Ethiopian kids getting their paratrooper’s wings. Israel of the Western Wall (not the Wailing Wall as Safran Foer so engagingly calls it), the Security Wall and the Holocaust Wall with Etgar Keret and his siblings jumping over it. Israel with her first Intifada and her second Intifada and the third one that’s probably just around the corner. Israel engaged and disengaged, Israel on CNN and the BBC, Israel at the UN and Israel in Haiti. Israel holding on and holding on.
Holding on for dear life.
With such an Israel to be embraced and loved and supported and built, with such an Israel for stomach ulcers and migraines and nodules on my vocal cords, with such an Israel for my children and their children and their children too, there’s no way that Brooklyn could tempt me with her siren call. And I'm glad that I opted for Israel in this life, because by the time my next life rolls around, Israel may not be around.
That’s why, looking out at the stage where these two wonderful men are sitting, I’m with Etgar all the way. He’s got Israel under his cracked fingernails, and so do I. He hasn’t been buffed and polished by that accomplished manicurist, Brooklyn New York. Of course, Etgar might be longing for Brooklyn, you never know. Perhaps he and Jonathan have already arranged a house swap.
Not that I don’t appreciate Jonathan, I really do. I hope this post has shown how much I do. Not only does he write fantastic books, but he’s also so likeable that I’d like to kiss the top of his head and say “Bubeleh, you did good”. And yet (as his wife Nicole Krauss would say). He’s a world away from me, and I from him. He's never had to pull a gas mask over the head of that lovely four year old he took to the Western Wall this morning. In Israel you do get to appreciate dissonance, but not from books.
Etgar and Jonathan sit on a stage talking about writing at Mishkenot Shaananim, and they both make you glad to be human. I say get rid of all the politicians, and let’s get ourselves some real people to lead the world. Jonathan could take over from Obama, and Etgar could replace Bibi. That way, we might have something nice to say about ourselves when those aliens finally arrive.